“There were a lot of benefits to being dyslexic for me…I think I came into an appreciation of all those qualities of language…” Novelist Richard Ford
The traditional framing of ADHD, dyslexia and some other conditions as “learning disorders” seems to be increasingly challenged by the views of many researchers and artists that these can be considered “learning differences” and that such neurodiversity can actually benefit creative expression.
Of course, something like ADHD doesn’t magically become “good” or benign just having a different label, and many people’s lives are disrupted by such conditions.
An article on actor Charlize Theron, for example, said she “finds acting a struggle, because she suffers from chronic Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)” and the symptoms of “distractibility, restlessness, inability to sit still and difficulty concentrating on one thing for any period of time make it much harder for her to concentrate on a movie project.
“She tells gossip site The Scoop, ‘I have ADD, so for me to go and really dedicate myself to something for a period of time, it’s very important for me to like it.'” [Daily Dish sfgate.com, Wednesday, January 5, 2005]
In her article The Creative Struggle, Julie Burstein writes about painter Chuck Close and his challenges.
“He knew from the time he was a small child that he would be an artist. But for Close, art wasn’t just fun, it was his most powerful way to connect, because he has severe learning disabilities.”
Close says, “In the 40s or 50s no one knew from learning disabilities; I was just dumb. I learned early on that since I wasn’t athletic, I couldn’t run or throw or catch a ball, I needed to do something to keep people around me. I began to realize that one of the things I could do that my friends couldn’t do was draw.”
Burstein notes “Close’s disabilities shaped both his subject and technique. He paints huge portraits, mostly of friends and family members, yet he suffers from a disorder called prosopagnosia, or face blindness; he can’t remember faces in three dimensions.
“If you met him today and then ran into him tomorrow, he wouldn’t recognize you. But once he paints a face, flattening it into two dimensions, he can hold on to it.”
Close explains, “Part of my learning disability was being overwhelmed by the whole, and I found it to be particularly helpful to use a grid to isolate one small piece that I could work on and forget about the rest of the picture.”
In another interview with biographer Christopher Finch (book: Chuck Close: Life), the artist comments about his early life:
“I can’t really add and subtract except by using the spots on dominoes—like six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—that’s how I add. I don’t know the multiplication tables, and I was not athletic. As often goes along with learning disabilities, there’s a lot of clumsiness. I couldn’t throw a ball, couldn’t hit a ball, couldn’t do anything.
“In fact, most people say, ‘You’re so focused.’ But what I think focused means is: you’re so narrow. There are no tangents to go off on, spinning your wheels in the sand. I was no more gifted or no more talented than any of my classmates, I’m sure.”
Referring to his prosopagnosia, Close declares, “Everything in my work is a direct outgrowth of my learning disabilities. And I never recognized anybody. I didn’t even recognize the woman I lived with for a year, two years later… the reason that I decided to work with portraits was to commit to memory the faces of people.
“I don’t do commissioned portraits, they are all my family and friends and other artists.
“And I’m trying to commit these images to memory in a way that is seared into my brain path or whatever the hell it is. And that means I must flatten it out and scan it. And the more I flatten it out and scan it, the more I have almost photographic memory for anything flat.”
From interview: Close-Up.
Another artist Burstein writes about is novelist Richard Ford (Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day), who “describes a similar childhood challenge. He says that he didn’t read for pleasure until he was almost 20 years old, because he is severely dyslexic.”
Ford said, “I went all the way through school not really reading more than the minimum, and still to this day can’t read silently much faster than I can read aloud. But there were a lot of benefits to being dyslexic for me, because when I finally did reconcile myself to how slow I was going to have to do it, then I think I came into an appreciation of all those qualities of language and of sentences that are not just the cognitive aspects.
“The syncopations, the sounds of words, what words look like, where paragraphs break, where lines break, all the poetical aspects of language. I wasn’t so badly dyslexic that I was disabled from reading; I just had to do it really slowly.
“And as I did–lingering on those sentences, as I had to linger–I fell heir to language’s other qualities which I think has helped me write sentences.”
From article: The Creative Struggle by Julie Burstein.
Julie Burstein is author of Spark: How Creativity Works.
The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, by Brock L. Eide, Fernette F. Eide.
The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, by Thomas Armstrong PhD.
Photo from bio: Chuck Close: Life, by Christopher Finch.
This and other lists are not by themselves, of course, “evidence” of people having learning differences – but further research could confirm the inclusion of prominent people in business and the arts, such as Justin Timberlake, Jim Carrey, Tommy Hilfiger, Brian Grazer, Robert Toth and many others.
My related posts include:
Robert Toth on ADHD and Developing Creativity