A guest post from an award-winning author whose aphasia took away his voice and his craft: Dylan Otto Krider shares his story of how he lost his ability to write, and how he fought hard to get it back.

I had always thought if I had a choice between being able to speak or write, I would choose writing. I’ve never had another job besides writing. I communicated mostly through text and email. I never called people. I didn’t talk if I didn’t have to. If I couldn’t write, what else would I do? Unfortunately, I wasn’t given a choice.

Struck Down by a Stroke

In 2014, at the age of 43, I had a stroke while at the grocery store. My doctor thinks it was a fluke thing. I was getting over the flu. I coughed or sneezed, and it blew out my carotid artery. When I awoke, I had a racquetball-sized hole in my brain, and just like that, I couldn’t read, write, speak, or even understand language – I had aphasia.

When the doctors told me what had happened, in my mind I interpreted it as if there was just something wrong with my sinuses; once they cleared up, I would be able to speak again. I soon figured out the brain doesn’t quite work like that.

Writing on the Wall

It took a month before I figured out I couldn’t write anymore. I had been blaming my partially paralyzed arm when I posted something on Facebook. My first try was something like, “xmfty mgdtv”. I don’t know for sure, because the next day I tried to edit it, and accidentally deleted it with my bum hand. I couldn’t spell anything over one-syllable, and frequently, not even then.

Writing on the (Facebook) wall documents changes in language after stroke

The Writing on the (Facebook) Wall: Dylan’s stroke was March 23, 2014.

To not be able to write… it was horrifying. I had to get it back. Just to be able to text, I would settle for that. But my goal was to get published again. Aim for the stars and land on the moon, I always say. Nobody told me I couldn’t get published, but I think they were humoring me.

At first, I shared articles on Facebook with comments like, “Nice,” “Ha-ha,” “Yep,” “WTF?” Eventually, I worked up to two words. I started playing Words with Friends, and used other therapy apps for people with aphasia. One app had you put these phrases in order, and I discovered I couldn’t even do basic grammar.

The New Job

I saw my therapy as my full-time job. But when I say “full-time,” I mean that I devoted the whole week to it, not that I did it 40 hours a week. I could only write for 15-30 minutes at a time, maybe twice a day, and then I would have to rest.

Strokes affect everything, in ways you can’t imagine. If I was just learning to speak, that would be hard enough, but a stroke affects your energy levels, your attention, your ability to understand, to walk, to feel temperature. Everything.

Usually, speech therapists wouldn’t focus on writing for some time, but I kept chomping at the bit. So my therapist had me listen to podcasts and summarize them with three sentences. That simple task took all week to do. I would write a few words, take a break, write a few more, take a break. What’s more, I used to type at about 60 words per minute with 95% accuracy; now, it was difficult to hunt and peck two words a minute, wrong.

Since I could read fairly well by that point in my recovery, I could edit my own paragraph. But by the time I had the mental energy to edit, I had forgotten what I was writing. One of the frustrating things about aphasia is that you can see a word, but not be able to say it or spell it–at all. I would drop articles, use the wrong tenses, use the negative of what I meant (“can” instead of “can’t”), and sometimes, just drop entire phrases.

Slow but Steady

I kept going, one word at a time, then two, a phrase, and then entire sentences. I learned to spell one-syllable words, and then two, and three (although those still give me trouble — the middle syllables get me). After a year, I was able to write a paragraph, and made it a goal of writing 100 words every day. Between exercises and worksheets, that goal took everything I had; it still does.

Dylan writing at his computer

I still have a long way to go. I recently read that the science fiction author Jim C. Hines is leaving his job to write full-time because he earns enough writing 1,000 words a day on his lunch hour. I’m now writing about 100-250 words a day. I’m typing about 10 wpm at 40% accuracy. I have to edit much more. So, at best, it takes me a week to produce what Hines writes in one lunch hour.

Determining Value

Is it worth it? I ask myself that question a lot. It will probably take a year or two before I can write in a full day what Hines produces during his lunches. If another stroke survivor would ask me whether it’s worth it to work this hard to improve the ability to write, I would say, “How much does it mean to you? You might want to devote your energy to talking better, or using your hand. Because it takes a lot of work, and I wouldn’t have done it unless it meant a lot to me.”

When I was asked to write this blog post about my “success” learning to write again, I said I didn’t know that I was successful. The only way for me to judge whether I still “had it” is for an independent editor, who has no idea I have aphasia, to pick my story over those other 100, 200, or 800 stories they get a month. With anyone else, a compliment of my writing comes with the unsaid “considering” tacked on the end. This post? It’s great…considering.

The Pay-Off

However, the day I started to write this, I got my first acceptance letter since my stroke. A small publication will print a short story I wrote after my stroke. They paid me $5. Yet, it’s the highest return on any story I have ever published.

Dylan Otto Krider

Guest Blogger Bio

Dylan Otto Krider was the Night & Day editor of the Houston Press and a staff writer for the Broomfield Enterprise. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Daily SF and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. He won the grand prize in the Writers of the Future Contest, was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, and placed first in the Asimov Award. He has also written about 100 dub scripts for ADV Films, including Saiyuki. Find him on Twitter @DOKrider.