Not many people know that I have a stammer. That’s mainly because my stammer is so much better than it was when I was twelve and couldn’t say my own name, couldn’t tell you where I lived, couldn’t ask for a glass of tap water in a restaurant. In fact, those three things still sometimes cause me difficulty, as if the trauma of failing to say them so many times has left a little scar in my speech.
Anyway, no-one ever suggested speech therapy, I just got told that I’d grow out of it. While I waited for that to happen, well meaning relatives and teachers tried to make me speak, got impatient when I couldn’t finish my sentences, and sometimes just talked over me.
These days, most of the time at least, people don’t even notice that I occasionally stumble over my words. It’s only when I get ill or over-tired that the stammer creeps back in, accompanied by my rising sense of frustration. I hate my stammer. I hate the way it makes me sound, I hate the thought that I can’t control what I say, I hate that certain words suffocate me, swelling in my chest so that I can’t spit them out.
I can feel a stammer coming; it’s a little like the sensation you get before you sneeze although sneezing has never made me anxious or angry. I’ve been told by a clever and well-informed person that a stammer is caused by your brain working against itself; one part telling you to keep speaking, another telling you not to. While this makes a lot of sense, I’m not sure how it relates to certain sounds being more difficult to get out than others. For me there are consonants that mean I dread some words still. I do my best to work around them, but if they can’t be avoided then I have to take my time with them, or else run them into other words so that I can trick my mouth into thinking it’s saying something else.
Don’t get me wrong, as I said before, my stammer is much better these days. I couldn’t tell you exactly why it’s diminished so much, although I think this may have something to do with practising the things I found hardest, like giving presentations and answering the phone – which I used to loathe, feeling that curl of anxiety and embarrassment every time I picked up the handset. It’s no surprise that these were the activities I struggled with, as I’ve been told that stammering is most likely to occur when you are the centre of attention, when you know that everyone will be listening to your voice. So any sort of public speaking is tough.
However, this is especially true if I know that what I’m saying will be scripted. Reading aloud in front of an audience is the hardest thing for me and my stammer. But I want to be a writer. I’ve been reading aloud in front of an audience for years now, and all that experience has helped to some extent. I’ve also discovered that, oddly enough, if I speak in an accent or another language, I don’t stammer. After hosting an open mike night in Borders some years ago, my friend commented that I ‘went really Yorkshire’ during the event, something which I hadn’t even been conscious of doing. I suppose it was my brain trying to find a way around the stammering by making my voice sound like somebody else’s.
Of course, I can’t go to events and just talk like a northerner, so I practise a lot before I read, and on the day I do my best to keep calm and try not to worry about it. The truth is, no-one cares if I stammer except for me. I realised this when I to see Derek Landy – author of the extremely popular Skulduggery Pleasant series – talk about his latest book at Waterstones in Leeds. He was erudite and witty, but when it came to reading an excerpt he told us all that he had a stammer. He said that he’d only recently begun to give readings but that he’d finally decided that the stammer wasn’t important. The writing was the important thing.
So he read aloud and he did stammer, but no-one pointed and laughed or threw books at his head in disgust. Watching someone else publicly stammer and seeing that this was okay with him and with his audience meant a lot to me.
It’s made me feel a little braver, and I’m hoping that when I read at an event tomorrow, I won’t mind so much if I stammer. Maybe I can just be pleased about how far I’ve come, and about the fact that I can at least speak for myself.