You have to Speak in Different Ways

I’m currently reading ‘Out With it: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice’ by Katherine Preston.

Television is such a voracious, visual medium, never more so than today, despite the rise of smartphones and Wi-Fi, its influences still the forefront of modern mainstream society. Being seen and being heard, and more specifically the minorities being seen and being heard can accelerate understanding, education, convert tolerance to acceptance to inclusion.

No publicity is bad publicity, someone once said.
I think that statement is still correct, but it’s now mutated with the increased appetite the world has for instantaneous news. Read – pass judgement – discard.

When the story of the imprisoned girls in Cleveland went viral two years ago, their saviour Charles Ramsey, an unemployed, ex-convict with a history of domestic violence, went from hero to villain in less than a week.
And as observational satirist Charlie Brooker mused glumly during his end of year review: “Ramsey mania was all but extinguished after four days. We’re getting more efficient at dismissing people basically, next year it should be possible to do it in just four hours”.

An extreme example, to be sure. One deep rooted in the social obsession with celebrity culture. Nothing that would apply to the common man on-the-street, which in turn made me think because that’s exactly what Charles Ramsey was. Thrust onto the stage and under the spotlight of media scrutiny, thus his reward for basically acting like a decent human being.
Cheers world!

It seems that our peccadillos, those little imperfections we all possess, are the things perpetually stuck betwixt the crosshairs of social scrutiny. And television, be it reality-based or otherwise, magnifies such defects, often to the humour of the audience and the shame of the individual. Once upon a time everyone used to fear going on camera, the decade-old adage that the camera “makes you gain five pounds” making everyone skip meals for more than a week before stepping under the lights. These days it seems fame is more addictive than it was back in the days of legwarmers and Gene Anthony Ray (RIP). Everyone wants to be famous, or they should be. The reality for some though, is really rather different.

Katherine Preston writes both with the knowledge of the condition as a general mechanical disability (overt) as well as the specific thoughts, feelings and situations of someone stuck without the means to speak their mind at a time of their choosing (covert).
Such frustrations eventually leading to anger, we all glumly accepting we can’t shout and swear our way through life, even though at times we feel like we’d really want to. The famous exception in recent times possibly being Sam Jackson. Still dysfluent today, his early work, with Spike Lee in the late eighties and early nineties was beneficially profane, his work in Pulp Fiction angry, frustrated poetry.

When it comes to the subject of myself my own dealings with the two-headed monster of public-speaking and responsibility are as unique as my fingerprints.

Stutterers tend not to waffle. We haven’t the oxygen to spare on needless words. Subsequently my approach to many things tends to be curt and forthright and, at times, utterly masculine. Which is never my intention, but you have to understand I’m working on a finite amount of airtime here, flowery metaphors, pointless tangents and similes leading to anecdotes tend to go out the window.
As a consequence shopping can become a slightly militaristic affair. “We go here, here and here. We have to buy some of this, this, this, a replacement for those and a fresh one of that, and we’re done”.
My actions influenced by my speech meaning I rarely impulse buy, which is good for my bank balance but not that good for my spontaneity.

And the latter is something all stutterers find difficult. If not thinking about it then initiating it to a specific tempo. I don’t tell jokes; I tend to face-plant during the approach. Rather my humour is more observational, reactive, bespoke; and for some reason I do pithy one-liners well, telling stories or long-winded explanations are my minefields.

Which leads us to a further point: when you write for a class, you must be in position to read-aloud what you or someone else has produced for the class to critique.
Back when I was in highschool this wasn’t always the case. The shared opinion was that to make me suffer the slings and arrows of public speaking was a punishment too cruel and unusual for my adolescent mind to bear. As a result I was excused the bowel-twisting terror of awaiting my turn to stand and read. And if any stand-in teacher wasn’t aware of this fact, they soon discovered it during the first three sentences of Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights, or anything by Shakespeare.

[Though in my defence the last one is, in places, indigestible, and would present a stiff challenge to any teenager to read, eloquently, the first time round]

This exclusion did more harm than good. Awaiting my turn is still something I dread; the anxiety of the run-up often spoiling the action itself, leaving me sweating bullets and unable to focus. I don’t think making me talk would have done me any favours though. There has been no breakthrough coping mechanisms in the succeeding years for this condition. You just have to ride it out and learn to breathe, keep the barriers up against any potentially hostile audience and go with it.

For me I find I work better ad-libbing a script than reading it by rote. I can personalise it, switch out words or phrases, exchange syllables, make it speakable. Such freedom is often available for my own work or presentations. Reading someone else’s craft? That’s when things get tricky.

This winter I’m going back to write and read full-time. I will need confidence+++ to get through these readings, the critiques and the discussion groups. I don’t care these days if I stutter. The mechanical demons I have slain long ago. Yes, they are still there. No, they do not hurt me.
The mental demons are all-powerful. I feel like I’ve been enduring a sadistic overlord for the past twenty years.
“Shame” was once defined as something that “makes you think you’re better than you are, then beats you to your knees when you try and do something about it”.

That definition is accurate.

Very few people crave intimacy with someone with poor self-esteem, and all stutterers have that at some point, to varying degrees.

I know I don’t have the self-esteem to consciously be in the spotlight. I prefer the solace of anonymity behind the camera’s lens, the quiet of the night outside the dancefloor, the seething throngs of the crowded coffeehouse to wrap myself in, simultaneously connected and disconnected at the same time.
This is my preferred habitat, though there are times I do go mad on the dancefloor.

My biggest hurdle though, by far (if I didn’t have enough already) is my hesitation to talk about myself. One of the main driving forces behind my blogging is that it offers me the chance to speak my mind. But to tell people about my life, my past, my day-to-day, that is something that while I do, it does happen sporadically.
I’d rather listen and comment than instigate and drag the conversation forward. The epidemiology of this is both overt and covert in nature. The mechanical blocks of my childhood stopped me wanting to learn the art at a young age, the emotional fear of rejection and ridicule prickly and wounding to my psyche.

But again, this year away from the world will be most fruitful if I drag my own psyche free from its comfort zone, and put it kicking and screaming in an environment where it has to swim rather than let the current do all the work. Exhausting, but exciting times ahead it seems.

I think we can all do more than we think in this world, yet the biggest trick for all of us is wanting to act outside the framework of life society has built for us.

My framework was built with a number of flaws, both confining and liberating in nature. I was excluded from some facets of life, but that meant I gained confidence and acceptance in others. Everyone’s way is unique, mine more than most. The ride’s only as wild as you make it.

Best make it wild, then.


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