By Karen Dakin, The Examiner, Editor; IDA, Secretary
Dr. Blake Charlton will be IDA’s 12th recipient of the Pinnacle Award. This award “was created to recognize an individual with dyslexia who has publicly acknowledged such, has made significant achievements in his/her field of interest, is leading a successful life and is a role model for others with dyslexia.” Why is Blake, perhaps the youngest recipient of this award, so exceptional? I interviewed Blake, and I would like to share with you why Blake was selected for IDA’s Pinnacle Award.
What led Blake to write Spellwright?
Blake spends his days as a resident physician in internal medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. At the time I interviewed him, he was working in the Emergency Room and apologized for his tight schedule. When asked what led him to write his first book, Spellwright, Blake said the idea first came to him when he was at Yale. He was sitting in a boring Shakespeare seminar with another English major, who was a friend, but also a competitor. Blake was still taking notes phonetically, and his friend noticed that his spelling was absolutely irregular and commented about his poor spelling. After class, Blake recalls being very upset and having this image of using his notes as boxing gloves and socking his friend in the face with the notes. It was autumn and the leaves were falling, and snow was not too far off. He recalls Yale’s gothic colleges with the decorative gargoyles, and he imagined himself in a fantasy in such a place as Yale’s campus. “I was walking around thinking about when I first taught myself to read, and when I first started to love reading. I loved fantasy books and would sneak them into my special ed study hall.” It was then, when he was 20 years old, walking around Yale’s campus, that he imagined a magical school and magical language, and a protagonist, Nicodemus, who suffers from a form of dyslexia. This was the time when Harry Potter was the rage, with the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Blake asked, “Shouldn’t there be a special ed classroom in Hogwarts?” “Invariably, in fantasy books, the hero turns out to be diligent and very smart, maybe not an A student, but a competent student, certainly not a student who was found to be learning disabled.” However, the protagonist Blake imagined had dyslexia, and everything he wrote down would become physically real, and if he wrote down something incorrectly, it would blow up in his face and be a misspell. A misspell actually leads to a murder early in the book. That is the genesis of the story behind Blake’s very successful first novel, Spellwright. It took Blake 10 years to write Spellwright, which was published when he was 30. Then Spellbound, the second book in the trilogy, followed a year later, and he has recently finished the third, and last book in the trilogy. As a young person, Blake and his family thought he might never attend college, and, yet, he is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Yale University. Now he is a successful author, and his books have been translated into 8 languages. Blake is certainly a role model for others with dyslexia. Blake struggled learning to read, and his dyslexia kept him from reading fluently; however, his parents read science fiction and fantasy novels to him, which kept him very motivated to read. They began to read to him less and less, and he began to read on his own, more and more. He feels this strong desire to read and his love of reading, helped him to overcome his dyslexia. Right after college, Blake took a job teaching English at a boarding school, and he started writing his first book. His writing career, however, had not developed as he had hoped. Then a change of course took place. He left his teaching to return to California to help care for his father, a physician and professor at Stanford Medical School, who had a rare form of cancer. Blake was happy to report that his father is doing very well now. This experience led to the realization that he wanted to be a physician. Then, one magical month, two wonderful things happened. He received a call from his literary agent about a three-book deal, and he was accepted at the medical school that he wanted to attend, Stanford University Medical School. So, after struggling for five years, he was able then to pursue his two passions: writing and a career as a physician.
How did Blake manage to find the needed time to write when he was a student at Yale and a medical student at Stanford Medical School?
When I asked Blake how he managed to carve out the time needed to write his books, he said that it is a myth in America that there are super-efficient people, and this is a myth he would like to dispel. He feels that the concept of super- efficient people is “all smoke and mirrors.” Basically, Blake hates boredom the most! He loves to work on things that he is passionate about. In order to do this, he must cut out of his life what is not necessary and what is not productive. “When you really love something, you make time for it. If you are the kind of person who is happy climbing mountains, then you should keep climbing more and more mountains.”
What has been especially satisfying regarding Blake’s success as an author?
When asked what was especially satisfying about his success as an author, without hesitation, Blake responded that it is the personal communication you get from someone who has read your book and is moved by it. With his book, he said that person is not always a person with dyslexia. Some may have ADHD or cerebral palsy, or any number of conditions. He felt it was amazing to know how his writing helped someone cope with his disability. “This experience is very intense, especially if someone disagrees with how you portrayed disability. When you have those exchanges, you come to understand the broad spectrum of what people deal with in terms of everyone’s gifts and weaknesses. It is almost overwhelming when you have a large exposure to this, and recently that happened when my NY Times piece came out. I received almost 1000 e-mails in the course of one month. Some were very uplifting from young people who couldn’t agree with me more, and some were from people who were quite angry with me because they felt I had misrepresented what it was like to be dyslexic.” The angry people felt he had suggested that all people with dyslexia were gifted, and they feared that people with dyslexia would be damaged by the article and not receive accommodations. The saddest e-mails were from family members, mothers and fathers, who felt their children really were gifted, but they grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, when there was no way to identify their dyslexia. These communications made Blake realize that words, even when written for escapism, say something about fantasy and the real world. “Even if you are writing about a boy in a magic kingdom, you are writing about everything you have to deal with today. It makes you realize how important it is to be careful about what we tell our children and the stories we tell our children and ourselves. They really affect, in a big way, how we relate to each other.” He felt very humbled by a lot of those letters. “I was happy I was able to go from an angry, 8 year old boy to a grown up man, able to engage people. It felt like a homecoming, finally being able to complete the circle regarding something I have been struggling with for so long.”
Dr. Blake Charlton is a dynamic speaker and a charismatic advocate for people with dyslexia! Do not miss the Conference Kickoff on Wednesday, November 6, 2013, at 6:00 p.m., when he will be awarded his well-deserved Pinnacle Award!
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