My six-year-old stutters. It doesn’t stop him. Not yet. Hopefully not ever.
Yesterday, I was in the kitchen trying to read Philip Larkin. Owen was doing his best to terrorize the rest of us. He rarely stutters when he reads or sings, and he has a weakness for recording, so I handed him Collected Poems, turned to “Next, Please.”
“Why don’t you read that for voice memos?”
I hit RECORD and he read the whole freaking poem, start to finish, stumbling only on four words. (“Expectancy,” “armada,” “wretched,” and, yes, “tits.”) I couldn’t believe it.
“Why don’t you set it to music?” I said. He agreed, and I sat him down with my laptop.
We re-recorded the four mistakes, then I transferred the voice memos to the computer and we spliced them into the first take with Audacity. We cut a couple of slight stutters out of the waveform, too. Then I dumped it into Garageband and let him go to town.
This is what he came up with. (With a few level adjustments by me. It’s great if you follow it up immediately with “Loveheart.”)
I love the juxtaposition of Owen’s sweet voice, with the ominous synth lines underneath.
In Knotted Tongues: Stuttering in History and a the Quest for a Cure, Benson Bobrick notes that Philip Larkin began to stutter at the age of 4 and it didn’t really let up until the age of 35.
Larkin’s terror of situations in which speaking could be avoided found its way sub rosa into one of his most somber poems, “Next, Please.” Although obviously about disappointed hopes and the inevitability of death and extinction, the poem’s title phrase was one he had dreaded hearing as a child, for it signaled his imminent obligation to speak once he reached the head of a line.
In fact, even in his thirties, Larkin had trouble with postal clerks and getting tickets at the railroad station. (He used to hand slips of paper over with his desired train.)
Larkin isn’t the only one of my favorite writers who stuttered.
Another is Joe Brainard, who said, “Writing, for me, is a way of ‘talking’ the way I wish I could talk.” He recalls his stuttering in his masterpiece, I Remember:
I remember how much I used to stutter.
I remember one day in gym class when my name was called out I just couldn’t say “here.” I stuttered so badly that sometimes words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth at all. I had to run around the field many times.
I remember trying to memorize Shakespeare so that words that began with sounds I stuttered on (s, b, etc.) would not begin with a new breath.
Have you ever heard of a “lipogram”? It’s a word game. A writing constraint. You try to write without certain letters.
A few books have been written as long lipograms. In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby without the letter “e.” Georges Perec, a member of Oulipo, wrote his own book without “e”: A Void. (In French, it was originally La Disparition, or “The Disappearance.”)
This kind of constrained writing, or avoidance, is the kind of mental gymnastics many stutterers do in their heads all the time.
The novelist David Mitchell (author of, among others, Black Swan Green, a novel about a teenager with a stammer) wrote a terrific essay about his stammering, “Lost for Words.” Every stutterer, he writes, collects “a box of tricks”:
By the age of 15 I was a zit-spattered thesaurus of synonyms and an expert on lexical registers. At my rural comprehensive, substituting the word “pointless” with “futile” would get you beaten up for being a snob because the register’s too high—it’s a teacher’s word—so I’d deploy “useless.”
The Paris Review asked him if his stammering made him a writer:
On one hand, yes: it makes sense that a kid who can’t express himself verbally would be driven to express himself on the page instead. On the other hand, no: most writers aren’t stammerers and most stammerers aren’t writers. Perhaps the best answer is that the writer that I am has been shaped by the stammering kid that I was, and that although my stammer didn’t make me write, it did, in part, inform and influence the writer I became.
In the The New York Times: “What feels like a curse when you’re younger can prove to be a long-term ally.”
Here’s author Darcey Steinke in her recent essay, “My Stutter Made Me a Better Writer”:
The central irony of my life remains that my stutter, which at times caused so much suffering, is also responsible for my obsession with language. Without it I would not have been driven to write, to create rhythmic sentences easier to speak and to read. A fascination with words thrust me into a vocation that has kept me aflame with a desire to communicate. As a little girl, I hoped my stutter would let me into the secret world of animals. As an adult, given a kind listener, I am privy to something just as elusive: a direct pathway to the human heart.
Having a disability can uncover weaknesses in our mainstream clichés. Not even a week after Steinke published her essay, Jake Wolff published “A Stutterer’s Guide to Writing Fiction,” in which he takes on the creative writing commandments to “find your voice” and “read your work out loud.” The trouble is laid out in the subtitle: “How do you find ‘voice’ in your writing when your own voice sometimes betrays you?”
[L]ost in this discussion of voice and flow is always disability: the way, for some of us, speech and sight and sound often stutter or simply don’t work at all.
This is not a call to arms against voice, which communicates something important about writing and point of view. But I am, maybe, calling for a greater understanding of the ways in which voice is not always “findable”—it is not a sunken treasure that, once recovered from the sea, allows you to become a Real Writer.
I am not sure yet if Owen’s stutter will make him a better writer, but I think it might just make me a better writer. It forces me to be patient while listening, yes, but it’s given me a research interest. Something new to read and think about. Another lens to look at the world through. (I feel so grateful for having read Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, as both those books gave me a way of thinking about difference and disability as things that can enrich our lives.)
More connections to make between the things I love.
Related reading: “The Hard Way.”