While there are several studies on the relationship between learning disabilities and creativity, there is no conclusive scientific proof of a direct relationship between the two at this time. Like several of the case studies available, Wendy Wasserstein's life and work provide examples of the effect a learning disability like dyslexia can have on career choice and an individual's ability to develop and implement novel ideas. This article examines Wasserstein's education, early work, and the role dyslexia played in choices she made related to her decision to become a writer, and her creative process. It also considers the advantage of reframing the way a learning disability can be viewed in relation to career choice and creativity.

A look at Wendy Wasserstein's work allows one to understand the fullness of her life. She was an ambitious woman with a number of projects in process at any given point in time. Before she passed away at the age of 55 in 2006, she had compiled a body of work that included well over a dozen plays and numerous screenplays, books, and essays. Her most well known work, The Heidi Chronicles, earned her a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. She was also a dedicated mother who gave a great deal of her energy to her daughter, family, and friends.

The amount of writing that she produced in her lifetime is considerable and most impressive when one takes into account the fact that she struggled with language. The difficulties she faced because of her dyslexia had a major influence on her educational experience, her writing process, and her life as a writer. Her work allows those who experience it to see her social and philosophical perspective on issues such as class, ethnicity, and the rapidly changing roles of women as professionals, wives, and mothers in the late twentieth century.

This paper examines Wasserstein's education and early work. It focuses on the effect her learning disability had on her life, her education, and her career choice. It looks at the interaction of difficulties that were a result of her dyslexia with the creative opportunities and choices that occurred in her life while she was a student. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/ or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experiences that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (International Dyslexia Association, 2002).

Other features of this disorder may include sequencing difficulties and problems with working memory (Thomson, 2009, p.5.). Because a variety of neurological differences underlie the disorder, dyslexia can manifest itself in a variety of subtle variations (Ramus, 2006, p. 91). Dyslexia certainly has caused a great deal of discomfort, frustration, and aggravation for many, particularly as individuals progress through school. Beginning during elementary school when young people are learning to read, through high school with its social pressures and emotional changes that compound the learning process, into the college and graduate school years when individuals are expected to develop and express complex ideas using the written word, dyslexia can wreak havoc on a student's ability to read and write.

While much is understood about the difficulties that accompany the disorder and effective educational interventions, there has been limited research and exploration of the relationship between dyslexia and creativity. Early work by Richard Masland (1976) speculates on the relationship between reading difficulty, and math and science strengths using case references. Margaret Rawson (1968) and Leonard Rack (1981) also use a handful of cases to suggest a relationship between learning disability and adaptive traits. It does appear that a disproportionate number of people with reading difficulties enter creative fields. (Everett, 1999; Davis & Braun, 1997; Winner & Casey, 1993). Educators and writers have suggested that some with dyslexia have exceptional spatial strengths (Lerner, 2009 p. 383; Ford, 2007, p.141; West, 1997 p. 15). Later quantitative studies offer contradicting evidence of the relationship between dyslexia and creativity, and visual spatial advantages (Tafti, et al., 2009; Wolf & Lundberg, 2002; Winner, et al., 2001; Winner, et al., 2000).

In considering Wasserstein's case, it is important to keep in mind that this story is one of several anecdotes or cases. While there is not yet conclusive scientific proof that individuals with dyslexia are any more or less creative or determined and tenacious than those who do not experience this learning difference, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is worth looking into. In Wasserstein's case, the playwright's struggles with language and the variety of forms in which it could be presented are illustrative of the advantages this learning difference might provide in the generation of original ideas exemplified by her award winning work. Her early adolescent choice of plays rather than prose as reading material, her choice to write skits and plays in high school, and her later choices to study theater as a college student were influenced by her difficulty with reading and writing.

It takes an exceptional combination of thinking style, personality, and opportunities to produce innovative ideas like the ones required to write and produce new successful dramatic works. Robert Sternberg (2006) describes creativity as a confluence of several elements: skills, knowledge, thinking style, personality, motivation, and environment. Wasserstein's learning disability was an integral part of who she was, and it influenced her ability to acquire skills. It underpinned educational challenges that she met with persistence and diligence. Her different view of the world, influenced by her having dyslexia, contributed to her ability to come up with and try out new ideas.


Sternberg (2006) also discusses the importance of an environment that is supportive of and rewarding of creative ideas. This does not mean new ideas are not criticized or challenged. While Wendy's family situation offered her access to schools that would challenge and support her in the development of the skills she would later need as a playwright, the family also provided challenges, and they imbued her with the value of personal success. Caring parents, and older brothers and sisters whom she looked up to, provided an important sense of security as she struggled through school. The success of her brothers and sisters also represented high standards to aspire to, as well as high expectations. As a result of their own hard work, Wendy's parents were able to provide her with literally the best educational opportunities available, and her family encouraged her to find ways to gain as much as she could from her school experiences.

In this examination of Wasserstein's education, it is important to bear in mind that in the late 1950s and into the 1960s there was a general lack of awareness and understanding of learning disabilities. At that time the typical elementary school teachers had little to no awareness of what are now known as learning disabilities. It was not until 1975, with the passing of Public Law 94-142 "The Education for All Handicapped Children Act" and later related procedural regulations, that "specific learning disability," which included language processing disorders, was officially recognized (USOE,1977 p.65083). Before then the struggles children and adolescents faced were generally met with less empathy and understanding. For this reason supportive family members and perceptive, understanding teachers were critical to the progress of a young person who learned differently in the years before an understanding of accommodations. Many young people with dyslexia were perceived as not trying or not applying themselves to their school work. Others were seen as just not very bright, slow, or even noncompliant.

Wendy was the fifth child of an immigrant father whose industriousness brought him success as an innovative textile manufacturer. Lola, her mother, was an amateur dancer and active supporter of all her children. Wendy was born into an energetic environment of creativity and loving support. As her father's business prospered, she was able to attend increasingly desirable private schools in Brooklyn and later in Manhattan, where her parents were able to advocate for her educational needs. It is not likely that Wendy was quickly identified as having a language-based disorder. She did have difficulty with her school work and much later in life, she talked about having dyslexia. While there is no available record of a formal diagnosis by professionals who she worked with, she did see a reading specialist as a child (Salamon, 2011, p.37). Fortunately for Wendy, being at a smaller school increased the likelihood that she would get the attention she needed. In the early 1960s, the smaller private school settings were more likely to be receptive to the concerns expressed by the parents of a struggling child, than a large urban public school system would have been.

Wendy was the sister of creative and very successful siblings. It appears that she was close to all of them. Other than Wendy, perhaps the most well known member of the family was her brother Bruce, who became a powerful Wall Street figure. Surely it was inspiring to have older sisters and brothers to emulate, and frustrating when the grades and academic achievements often used as early measures and predictors of success, did not materialize quickly or at all for her.


Many of Wasserstein's plays have been produced, and her books and essays have been widely read. There is also a substantial body of literature that comments on her work. In addition to all this, she left volumes of personal papers to Mount Holyoke College. The materials provide a great deal of information about her education and writing process. A close review of her school records, assignments, papers, and notebooks reveals the details of her school experience. The emergence of interests along with the frustrations, are charted in her term papers and written assignments. Her college and graduate school notebooks disclose her sketches of evolving characters and developing plot lines for plays. Manuscripts for plays that were produced and others that have not seen publication or the stage, offer a window on the creative process of the emerging playwright.

These archived notebooks, diaries, and responses to academic exercises also provide accounts of daily experiences, interests, and feelings. It is essential to consider her experience at school, because even though she struggled there, it was in school that she first practiced her craft as a playwright. Her eventual good feeling about the outcome of her educational experience expressed through her support and work for schools and colleges does not reduce the intensity of the struggles she faced as a young person with a learning disability trying to achieve in competitive academic environments.

On occasion, the playwright discussed her own experience with dyslexia and her difficulties in school. In a speech given in Washington, D.C. on the topic of Arts and Public Policy, she told her audience, "As a child I was diagnosed with a reading problem, words flew around the room for me. And I always thought I later wrote plays because there were no foot notes and no one could see my spelling or punctuation (Wasserstein, 1999). " She later talked about the appeal that reading plays had for her as a young student at the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School: "I figured out they're short, they're also printed large and there's a lot of white space on the page. And you can go (as I used to do) to the Library of Performing Arts and read and listen to them at the same time, and later, reading the plays again, you can hear the voices of those people" (Shaywitz, 2003, p. 351).

Writing continued to be difficult for her. Even after she had become an established award-winning playwright, it did not come naturally. She commented on her difficulty with writing saying, "I do massive rewrites of my plays. They seem easy because they are rewritten so much. They're all hard. It's really hard. I rewrite them four or five times. They seem easy because they have been rewritten so much" (Barnett, 1999, p.181). Perhaps this is why she got on so well with Joseph Heller, her instructor at the CUNY graduate program in creative writing, who is quoted as saying, "Every writer I know has trouble writing."

This difficulty with writing was one of the things that encouraged her to work as a member of a team from the time she attended Yale onward (Mandl, 1999, p.6). Teamwork was not only necessary at just the later production phase of a work, but at times from the beginning of the writing phase, as exemplified by her work with Christopher Durang. She also commented on how happy she was when she reached the point in her life when she could hire a typist. It changed her life (Shaywitz, 2003, p 351). Fortunately for Wendy, she persisted with her craft as a writer.

Elementary School

Wendy's own awareness that she learned differently came early, but it took a long time for her to consider how she could use it to her advantage. To understand how she began to "think outside the box," one needs an understanding of how the box was presented to her and how she found her place inside and outside of the box of educational traditions — and of the craft of playwriting she entered into. It is worth discussing all phases of her education, not just because it was a struggle through the early years of college, but because her educational experience figures heavily and holds a prominent place in her writing.

When Wendy was very young, she attended the Yeshiva in Flatbush, Brooklyn (Whitfield, 1997, p.226). She first became aware of the idea that she learned differently as she was going through the usual admissions process for her soon to be new school, the Brooklyn n Ethical Culture School. The earliest examples of Wasserstein's writing that appear in the archives are from her own brief accounts of experiences as a young child. Just before she entered Ethical Culture School, Wendy had begun to keep a diary. Wendy wrote brief entries, "school," "dance," and "punch ball." In early September, she entered the note, " took an IQ test," and started "ETHACAL (sic) School." And "Tomorrow is (s)chool I'm skared." It was clearly the anticipation of a big change for young Wendy (Wasserstein, 1959). One of the most frequent entries was made up of one word: "dance." Wendy's mother, Lola, an amateur dancer herself, enrolled her child in the June Taylor School of Dance. Wendy seemed to love dance and her classes downtown. Even in high school, when records show that she did not fare well in physical education, her interest in dance persisted. In her high school senior yearbook, Ink Pot, 1967, she lists modern dance under her senior photo. In fact, it was the receptionist at the June Taylor School who helped to get her first play produced. After writing 'Any Woman Can't (which is about a dancer), Louise Roberts who worked across the street from Playwrights Horizons was instrumental in getting Wendy's first play produced there (Wasserstein, 1996). Her childhood diary also comments on trips with her parents to see Broadway shows including Porgy and Bess and Once Upon a Mattress (Wassersstein, 1959).

Examples of her elementary school work in the archives include geography projects on Iran and Czechoslovakia (Wasserstein, n.d.) and a "book project" on "The Blind." Along with visual illustrations of the eye and history about Helen Keller, Braille and talking books, are her comments about the importance persevering and not being afraid of things that might hold one back (Wasserstein, c.a.1963). It offers evidence of the "venturesome personality " Sternberg discussed as being essential to the creative process already emerging in Wendy's life (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995).

High School and Adolescence

In 1963 when Wendy was twelve, the family moved from Brooklyn to 77th Street and Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (Whitfield, 1997, p. 226). Her father's good fortune and work not only allowed for the move to a more upscale neighborhood, it also allowed Lola and Morris to enroll their youngest daughter across town in the Calhoun School (Domer, 2001). At that time it was a small private preparatory school for girls, and it marked the start of eight years of exclusive all girl's and women's education for Wendy. The school's philosophy grew out of Dewey's ideas of progressive education and respect for diversity. The school was then small enough that the co-head mistresses of the school Miss Elizabeth Parmelee and Miss Beatrice Cosmey knew Wendy well. They commented twice a year on Wendy's academic progress, and Miss Parmelee corresponded with the alumna later, just after her graduation while at Mount Holyoke (Parmelee, E. Parmele to Wasserstein, 1969).

Later as an adult she spoke highly of her teachers and the support they offered, but she likely struggled as a student. Calhoun had very high academic standards. While Wendy was a student the English Department "inaugurated a new policy of giving a failing grade to any paper with more than ten mechanical errors" (Calhoun School n.d.). Imagine the difficulty this presented for a student with dyslexia. Fortunately, there appeared to be a great deal of support that went along with the high standards. The records of Wendy's high school progress during her time in tenth and eleventh grade are still available in the archives [Calhoun School]. They indicate that she sometimes showed up late. Although her grades were uneven, at times she tended to earn high grades in English. She also regularly earned high grades in Speech and Latin; however, she struggled with Math. The reports include glowing comments from her Latin instructor, and except for notes about speaking too rapidly and over dramatically, positive comments from the Speech instructor. Her Math instructors indicated a need for more regular preparation of assignments, while her Biology instructor called for more regular and careful preparation for exams. In the school reports, physical education grades regularly stood among the lowest, with accompanying blank comment sections. At the end of each report, Head Mistresses Cosmey and Parmelee also commented. They euphemistically discuss gains and losses while referring to Wendy's academic performance. They pointed to the need for "great steps in Academic growth" and the "hopes that she will raise her sights to prepare for college" (Wasserstein School Records, Mt Holyoke Archives).

The comments by the heads of school also mention Wendy's plans to attend a summer session at Exeter. Phillips Exeter Academy is one of the country's most elite and challenging college preparatory schools. During the summer of 1966, before she entered her senior year at Calhoun, Wendy experienced what must have been a demanding academic challenge for her. Critiques of the many papers she wrote there are still in the records. The topics were deep and heady for the sixteen-year-old student. Her work included carefully typed thoughts on Nietzsche, Tillich, Sartre, Shaw, Lagerkvist, MacLeish, and the elements of Benjamin Britten's composition. Teachers were generous in their use of red ink on Wendy's work. Comments were pretty straightforward: "Why not proofread?" and " Why did you turn in a first draft?" (Wasserstein, 1966). Some of the comments predicted the comments she would receive for her work later in college. She was willing to face the challenges of difficult writing assignments and the discipline of competing difficult work in the face of criticism.

It may have been a terrible summer in some ways but it serves as another example of how determined the young student was to build the general knowledge base and intellectual skills she would later need as a writer. Again, parents who could afford the tuition, and were likely concerned about her choices for admission to college, supported her efforts.

While Wendy struggled with the demands of the classroom, she continued to be engaged in Calhoun's co-curricular program. She acted in the school's production of Gunter Grass' absurdist play, The Wicked Cooks. The play was produced by her philosophy teacher, Ann Helen Lesser, and Wendy rehearsed her lines with her older sister (Wasserstein, 2004).

Perhaps the most noteworthy co-curricular activity Wendy was involved in focused on the Mother/Daughter fashion shows. It was not so much her documented interest in fashion, but her distaste for Physical Education class that helped to drive her interest. She self-effacingly admits to not knowing much about fashion, but she regularly volunteered to write the short skits that were performed as a part of the annual shows in order to be excused from gym classes. This led to her writing her first works for the stage at Calhoun (Balakain, 2005). The 1967 edition of her high school yearbook also shows a senior portrait of Wendy smiling and ready for her next big step in life. Under her photo the creative seventeen year old summarized the ups and downs of her high school experience: "Howling wind…books tumbling off a closet shelf… late trains…a solitary walk along the strand… modern dance" (InkPot'67,1967).

It is likely that while she was thinking about what to have inscribed under her senior photograph, she was waiting to hear from college admissions offices and anticipating her summer trip to Europe. She enjoyed a European tour and returned to begin her undergraduate career.


Just getting through high school presented some difficult moments for Wasserstein. So did getting into college. While she had to spend some time on their waiting list, she was eventually admitted to Mount Holyoke College for the fall term of 1967. Her experience there was certainly significant and transformative. To be aware of the impact her college experience had upon her, one need only see her first major play Uncommon Women and Others, which was built around a reunion of Mount Holyoke women. Later plays including The Heidi Chronicles and her last play Third also highlight academic experiences and settings.

While Wendy's life in Manhattan and the Calhoun School probably equipped her with a certain amount of social and academic sophistication, in some ways her first semester at Mount Holyoke was still a struggle. During her first semester she studied Principles of Zoology, Introduction to Sociology, Fundamentals of Political Science, and English Composition. She finished the term with an average below the C range. While it is important for any student new to college to get off to a good start, it is particularly important for students like Wendy, who have had an ongoing struggle with school. While Wendy may have been seen as a sophisticated New Yorker, her previous four years had been in a very small private school that had only about two-dozen students in her graduating class. While Mount Holyoke was seen as a small supportive college for women, it was still presented new social and academic challenges. It is now understood how important it is to get students with learning disabilities oriented to their support systems when they first arrive at school (Hadley, 2007; Vogel, 2003). Wendy had a difficult first year at college. In spite of her preparation, the transition was a rocky one. Her tenacity and social personality helped her considerably and the record shows that she did what was required to meet the academic demands that were placed on her in that important first year.

Wasserstein's transcript from Mount Holyoke shows that during her second and third years she developed an interest in history, the discipline in which she eventually earned her bachelor's degree. Being at a women's college in the late sixties also positioned her to be an important part of history. While an undergraduate, she was enrolled in the first Women's History Course offered at the undergraduate level (Domer, 2001). She supplemented her course work in History with courses in political science and art history. Her term papers and other written college assignments that have since been given to the Mount Holyoke Library give some insight into her intellectual interests as a student. They include titles such as: Art an Ego Trip, Freudian Analysis of Women, and Patriarchy, an Outmoded Government for New Women's Liberation (Wasserstein, ca 1969). One can see the subject matter of her later plays and other writings germinating in these early college papers. It is also clear that there was a good deal of subject matter available for her to work with at a later date as her sense of humor matured. While thinking about Wendy's learning disability, one can imagine the effort put into writing these projects. Comments from teachers frequently attribute the concerns they had about "too many mechanical errors, spelling errors, grammatical errors," and her having "not invested enough time in her work," or, "completing things hastily," or "lack of effort" put into her undergraduate writing projects (Wasserstein, ca. 1969).

It is interesting to note that her first experience with undergraduate theater courses during her sophomore year did not go well. Wendy took "Introduction to Theater Arts" and earned a final grade of C-. She also enrolled in an acting course and dropped it before completing the term. Later in her junior and senior years she took theater courses at Smith College through a consortium arrangement (Barnett, 1999). There she had what must have been a very positive experience.

The theater courses at Smith College were an important turning point for the soon to be successful playwright. Len Berkman, who Wasserstein studied with during his first year as a faculty member at Smith still teaches there (Domer 2001). He is still respected and loved by his students who see him as a colorful, enthusiastic instructor who knows and loves his subject (Smith College n.d.; Lee, 2004) . There must have been a good rapport between the then young instructor and the student. What was probably more important to the visiting junior student from Mount Holyoke was that she experienced academic success in something she cared about. Berkman taught her that writing was a matter of finding her own voice (Domer, 2001). She learned that her voice mattered and that she could be successful doing something that mattered. As a result she was able to build the foundation for a very self-assured personality and still use her feeling and intuition for humor. Now that she was becoming interested in theater as an emerging adult, the humor that might have been used for support or protective coloring in difficult academic or social moments was becoming a great advantage.

In his theory of creativity Sternberg (2006) emphasizes the acquisition of intellectual skills and knowledge along with motivation as integral resources in the process of generating new ideas. Wasserstein's success at Smith contributed to her drive and provided incentive to stay involved with theater and writing in spite of difficulties.

Like any young adult, finishing college at the age of 21, her identity and sense of self were still developing, and in some ways her confidence was unsteady. Her looming graduation marked a moment when some decisions about her future started to feel pressing. This was particularly true in 1971 when women were considering a wider range of career roles than had been open to them in previous decades.

The narrator in the opening of Wasserstein's first widely known play, Uncommon Women and Others states: "The college prepares women who are persons in their own right: Uncommon Women…whether their primary contributions were in the home or the wider community, in education or vocations, their role has been constructive (Wasserstein, 1978)." Wasserstein was part of a breakthrough generation for women who had expectations both in and out of the home. The uncommon graduating seniors of the play set at Mount Holyoke for that year included Katie going to Law school, Muffet who was debating independence vs. marriage, Rita who seemed to be rebelling against everything traditional, and Samantha, who was ready and planning to marry her boy friend. In scene seven of the play Mrs. Plum, the housemother is hosting the graduation tea asking each girl her plans for the future. Holly, Wendy's autobiographical character who is totally overwhelmed with the choices ahead of her, approached the house mother and is rhetorically asked' "Holly dear, have you thought about Katie Gibbs? It's an excellent business school." Holly is surrounded by the characters mentioned above, as well as others who were ready to be anthropologists, enter business, or enter professional school.

In an interview with Patricia Bosworth in the early 80's, Wasserstein discussed this turning point of her identity in life and the many choices faced by her and her character, Holly: "When I was getting out of Mount Holyoke in 1971 there was pressure to have a career… women friends were talking about getting married and having babies… I decided it might be interesting to write a comedy about it" (Mandl, 1999). Fortunately for the world, after wrestling with the ideas of going into business like her successful brother Bruce and sister Sandra, or becoming a doctor, and given the failed applications to law school, she chose the profession of writing. This allowed her to cash in on her creativity and sense of humor.

Graduate School and Creative Writing

In the fall of 1971, after completing her degree in History at Mount Holyoke and returning from a summer trip through the then Soviet Union, Wendy Wasserstein was at a decisive point in her life . She had not been successful in her bid to enter law school, and she he had toyed with the idea of studying business. She even considered studying medicine but memories of her college science studies probably dissuaded her. She had effectively been cut off from a number of professions due to her college record, which was certainly affected by her uneven start and struggle with language. Fortunately, she found her way to the newly formed CUNY MFA program in creative writing. Her work included courses with the well-known novelist, Joseph Heller and with the playwright, Israel Horovitz.

Heller, best known for Catch 22, his satirical and absurd account of World War II, also wrote a dozen novels and many short stories, screen plays, and television scripts. His classes may have been where Wendy learned the rudiments of screenplay writing and how to maximize the use of humor in difficult situations. It's also likely that he was very good at getting students to "let go" and produce writing. On more than one occasion Wasserstein has commented on the difficulty she experiences in the process of writing. In an interview for The Paris Review she stated, "I always finish a draft before I show it to anybody. I'll rewrite a scene thirty-seven times before I show it to anyone. Maybe it's from insecurity" (Winer, 2006).

While at CUNY, Wasserstein also studied and became friends with the playwright, Israel Horovitz. Horovitz was also prolific, primarily as a playwright. He is most well-known for his long running off-Broadway play, Line. He is also known for The Indian Wants the Bronx, which launched Al Pacino's career, and for the Massachusetts-based plays including, Park Your Car in the Harvard Yard. Horovitz also had experience with screenplay writing at the time he was teaching at CUNY. In addition, he is known for his short plays. Among Wasserstein 's papers are several 1- and 2-page "plays" that seemed to be writing exercises or short free standing works, with titles like: Indian Chief, Miss Lipschitz, may I Present…, Sorting, and Memoir of a Shopping Bag Lady. As in the past, Wendy continued to receive comments from instructors about difficulties with grammar, spelling and punctuation (Wasserstein, c.a.1973).

On finishing her Master's degree in creative writing, Wendy was armed with the rudimentary skills she needed to write and the self-confidence that comes from a modicum of success. She gained some experience with seasoned professionals who were able to offer some constructive criticism of her work without being distracted by the mechanical difficulties she continued to face and deal with.

In 1973 Wasserstein wrote her master's thesis at CUNY, a play about a girl who fails a dance audition and marries a man she does not love (Ciaciola, 1998 p.128). This play, Any Woman Can't, was based on a play she wrote while studying with Horovitz (Winer, 1997). It was read at Playwrights Horizons before she left for Yale. This was the start of using keen sense of the social world that surrounded her, and the familiarity of family and friends as the basis for characters and content for her writing. It also marked the start of her long association with Playwrights Horizons, which is an organization dedicated to the development of new young playwriting talent. This experience must have provided a feeling of professional success to the young playwright.

The Emerging Playwright

Her next step, that she was now able to take with more confidence than she would have coming directly out of an undergraduate program, was to enter an environment that would afford her the support and means for producing the work that she was creating. Being in an environment which supports the development of new ideas is critical to the successful creative process (Sternberg, 2006; Csikszentmihalyi,1996).

She chose the Yale University School of Drama, and she entered her course of study there at an opportune time. The school was thriving under the direction of Robert Brustein, and both the Yale Reparatory Theatre and the Yale Cabaret Group were there as potential venues for her newly conceived plays. Her need to get some experience in a "theater environment" could not have been better timed. The supportive and creative group that she would find herself in included some very noteworthy names. Chris Durang seemed to be the natural leader of this very talented group of students, and he proved to be a valuable creative partner for Wasserstein. Others in the group included several individuals who would go on to stellar acting careers, such as Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Albert Innaurato. Students Lizbeth Mackay and Stephanie Faracy were both featured along with coauthor Durang in Wasserstein's musical Happy Birthday Montpelier Pizz-zazz (Wasserstein, 1975a). The plot of this play considered the frustrating relationships between men and women. In this case the setting was a typical college party. It featured Lichtenstein-like pop-art comic strip backdrops, as well as tunes with comical lyrics. It was first presented by the Drama School in 1974, and it was again presented in 1976 by Playwrights Horizons (Balakian, 2005). Wasserstein and Durang also co- wrote the play, When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, which was put on by the Yale Cabaret Theater in April of 1975. This play also focuses on gender roles and introduces the character Holly Kaplan, Wasserstein's autobiographical character who appears later in Uncommon Women and Others. In this take on American beauty pageants, Holly was played by Christine Estabrook (Ciaciola, 1998).

Wasserstein worked well with collaborators. Her work with William Finn, Christopher Durang, and others, and her later work with Andre Bishop and Dan Sullivan provide evidence for the idea that collaboration fortified her work and helped her to realize her ideas (Balakain, 2005). Such arrangements with creative partners and even assistants who follow up on details and written work are important to the success of many with learning disabilities.

Wasserstein wrote out most of her ideas in long hand, later transferring them to the typewritten page. She developed just about all of her ideas in her handwritten spiral notebooks. While at Yale she used them to develop characters, dialogs, and scenes. There is a significant section in one dedicated to her research on learning disabilities or MBD, Minimal Brain Dysfunction, as some learning disabilities were referred to in the 1960s and 1970s. Wasserstein lists subcategories and symptoms, including details on dyslexia and what later would be commonly referred to as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The disorder was later labeled ADD in 1980 in the DSMII, the manual used by those who diagnose people with disorders. It was later given the name ADHD in 1987. She also included comments on testing and diagnostic processes and treatment, including the use of stimulant medications. Wasserstein goes on to develop two versions of a young school boy character, first Tommy, then Stephen. Each has many of the symptoms of dyslexia and ADHD, which in reality often occur together (Pliszka, Carlson & Swanson, 1999). The final character depicted as a twelve year old in Ms. Green's class was never realized as a major character in a produced play, but the idea was developed a great deal in the notebook. The emerging character had strengths in athletics, particularly track or swimming, depending on the draft. He broke school records and had star potential, but also had conflicts with teachers and parents (Wasserstein, 1975b). The same notebook containing her research about learning disabilities includes the rough sketches for Happy Birthday Montpelier Pizzazz.

Later at Yale in 1975 Wasserstein wrote a one-act version of Uncommon Women and Others, which served as her master's thesis, and even later she wrote a two act version that was presented at the Phoenix Theatre in 1977. The play was then televised on public television in 1978 (Balakian, 2005). With Uncommon Women her career as a professional writer was underway.


There are many factors that influence the educational and career paths one takes in life. Many things can come to bear upon the decisions and the accidents related to how one follows one pursuit or another. In some ways Wasserstein was very lucky. She was surrounded by caring parents who, as a result of their hard work, had the means to provide her with the best education available. She reaped the benefit of this opportunity from middle childhood well into early adulthood. She had devoted and caring older siblings who all shared the benefit of growing up in an environment that valued culture and the arts.

There is a great deal of evidence that indicates that Wasserstein had positive feelings and strong beliefs about education. She clearly remembered the struggles and positive experiences. Memories of her student experience are central to her major plays like Uncommon Women, Heidi Chronicles and Third. Her role as a visiting professor at colleges, and many of the speeches and interviews she gave on behalf of the schools and organizations that value arts education, attest to her belief in the benefits of education and her good feeling about the experience she had. At the time of her death she was Andrew Dickenson White Professor at Large at Cornell University. In her final play Third, the central character was an English Professor. The play explores student and teacher values, and once again gives an indication of the important role education played in her life even though academia likely proved to be a very challenging environment for her (Wasserstein, 2009.)

While dyslexia was a major contributor to the challenges she faced, it can be argued that it also served as a catalyst and created opportunities for the playwright while she was an adolescent and an emerging creative adult. Perhaps Wasserstein benefitted from a view of the world shaped by her learning disability. She was an active observer and had a deep understanding of the people who surrounded her. She was able to translate her experience into characters and plots for plays that many related to. She learned to see humor in difficult situations. She developed an ear for dialog and understood how her words would sound when delivered form the stage. She learned to draw on her gift for seeing how her characters would move on the stage. The spoken word and the action of a production were her most effective means of communication.

Her own comments about plays and theater indicate that as a student she preferred plays to prose, in part because she could listen to recordings of them while she read (Shaywitz, 2003). Before the development of text to speech software, which is used by many students with language processing difficulties today, Wendy found a way to reap the benefits of this approach by specializing in drama. It is likely that she thought that plays were easier to write for her, as well. She wrote them to be seen and heard by an audience in their final presentation, rather than to be read on a page. Fortunately while she was at the Calhoun School she had the opportunity to give playwriting a try. She believed, "just because you are not a skilled reader doesn't mean that you can't be a skilled writer" (Shaywitz, 2003). This attraction to the written word when presented in the dramatic form led her to specific courses and instructors as an undergraduate, and later to specific graduate programs in Writing and Drama at CUNY and Yale. While dyslexia led her in that direction, it was certainly her teachers, fellow students, and friends who helped her to focus her creative talents.

Wasserstein developed an inventive personality, an intrinsic motivation, and an innovative thinking style as a student. At the same time, with support from others, she developed the skills and knowledge base she would need to practice her craft. All this was synthesized by the catalytic environment she found in her graduate programs. While there are several case studies and case anecdotes about successful creative individuals who struggled with dyslexia, and a limited body of research on advantages in spatial perception and disproportionate numbers of people with dyslexia entering creative professions, there is not conclusive evidence of a relationship between the learning disability and creativity. While learning disabilities should not be romanticized or glamorized as they cause individuals and families a great deal of pain and frustration, they do influence the direction an individual takes in life. Stories like Wendy Wasserstein's can teach us about what is important in a young individual's life. They can tell us a lot about good teaching, and what can make up a good educational environment. They also impart the immeasurable value of supportive family, friends, and teachers.

Stories of success like Wasserstein's can also inspire young people who may develop a negative view of the future because they struggle with learning differences and find it difficult to cope with the day to day demands of school. Perhaps the same stories will help them to find the courage to go to school every day with a sense of hope, imagining success in their future. Wasserstein offers an observation for today's child with dyslexia: "In some ways being dyslexic is a gift, because you think less linearly. And you have to know it's OK to think outside of the box" (Shaywitz, 2003). Reframing the difficulties of a learning disability can allow one to see advantages where there was only difficulty, and frustration before. The capacity to see these advantages may give students with learning disabilities the courage they need to persist and to continue to face the challenges they must confront on a daily basis. Wendy Wasserstein's ability to see things differently may have sustained her during the difficulty she faced as a student. It may have kept her going from day to day and helped her to persevere toward her eventual Pulitzer Prize.


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Selected Works by Wasserstein:

  • Plays:
    • Third (2005) Dramatists Play Service
    • Medea (2002) in Eric Lane & Nina Shingold (eds.) Leading Women, Plays for Actresses. New York: Vintage.
    • Old Money (2000) Harcourt Brace
    • Bette and Me(1999) in Seven One Act Plays by Wasserstein
    • Boy Meets Girl (1999) in Seven One Act Plays by Wasserstein, Dramatist's Play Service
    • Waiting for Phillip Glass (1998) Dramatists Play Service
    • An American Daughter (1997) Harcourt Brace
    • Jill's Adventure in Real Estate or, I can get it for you at 3.2 New Yorker 16 October 1995: 170-77.
    • The Sisters Rosensweig (1993) Harcourt Brace
    • The Heidi Chronicles (1988) Vintage
    • Man in the Case (1985) Knopf
    • Isn't It Romantic (1979) Dramatist's Play Service
    • Uncommon Women and Others (1978) Avon
  • Screen Plays:
    • The Object of My Affection (1998)
    • Tender Offer (1997)
  • Opera Libretto:
    • The Festival of Regrets   libretto for one of three one act plays presented under the title Central Park (1999) With Deborah Drattle, Subito Music
  • Books and Essays:
    • (2006) Elements of Style: A Novel. New York: Knopf.
    • (Feb. 21, 2006) Complications.The New Yorker, pp.87-109.
    • (2005) Sloth. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • (2001) Shiksa Goddess: Or How I Spent My Forties, Essays. New York: Knopf.
    • (1999) Pamela's First Musical. New York: Knopf.
    • (1990) Bachelor Girls. New York: Knopf.
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