On spells & spelling: an interview with Blake Charlton

The day I downloaded Google Chrome, I realized something: I’m no longer the spelling queen I used to be. Watching Chrome mercilessly auto-spell-check my Tweets and Google searches made my heart hurt. Spelling sometimes seems trivial, but often I caught myself struggling and failing to spell a complicated word, only to settle for the next best easier-to-spell synonym. I needed to do something to stop my linguistic erosion, or I was going to reduce myself to writing easy readers.

I decided to seek help. I turned to the one guy I knew who had kicked spelling’s butt and gone on to write a book about it. I emailed Blake Charlton.

If you don’t know Blake, his first novel, Spellwright, debuted this year. And not only is he an author, he’s a Stanford medical student who graduated from Yale summa cum laude. He’s also one of the rare people on the planet who can make jokes about Latin phrases–and actually make you laugh.

Blake is probably the smartest person who’s ever had a beer with me. He has also lived with dyslexia, a learning disability that can make spelling difficult. Since he produces so much writing, I knew he’d have some tips for me.

Blake, you’re remarkably candid about your experiences as a dyslexic. But what does that diagnosis even mean?
Dyslexia is an often misunderstood condition. Many believe it has something to do with seeing things backwards or confusing right from left. This isn’t so. Written languages have something called an ‘orthography,’ which is the way that symbols represent sounds. Some languages have a ‘tight’ orthography, that is the sounds and symbols are closely related. Witness Italian’s 25 different sounds encoded by 33 combinations of letters. Other languages have ‘loose’ orthographies. Witness, English’s 40 sounds that can be encoded for 1120 different ways. [1]  This phenomenon is demonstrated by the fact the English words enough, dough, bough, hiccough, and plough don’t rhyme. Dyslexia is caused by an inherent difficulty dealing with loose orthography. The looser the orthography, the more dyslexics exist in that language. In a 1985 paper, Lindgren and his colleges revealed that there were half as many dyslexics per capita in Italy as there were in the United States. [2]  Put another way, there are no spelling bees in Italy. Spanish also has a tight orthography, save for the tricky V vs B and S vs Z question. French, however, has it as bad as English. I’ve heard reports that one cannot be dyslexic in absolutely phonetic languages, such as Hindi, or in languages, such as Mandarin that use characters to represent a word rather than the sounds associated with the word. But, I’ve yet to find a study to verify that, so if you come across one, send it my way.

Could you describe what spelling a word or writing a sentence is like for you?
I’ve had enough training and practice now that I’m fairly well remediated. Spelling most words is uneventful. Once upon a time, I spelled things out very logically. For example, I would rarely use the letter ‘c’ since it either makes a sound like a ‘k’ (as in cat) or an ‘s’ (as in city). When you get right down to it, there really is no good justification for using the using the letter ‘c’ at all. But, woe unto teenage me trying to explain that to the English speaking world at large. I stopped writing school assignments phonetically somewhere in high school and somewhere in college stopped taking private notes phonetically. Today, mostly I can pass as a garden variety “really bad speller” (they are legion in English) rather than a dyslexic. However, there remain two types of words where my old disability still kicks in.

When writing long and illogically spelled words, I sometimes feel as if I cannot see the middle of the word. For example, when I try to produce ‘bureaucracy,’ I can clearly see in my mind the opening bur- and the ending –cracy, but that middle –eau– …it’s like it’s not even there. Even when I do focus on the –eau–, I’m mystified as to why those three letters should be used to represent that –ah– sound that comes in the middle of the word. Interestingly, the first medical descriptions of dyslexia described it as “word blindness.”

With illogically spelled words that are similar to each other, I sometimes cannot perceive the difference between them unless I focus. For example, I struggle to ‘see’ the difference between written homophones (discreet/discrete prophecy/prophesy counselor/councilor etc). They all look the same since they encode for the same sounds. Other times, I cannot ‘hear’ the difference between written homographs. For example, I might see the word ‘wound’ and think it’s the word ‘wound’. Confused? Believe me, I can sympathize. Wound up tight, or treating a wound in the hospital. Other times, I read the word ‘sow’ thinking it’s the word ‘sow.’ Or ‘close’ as ‘close.’ and on and on.

A consoling fact about dyslexia is that the poor spelling often slowly improves for a very long time; some authors claiming even into the forties.

Nicodemus, the hero of your first novel, struggles with spelling in a world where the written language can become physically real. If you could have a cup of coffee with him when he first started his apprenticeship as a spellwright, what advice would you give him?
Ha! That’s a fun thought. Assuming that cacography has the same pathophysiology as dyslexia (and, what the hell, let’s say it does), I’d tell him it’s not his mind that’s broken it’s the languages he’s spelling in that have a broken orthography. I’d tell him he’d slowly improve…maybe not to the same level as the non-cacographic. To be more practical, I’d tell him to keep notes on his spelling mistakes. I’ve done so when my beta readers give me back edited manuscripts. So, whenever I write certain words (they’re/their/there know/no one/won below/bellow etc) a small alarm goes off in my head and I focus on the word; I rarely screw those up anymore. For longer words, I’d advise Nicodemus to break the words in smaller chunks, pronouncing the particles of the word: “to get her” becomes “together,” “Pat I ent” becomes “patient,” “Env iron ment” becomes “environment”. Or, if it makes more sense, I’d advise Nico to remember the spelling in reverse: rumrum spelled backwards spells murmur; red rum backwards (as we all know) spells murder, there are a bunch of tricks like that that are highly memorable.

I imagine that dyslexia affects your writing process. Can you describe–a little–how you work through a draft and edit a piece?
Actually, and perhaps surprisingly, dyslexia has little effect on the ‘big picture’ novel writing stuff. I write long outlines (up to 20 or 30 thousand words). I attack a first draft and usually quickly wander off the path set down in the outline. So, I adjust the outline and start over. I repeat the process until the book is done then I give it to beta readers who poke holes in it and I spend about months and months repairing those wholes until my editor and I are satisfied, then we go to press. But this, by and large, this is not too much different from what many outline-using authors do.

When I get the copy edits back, I do need to recruit a friend or two to double check the changes I have to enter in by hand. Reviewing “proofs” is more of a hassle because at that point the all errors are very small and I have trouble spotting those. Again I take friends out for dinner or buy them chocolates to bribe them into looking at the manuscript with non-dyslexic eyes.

On top of being a novelist, you are also a medical student. How do you learn all those crazy medical terms? Do you have a favorite?

Medical terminology proves a great equalizer for all kinds of spellers. Those words coined before roughly 1950 come from Latin or Greek, both of which translate with a very tight orthography. So I have no trouble at all spelling latissimus dorsi, Oogenesis, endoplasmic recticulum, etc. If you pronounce them, you can spell them. Making things even easier is the modern proclivity for acronyms: ‘hypertension’ becomes HTN, ‘coronary artery disease’ becomes CAD and so on. Words coined in the second half of the last century are either acronyms or they have been cooked up by pharmaceutical companies (e.g. Lunesta’s generic name is eszopiclone, aciphex’s is rabeprazole), so everyone is more or less equally disabled regarding them. All physicians and patients struggle with “sound alike, look alike drugs” (a.k.a SALADs) such as lamictal vs. lamisil, floranex vs. florinef etc. In this regard the use of electronic medical records and pharmacists screening has helped reduce medical errors. Though, sadly, it has not eliminated them. Personally, I try to use my known weakness in spelling to be hypervigilant about avoiding such errors.

Do you have any advice for folks out there who want to tell stories, but struggle with mechanics?
Seek feedback from smart beta readers. Consult some style books but don’t treat them as scripture. Take notes on the errors you commonly make. Expect your improvement to be gradual but continuous. And, mostly importantly, don’t lose any sleep over it: a good story, engaging characters, and a compelling prose style sell books, not mechanics. And most of all, make sure you’re having fun.

One last question: When does Spellbound, your next book, come out?
Every author’s favorite question to end on! I don’t have an exact date yet, but we are slated for US publication in August 2010.

Thanks, Blake! I can’t thank you enough for the good advice!

Thoughts I’ve had following the interview:
So I think the best thing I can do for myself is to slow down as a I work.  I find that if I concentrate on my Latin and Greek roots, it definitely helps (all that GRE prep is finally paying off!).  And I’m jotting down words I consistently get wrong–like stupid old “apocalypse”–so I can make up some mnemonic devices.

I also decided to check out more 19th century literature from the library.  There’s nothing like seeing unusual words in print to ease them back into the vocabulary.

With practice, I’m sure to recover some of my spelling power.  I might never be a spellwright, but at least I know I’m not stuck with Dick and Jane.

To learn more about Blake Charlton, check out his blog.  He can also be found on Twitter, as @BlakeCharlton.

Blake’s footnotes:
[1] Helmuth L. “Dyslexia: Same Brains, Different Languages” Science 16 March 2001:
Vol. 291. no. 5511, pp. 2064 – 2065
[2] Lindgren SD, De Renzi E, Richman LC. Cross-national comparisons of developmental dyslexia in Italy and the United States.” Child Dev. 1985 Dec;56(6):1404-17.

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