With her writing career taking off like a rocket, you'd assume Amanda has a lifelong, easy relationship with words. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like an estimated 15 to 31 million other Americans, Amanda lives with dyslexia. Today, she tells us about her path to publication - a path that starts with being different.
It was 1980. I was sitting at an empty table in the back of a Georgia library, using my finger to trace the lines so the words wouldn’t jump off the page at me. No one seemed to notice me there. Or judge me. I had walked in and asked the librarian where she would begin if she’d just started reading. I was about to read my first book; just sit down and go for it, cover-to-cover. I was twenty-three years old. Entering that library, a place that had filled me with terror for so many years, I felt like I’d cracked some secret code; like the vault door had swung open; like I’d finally been accepted in the mainstream of life. I’d been tested for and diagnosed with dyslexia a year earlier. I didn’t know what it was before that. No one did back then. But it was just about the most beautiful word I’d ever heard. It explained everything. It explained me.
I had dropped out of school at sixteen, as soon as it was legal. I could barely pick my way through a job application. But school was far worse than the real world for me. I mean, why hang around a hornet’s nest after you’ve been stung a few times? I left with a long list of diagnoses that had trickled in over the years—anxiety related mostly. And phenobarbital. Lots of that was prescribed, beginning at age five. The final diagnosis, which came from yet another psychiatrist when I was fifteen in 1972: School Phobia. Capital “P.”
No one, at least not in the general public, had heard the term “learning disability” back then. In my family, it would have brought on doubled-over laughter. Educators and parents must have been pulling their hair out trying to figure out what was up with dyslexic children. You can’t blame them. The information just wasn’t out there. The choices were basic: stupid or lazy. My parents and teachers saw a kid who appeared reasonably intelligent but was not performing. The logical explanation was simply that I was not trying. I remember a classmate early on, who’d gotten in trouble on more than one occasion for spelling her name Damn instead of Dawn. Damn Phillips, she used to write in the big loopy handwriting of a fifth grade girl, with little hearts dotting her i’s. Damn Phillips couldn’t deal with the letters m or w; 3s and s’ also posed a challenge.
When I was told there was a word to explain me, that I’d been wired differently but could learn as much as anyone else, in my small world it felt like I’d reached the summit of Mount Everest. It changed everything. I guess I was a little pissed at the librarian who recommended Pride and Prejudice. Damn thing took me three months. But I fell in love with the story, with the tension around class and family, with the humor and romance, with fiction and writers, with the incredible idea that people actually read for pleasure and with words and books.
Thankfully, a lot has changed for kids with learning disabilities. Parents and educators now know better where to look when a child isn’t performing. I still have trouble reading. It’s slow going. And I still have to trace the lines with my finger sometimes. I like to joke with my wonderful and patient editor at Bantam that I’m a slow learner, but a goddamn thorough one. Now I look down at a menu or a newspaper or a column of numbers or a line-edited manuscript, and I know I can do it. I don’t panic anymore. I take my time. It can be learned. It can all be learned.
A friend who has a child with disabilities tells her little girl something I’d like to repeat to any child struggling with reading. “You can get there like everyone else. You just walk through a different door.”
Amanda Kyle Williams is the author of The Stranger You Seek, the first book in the Keye Street thriller series. You can read an excerpt at Amanda's website, chat with her on Facebook, or catch her on Twitter as AKyleWilliams.