Functionally Illiterate 1974

In addition to my novel writing, over the years I have taken small side journeys and written true stories about my wild past. I’ll post these one and two page vignettes from time to time. Hope you enjoy.

nik drumming

Functionally Illiterate 1974

I’m sixty-three now, but at age twenty-two, after ten years of public school and uncounted hours of private tutoring, I was so deeply affected by Dyslexia that I could not read more than one sentence at a time and understand what I was reading. I had never read a book.

Oh, I could struggle through a short newspaper article, but only if the words were simple. Anything more complicated and I was lost.

Looking back, I realize I’d set my young life up so I didn’t have to read. Whenever I was forced to read, I would find someone to explain the contents of the text.

Because I loved machines, and from an eighteen year old perspective, motorcycles were the ultimate machine, I became a Harley mechanic and machinist. Both of these skills were passed to me verbally by mentors.

But then, Harley mechanics were not expected to read or write much. Tough guy tests of strength or courage were the only exams a biker had to perform.

After divorcing my first wife, I found myself having a close look at my life. I quickly realized that living a lifestyle which included Hell’s Angels and countless other motorcycle gangs individuals left a large portion of my life unlived.

In one bold stroke, I closed my custom motorcycle shop and signed up at a local junior collage in the San Francisco Bay Area.

For the first time since I’d dropped out of high school, I found myself in the same old academic situation. I couldn’t read, but that handicap was never an obstacle.

I quickly found my way around the problem by dropping every class where reading was a criteria. At twenty-two I spent one amazing year in the art department. I ate, drank and slept art. I studied pottery, drawing, painting, figure drawing and sculpture, anything art related. I was there at seven in the morning when they opened the doors and the maintenance people had to kick me out every night when they closed.

In March of 1974, left that contained artistic environment and moved to Grass Valley, California. Later in August I moved again to a hippy commune, twenty miles north of Nevada City, five miles north of the small town called Camptonville. I was out in the boonies.

When I moved in, there were many living on the property and little space to set up a room for myself. The leaders of the community were glad to have me, but the only room they could offer was the library, a drafty back bedroom in an old converted barn. Someone had lay rough-hewn boards on cinder block bricks and stacked used paperback books chest high along three walls.

I set up a bed, an easel to paint and I thought I was ready to weather out what would prove to be the worst winter in twenty years.

There was no electricity, no flush toilet, no radio or television. The only heat was a cheap wood stove with a rotting chimney.

By January, when the snow was three feet deep, when most of the people had left for Mexico or other warmer climates, I found myself in the frozen barn almost alone on the eighty acre property twenty miles from any kind of civilization. There was nothing do except draw and paint.

By February, my paint had run low and pencils were getting down to the nubs. Although there was plenty of food and wood, one could only draw so many landscapes, so many self-portraits, so many sketches of his cat before the raw edge of boredom set in.

After weeks of trying to find something to do, someone to talk to, anything except sitting in my room looking out at the increasing levels of snow, one day I noticed the books.

Understand, to that moment I had never read a book, but I was desperate and there was still a few months before spring.

Randomly, I grabbed the first one that was handy. I could have easily picked up War and Peace, Falkner or any of those heady, intellectual masterpieces. If I had done so, and come to the first complicated sentence, I surly would have put the book down and probably never picked up another.

As fate would have it, I didn’t open the pages of revolutionary literature, I chose a small, heavily dog eared novel called, “Of Mice and Men” by John Stinebeck.

I opened the book, read the first paragraph and found his writing equaled my ability to read. He used no ten-dollar words. He didn’t get off into heady concepts. Stinebeck wrote simply about people and their lives. His book had my complete attention within the first page.

Although it was a struggle to read, I was so bored and so ready to begin the process of reading a story just for the fun of it, I zipped through that book in no time. Too soon, I’d exhausted the Stinebeck collection and moved on to other authors. Robert Heinlin, Arthur C. Clark, Herman Hess and Frank Herbert, were but a few.

Who knows how many I read before the snow melted, but fifty or more would be a good guess. Each book I read, each incredible adventure carried me away from my snow-bound existence high in the Sierra foothills.

When the sun came out and the rivers warmed, I continued to dig the shelves for authors I did not know, for stories I had not yet experienced.

Somewhere during that next year, I picked up a novel that changed my life. Not that the story was life changing, nor the concept, but the author wrote simply and more effectively than I had ever read. The author was Ken Kesey and the book was “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest”. His story telling ability and poignant characters brought McMurphy and his friends alive.

While reading my second gripping Keysey novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion”, I kept saying to myself that I could try writing something like him.

It took ten years for that seed to germinate before I sat down and gave novel writing a serious try. When I finally started, it took another twelve years to doggedly complete my first novel. Once finished, though it wasn’t very good, it gave me inspiration to go on.

I knew nothing of grammar or punctuation. I knew little of sentence construction or worst of all, to this day I am a terrible speller, but I wasn’t discouraged. I decided to leave the job of editing to others who were gifted with sentence construction and grammar. I could tell a story and it took years to realize that wasn’t nothin’.

After slowly typing out that first novel –which is still hidden in a box under my desk– I committed to writing at least a page a day. Using that method, in less than a year I’d have a finished novel.

To date, I’ve completed fourteen manuscripts and two volumes of poetry with five books in print.


Copyright July 2004 by Nik C. Colyer. All rights reserved.

Nik C. Colyer is the author of the Channeling Biker Bob series and other novels.


5 thoughts on “Functionally Illiterate 1974

  1. Dolly

    Thanks Nik. This story helps me to see public school for what it is, a necessary distraction from life. It also reminds me that my children will find their way, which is, not a stright line. I love you.

    1. Nik C. Colyer Post author

      Dolly; Yes, your kids will find a nitch in their life that fits and probably very little has to do with the school system. Straight lines? Straight lines! We don’t need no stinkin’ straight lines.

  2. Sandra Dodge Rowe

    Wow! Truly inspiring. What a colorful life you have led, Nik. I remember you as a quiet, kinda shy guy. Who knew? In your photo it looks like your on drums? Are you musical as well?

    1. Nik C. Colyer Post author

      I was a painfully shy kid living in a boisterous family. It took years to get over my shyness and probably being a local radio talk show host and doing stage work with my music were the key factors in overcoming shyness, but unfortunately I’ve created a monster. Now, when I’m in public, I make of for all that lost time. Shy. . .not on your life!

  3. Brian

    Great picture! 🙂 I’ve heard you talk about some of this before, but this provides more detail about your journey. Thanks for sharing.

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