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January 28, 2016

Surviving in the Spoken World.

Flickr/Evan

Here are the rules: Begin every sentence or phrase with a vowel—any word beginning with a consonant is considered high-risk and must be preceded without pause by a vowel ending in a higher tonality. This is the roller coaster. The letters M, B, G and V are especially troublesome. Avoid them, substitute with words beginning in a Z or TH or another soft consonant where possible. If you need to use them place them towards the end of the sentence, when you are out of breath and have the necessary speed and force to break through. This is the run. You can never use words that begin with T, S, Y or a hard C, and you can never use any word containing an audible W or a soft U. These sounds are unavailable to you. Find alternatives.

Now construct a paragraph describing what you did today. You have two minutes.

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A stutterer learns to do the excersise above at five years old. By the time we reach nine, we can do it in around half a second.

At 12, we have the mental equivalent of a college-level thesaurus and will often use three or four syllable words or entire phrases in place of a single word containing a letter we cannot use. A common example is for us to say, “I’d prefer not to agree at the moment,” instead of a simple “No,” if the word stutters in the internal rehearsal that takes place in the moments prior to verbalizing.

We speak the way writers write, and we edit in real time. And even though the lag lessens with time and practice, a stutterer will likely go his or her entire life without ever having a real conversation. We are three steps ahead of ourselves at all times. We cannot enjoy the present, because others can’t bear the silence.

We love and fear and respect language in ways fluid speakers could never imagine. We think in words, not images, because we are necessarily obsessed with the delivery of our thoughts, more so than their contents, and we are so preoccupied with our verbal puzzles that there is no room for anything else. And although we may only speak 30 or 40 words in a given week, we have a constant stream of dialogue running through our minds. Life, for us, is an ongoing rehearsal.

School is a problem, beginning at an early age, but not because of the social abuses put upon us. Those are not unique to stutterers, and we learn to take it just as any other outcast groups of children do. Fat, ugly, pimply, speechless—it doesn’t make a difference. Children are mean, and there is never a shortage of targets. No, we are undone by our own cleverness, our self- cures. We develop simple and complicated ways to avoid speaking.

The survival of a young stutterer depends on his or her ability to avoid attention—to reduce the necessity of speech. As long as we’re allowed to keep silent, we believe we’re just like everyone else. Much of this involves becoming smaller—if we cannot get something on our own, then we just learn to not want it. We spend our entire lives going around things others look forward to.

We don’t make friends. We don’t date. We don’t fall in love. We take whatever jobs we can find, because we don’t interview well.

One well-delivered sentence means so much to us. Our speech is funny, sure—stilted and put together wrong, even when properly rehearsed and delivered—but it’s the only speech we have. Our need to communicate is an ever-present ache—a hole in our lives that we’re constantly stepping around and often fall into when we relax even the slightest bit. And no, we are not grateful when you complete our thoughts for us. We want to punch you.

Stuttering is not a handicap. There are no stickers or scholarships for us. We get the opposite of special treatment. Teachers often take it upon themselves to “cure” us of this annoying and disruptive problem, either by brute force or shame. And so, predictably, we fail—and then we rebel to justify our failures and eventually succumb to the escalating, negative descriptors put upon us. I could not speak, so I learned to pick pockets and locks. Such was my story, and it is a common one among stutterers. We fail, yet we are not failures.

After nearly dropping out of high school, my father gave me the typical ultimatum of the day—go to college or get out. It was understood that I was basically “retarded” and would go no farther. My family was tired. I was tired. We’d all had enough. I’d find a good life as a mechanic or line cook somewhere. I’d live the same blue-collar life the rest of my family did before me. I’d learn a trade. There was no shame in this.

My family faithfully supported me throughout my difficult college career. Without their strength I’d have gone no further than high school, and maybe not even that. Still, college was the lowest point of my life. At a time when most emerging adults are exploring new worlds as exciting members of a global peer group, I was shown just how dark and ugly my life would be. Crushed by loneliness, I lived solely at night. But I trudged on—for my father, mostly.

At my second school, after a year of no friends, no parties, nothing, I wrote a goodbye story and slipped it under the door of the campus newspaper’s office late one night—a sad farewell to people I’d never known but desperately wanted to, people I’d watched with envy and admiration and genuine warmth. I wrote a goodbye letter to the student I’d never be and to the friends I was too scared to have. By the time it was published I was long gone.

At my next school—a larger, state school—I’d publish a weekly column for two years under a pen name. That person was famous. People wanted to know me. They’d invite me to parties and ask for my thoughts, for my friendship, for my love. Everyone wanted to know that person, but the person they wanted to talk to didn’t exist yet. Being a writer, at least in the early stages, was a ruse. It was time for me to go.

I’d change schools five times in total—I’d just leave in the middle of the night. I didn’t know anyone and would not talk to anyone. At each school I’d publish fiction for the literary magazines, essays for the journals and columns for the newspapers. At Northeastern University, where I finally graduated, I kept a part-time job cleaning the newsroom, ever aware of my mounting debts.

After each production cycle, I’d work overnight scraping the wax from the floors and layout boards for seven dollars an hour. When someone finally connected that “the wax guy” was the same person as the columnist in the newspaper—the fiction writer in the literary magazine and the essayist—I was offered leadership editorial positions of increasing responsibility. One of the few regrets I carry with me was that I never accepted any of them. I was becoming a good writer and an excellent researcher, sure, but the inability to use a telephone made the task all but impossible. No one texted back then, and no one e-mailed. I was tired of failing.

Still, all these years later, I wish I had found a way to stay the course. I wish I had kept writing every day, as I did then. I wish I had the courage to not bend to the world. It was not my stutter that ended my publishing career. It was not the misinformed teachers and counselors and therapists. It was not the meanness of my peers. It was not my parents.

It was me.

The world had not beaten me, it had challenged me. What everyone saw as my success was—to me—a profound failure. I’d spent a lifetime avoiding the very thing that had saved me—my writing.

Like so many others, I began writing out of despair and a sense of disconnectedness from the world—out of loneliness and fantasy. In my writing I was fluid and fluent. I could be charming or terrifying or wise. Through my writing, I had friends and purpose and value. I was someone to talk to, someone to love. Through my writing, I discovered myself—and in discovering myself, I came to know the world.

Eventually, I overcame my stutter and evolved into the speaking superhero that I had so often fantasized about—but I still write for the same basic reason. Like someone who moves into a new home and renovates it to their liking, I recreate the world I inhabit through fiction—and although my changes are often small and subtle, when I am finished and read back what I have written, that world seems like a better place than before.

But in all my work, and in my life in general, there is that unyielding, ever-present loneliness that all stutterers share and the profound power that accompanies its presence. I do think this is a common path that many writers take—it begins as a curiosity, then an art, then an outlet, then an addiction and finally an immersive way of life. To a stutterer, it is a lifeline. For me though, the real world is indistinguishable from fiction—and the more I write, the greater control I gain over that fictional world, which directly translates into greater power over my own life.

I learned to shed the thick skin I’d developed as a stutterer. I overcame all of the anger that all stutterers bear. It served no purpose. I deserve and demand from the universe no less than anyone else. After many years I’d come to learn what others accept as children. All you have to do is ask. The world is only as frightening as you allow it to be.

Two years ago I finally did what terrifies all stutterers—an editor of a magazine that published some of my work asked me to read in public.

I said no, but he still told me the date and how long I was to read for. “You’re a writer,” he said at the time. “This is what writers do.”

He knew nothing of my stutter—and still doesn’t—but assumed that this was a fear all new writers had to deal with. I was to compete in “Literary Death Match,” next to successful writers and in front of famous judges. I had weeks to prepare and seven minutes to read.

I invited my family. I memorized every word of my story, so I would not have to deal with paper. My plan, all along, was to announce up front that I was a stutterer and that I was nervous, but that I would do my best. I was going to ask for patience, lenience and acceptance—after all, I was not as strong as the other candidates, as I was taught so many times.

Once on stage, however, I did no such thing. I looked at the lights and the judges, at the hundreds of waiting faces in the audience, including my family. I just started reading, and I read slowly—confidently. I read well.

When it was over, I’d expected my family to be astonished—to be proud and amazed at the words coming from my mouth, for no such thing that had ever seemed even remotely possible for me. My mother commented that I sounded like I had a southern accent. People talked with me late into the night, and I answered. The next morning, local newspapers published excerpts from my story. There was no mention of any horrible speech problems and no people laughing or booing. And I realized, at that moment, that I was no longer a stutterer.

My family had forgotten. The audience never knew. Even the journalists couldn’t figure it out. I was just another writer—what I’d wanted to be from the beginning. The stutterer was gone.

I read my work in public now, from time to time, and I’m heckled and critiqued as all writers are, but never for my speaking. Every word I utter is a profound victory. I am a writer and a speaker—no better or worse than any other. No one need know I was ever a stutterer, but I write this because there are so many others like me—people of all ages who endure loneliness and isolation, unknown to most of us, and who have difficulty sustaining hope feel ever excluded from the human experience. And I have no more pity for those who stutter than for those who can’t write.

Personally, if I had to choose (and I remember when I was forced to) I’d choose writing. Every time. But that is also the gift of stuttering—stutterers, along with those who are deaf, are far more embedded with the mechanics and beauty of communication than most, and communication is the corridor between all humans.

Realize too, that communication is not limited to conversations, most of which are ridiculous anyway. Communication is writing. Communication is singing and creating music. Creating art, making buildings, even cleaning your room as a child. There are infinite ways of participating in the world—of sharing your life with the people around you—and conversation is but one small part.

As a former stutterer, I have the same insecurities as any other person now—there are no lesser standards I hold just for myself. I feel unprepared, unworthy at times and exceptionally lucky—and yet, I know there is more to it. For no matter the success I find in life, it is insignificant to the pride I take in writing and the pure exhilaration I feel when I am able to write well—to finish a good story or even a single page and to know that it is mine. Mine alone and hard-won. I give no further thought to speaking. Whatever I have to say, I say.

I’ll never be that person who comes through my writing—none of us ever are. We pass one another at times, these two eager selves. We nod and acknowledge each other as peers, as equals, distinct and ever distant—yet, in the end, friends.

The spoken world is bigger than I had ever imagined it to be—wonderful and relentless and unforgiving—and to be a part of it was my grandest childhood fantasy. I don’t know what the world sees me as now, perhaps just another guy trudging along the same road, at once careful and reckless as we all are. I still don’t speak much, and I find the world every bit as mean as I did when I was a child.

Inside I will always be a stutterer—with all of the wonderful gifts and peculiarities and sadness earned as such—but outside? In the big, real world I had hidden from so well and for so long?

Outside, I’m just another writer, struggling to find words—to be heard and understood and absorbed.

Searching, at long last, for something to say.

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Author: Brett Garcia Rose

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Flickr/Evan

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Brett Garcia Rose