Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vinnie's Learning (Dis)Ability

Vinnie grew up in an Irish Catholic family with four brothers and two sisters in the upper Midwest. He described his childhood family life as everyone “pounding he heck out of each other, never liking to lose.”

It was largely a typical childhood, in a typical family. Largely. Vinnie’s childhood was distinguished by a learning disability. In the third grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He had trouble spelling. He had trouble reading. He had trouble writing. He struggled to make C’s. Vinnie said he “went to those classes, SLBP, slow learning behavior problem.”

“You just think that you're not as smart as all the other kids,” Vinnie said. He described his childhood dyslexia as “nearly incapacitating.”

“You feel like you're stupid. You feel like you're in the back of the classroom, you don't get it. It's coming natural to everybody else and you feel stupid.”

“I have such bad memories,” recalls Vinnie, “sitting in the back of a classroom, being told, you know, everybody is going to read a paragraph, and skipping ahead to my paragraph and being mortified and trying to read it enough times so that I wouldn't stutter and stammer, getting called on, even in high school. And it gets to me and I'd be going, ‘ah, ah,’ horrible reader — ran from the problem.”

“I hid from the problem. I did just enough to get by. I was a good athlete so that got me by, that gave the confidence to go forward.”

Playing football, Vinnie managed to attend a local college. Academically, little changed.

“I'm taking a class pass/fail and hand a paper in,” Vinnie recalled. “It comes back. It’s got a big red F on it. I'm not there the day it comes back. I show up at lunch the next day and a buddy of mine had picked it up and it's laying there on the lunch table and it's got a big red F and underneath it says, ‘I don't know how in the hell you got into college. I don't know how you're going to graduate. This is the worst paper I've read in 10 years I've been teaching.’”

Vinnie’s life changed when basketball coaching legend, Al McGuire spoke at Vinnie’s university. Vinnie said, “He talked about how he was dyslexic and he grew up, he got his way through high school and college cheating. And on a basketball scholarship and went back after they won the national championship and taught himself how to read and write.”

Vinnie thought, “If this guy can do it, I got to do it. So, I went back and I taught myself the fundamentals of writing, and I started reading for the first time. My mom and dad had been on me for years. So, I finally picked up ‘Trinity’ by Leon Uris. I plowed through it and I was hooked.”

Vinnie began reading voraciously. He read book after book, but gravitated towards Tom Clancy type action thrillers.

He began to see his dyslexia in a different light. “Every time I sat down to read one of these books, I knew what was going to happen. It was the weirdest thing. It was the gift.”

It wasn’t just books. He could watch a few minutes of a TV drama and anticipate the ending. He could foresee actual events in the real world years in advance.

“Part of it is the dyslexia,” he explains. “It's the way the brain is wired. I think we just think in a leap frog fashion if that makes sense.”

Vinnie earned his degree and took a sales and marketing job with Kraft General Foods. He did well, but felt stifled in corporate America. He quit his highly paid position to become a Marine pilot.

Unfortunately, Vinnie was medically disqualified for the flight program. He eventually got a medical waiver and left the Corps.

Now what? The dyslexic Vinnie decided he wanted to write a novel and took a job tending bar to pay the bills.

“He treated it as a full time job, he'd work eight hours a day on it,” said the owner of the bar. “He basically worked here nights and then he would write during the day, all day long.”

He finished the novel and sent it off to New York publishing houses, but it was rejected. And rejected. And rejected.

“I had 60-plus rejection letters. I put them all up on a bulletin board where I wrote every day. And I'd say, ‘I'm going to prove you people wrong.’”

And yet, it wasn’t easy. “There were moments when I was bar tending at O'Gara's and I would get another rejection letter and I'd think what am I doing. Why am I doing this?” he confessed.

He drew inspiration from the experiences of writers. He said, “It was a great source was strength that Clancy and Grisham had been rejected by every publishing house in New York City. So I figured, ‘You know what? I'm going to stick with it.’”

Vinnie self published his book. People told him he was crazy, but had a plan. He was going to sell enough books in his market to catch the attention of a New York publisher.

“Once at number one at Twin Cities,” Vinnie said, “It got picked up by Simon and Schuster. And now, the 11th book just came out this past month.”

“Anybody who knew me growing up calls me Vinnie,” says best selling author Vince Flynn.

His first book, the one he self published, is titled “Term Limits.” I’ve read it. It’s a page turner.

One after another, Flynn's books are successes. He's popular with kings and presidents. Flynn's been invited to the White House by Presidents Clinton and Bush. He was flown to Jordan by King Abdullah, who is also a fan. Not bad for the guy who wrote the worst paper a college professor read in 10 years of teaching.

Cursed with dyslexia, Flynn realized it gave him a different set of capabilities. It enabled him, for example, to write about a terrorist attack on the United States by Islamic radicals four years before 9/11. Today he sees the curse as a gift.

“I'm a horrible speller,” Flynn said in a recent interview when he was discussing his dyslexia. “I omit words. My editor, Emily Bestler, she deals with this all the time. I just leave words out of my manuscript, I'm typing so fast and I come up with creative ways to spell things, but what I didn't know is it's a gift.”

Flynn added, “The ad agencies of the world, the creative people on Broadway and in Hollywood, they're all — it's just a disproportionate number of dyslexics.”

Flynn’s story is one of looking at a disability as a different ability, at a curse as a gift when viewed from another perspective, and at obstacles as challenges to be overcome. Had life been easier, he might not have climbed so high.

How high do you want to climb?

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