August 25, 2014

This hits close to home

I’m a stutterer, and my brother, who is also a stutterer, sent me this Slate article on stuttering and the film The King’s Speech

It’s quite brilliantly written, capturing the paranoia and careful self-regard stutters are forced to practice. I think of Ethan Hawke in the film Gattaca, scouring himself of all skin flakes and hair and nails each day before going to work; in this same manner, stutterers must prune their daily routines of dangerous words or situations. For example, for a long time, my trouble sound was “d,” which meant in high school when I called my friend, Derek, and his mom answered the phone, I could not ask if he was there, but instead had to ask, “Is your son at home?” as if I had a warrant for his arrest.

My new trouble sound is “m”, which was pretty shitty for a guy with a book called American Elsewhere, that big “uh-MERI-can” always swimming out in the deeps around me, and I tended to just casually call it AE, and terrifically hate any poor soul who happened to inquire what “AE” stood for. I somewhat regret that the character I’m now writing is called “Mulaghesh,” and suspect I will absolutely fucking dread readings in the future. (Which I dreaded and hated anyway.)

This section of the article, though, was tremendously interesting to me:

When stutterers don’t succeed in sidestepping an obstacle, or aren’t comfortable living with their words at such a remove from their thoughts, there is the problem of being literally understood. Stuttering ravages the sentence, the sentiment, the idea, such that following the stutterer’s train of syntax can be like trying to parse a line of Morse code. (Biden was nicknamed Dash in high school.) If you happen to be a verbally minded stuttering person, this is something you never get used to. Part of your mind holds onto the hope of speaking clever things as effortlessly as you think of them, of being witty and charming; words you wish you had the tongue to say instead flourish inside, feeding a sort of verbal fantasy life. Everybody dreams. But stutterers, perhaps especially, dream of verbal transcendence: those rare moments when an ungainly cargo of words rattling down the runway pulls itself together, roars into a final burst of speed, and meets the sky.

Sometimes, this dream gets fixed enough to become a vocation. A disproportionate number of stutterers end up writers, actors, and other voices of public life. They tend even to “do jobs that require them to speak in public, which you would have thought they’d have avoided,” someone pointed out to the stuttering novelist Margaret Drabble. This is an irony only until you realize that the labor of a verbal craftsperson, the work of nailing words onstage or in print, is virtually coterminous with a stutterer’s inner life.

I’ve had editors and agents and PR and marketing people comment on my quick turnaround time, and I’ve never thought it was anything to speak of. I have never missed a deadline, and in fact usually beat most of them by about three months or so, and I thought it was because what I was writing took little thought. But it wasn’t until this morning that perhaps the reason I pump out words pretty quickly is that this is how I live my daily life, carefully composing endless verbiage for future interactions.

If there is a device in your brain that puts together clever sentences, mine is never turned off – because it’s also my respirator, and without it I can barely get out of bed.