United by Difference

Earlier this month I explored the complexities of parenting through Andrew Solomon’s passionate and affecting book, Far From The Tree. Today I’m looking at all the ways that we can foster identity from a peer group if we inherit or acquire a trait that is foreign to our parents.

stuttering community

Growing up in England I never lacked for love or understanding, but I imagined myself as a slim minority. I knew precious few stutterers. Those I did know I kept my distance from. It was only when I moved to America to start researching Out With It, that I saw I was in, what Solomons calls, “a vast company.” Not only with the millions of other stutterers across the world, but with the multitudes of people who had some so-called flaw or strangeness that they were coming to terms with. As Solomon so gracefully puts it, I realised that “difference unites us…(that) the exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”

In Far From the Tree Solomon describes the sense of pride he witnesses amid the attendees of a dwarf conference and he reflects upon about the validation many deaf children feel when they stumble upon Deaf identity in their adolescence. He talks about the complex unfurling of his own identity as a gay man amid “Gay Pride’s Technicolour fiesta”. It is a familiar sense of discovery. I remember walking into my first stuttering conference, the warm cacophony of stutters and the fiercely pride-laden conversations.

Becoming a part of the stuttering community has not mitigated all the difficulties of my speech. Neither do I spend my life inside the cosy confines of that community. There may be people who see my stutter as ugliness, but the stuttering community safeguards against any tendency I have to internalise those perceptions. It teaches me to be kinder to myself and it nourishes my hard won contentment. As Solomon writes about the Deaf community, “General culture feels that deaf children are primarily children who lack something: they lack hearing. The Deaf culture feels they have something: they have membership in a beautiful culture.”

Solomon does not trivialise disability of difficulty, he does not politely shy away from all the humiliations and hurts. He gives us both the wrenching pain of a difficult life alongside the story of Temple Grandin and her ability to make “what the world calls illness (her autism) the cornerstone of her brilliance.”

There is a certain solace amongst the pages of his book, a sense that we constitute a boundless, coherent clan of misfits. We are all flawed and strange, we all have our darkness. As Grandin proves “the trick is making something exalted of it.”

It took years for me to give up my once-endless search for normality. To realise that all I was striving for was a banal mediocrity. It took finding a community to understand that I couldn’t be someone else, but I could be a better version of myself. 

Interested to learn more? See Part 1 of my exploration of Far From the Tree in Parenting a Stranger.

Parenting a Stranger

“Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” Andrew Solomon states on the first page of his compassionate, generous and immensely wise book Far From The Tree.

far from the treeSo begins a book that explores the families of exceptional children with so-called “horizontal identities”. As Solomon puts it, “there is no such thing as reproduction, only acts of production”. Never is this more obvious than with children whose identities are profoundly different from their parents, those children affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences. “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” There is no mention of stuttering, and yet so much of the book feels germane to my experience.

A lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell, an insightful journalist and an award-winning author, Solomon spent over 10 years interviewing more than 300 families to create this weighty tome. We can imagine that he spoke to these people with the curious, non-judgemental and frank tone that he uses to guide us as his readers. We can imagine that his profound intelligence and evident compassion lead to the emotionally resonate, and often shocking, stories that he recounts over the book’s 700 pages (1000 if you count the notes, bibliography etc). We know that he is a man not outside of the people he interviews, but very much a part of them.

The book is book-ended by intimate accounts of his own upbringing (as a gay man born to straight parents) and his awed transformation into a father. It is a book that welcomes conversation and today’s post will explore the subject of parenting through Solomon’s lens (later this month I’ll similarly explore the notions of community and identity).

Children with marked difference from the rest of their family demand knowledge, competence and action that typical parents are often, initially, unqualified to supply. So how do you nurture a child who is alien to you and unlike anything you have ever experienced? As Solomon puts it, “parenting is no sport for perfectionists”, and yet “the parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.” We learn about a mother who loves the child she conceived in rape but can not bare to be touched by her; the Klebolds who love their son and struggle to comprehend the mass tragedy he inflicted in Columbine; and the parents who feel unable to fully understand the complexities of sign and their son’s Deaf identity.

In my own research I heard stories of both awful and extraordinary parents and could imagine the truth behind Solomon’s argument that “having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies.” When I think about my own parents I imagine all the ways they they must have come to terms with a child whose condition was so strange and unexplored for them.

I can imagine how elusive and out of reach the answers must have seemed; whether they should push me into speech therapy and how far they should hold firm against my ferocious insistence against it. And yet there was never any doubt that they accepted me without reservation, that they loved me with all my imperfections intact and on display. I always felt as if my stuttering was somehow secondary to them. That I was first and foremost their child, and one they were zealously attached to. I never felt apart from them, rather my identity began with the fact that I was a “fully recognised citizen of the tiny nation that is family.”

And yet I continue to ask myself what happens moving forward? What happens to the child that I may one day conceive?

In Out With It I explore my own feelings toward parenthood, how my interview with Michael Palin made me wonder if having a stuttering mother would make my putative fluent children vulnerable to ridicule or shame. In hearing stories of teenage years spent fending off bullies, I worried about foisting a version of those experiences on to any stuttering children I may have. I couldn’t decide if it would be better if I had a child who stuttered or one that was fluent.

As if I had that choice.

If nothing else, Far From The Tree teaches us how little control we have over the children that we create. And how strong our capacity to love remains.

Luckily the world is changing. Stuttering is no longer some unspoken strangeness. There are stuttering heroes in movies and protagonists in books. The conversation is evolving and my fears are, gradually, becoming less necessary and less relevant. As a society we are changing our perceptions of normality and learning that we all live on a spectrum of difference. As people we are realising that “we should not be reduced to our disabilities” and “we should not make assumptions about an unborn child’s ability to cope with the world.”

We can nurture our children to become most fully themselves. And we can be ready to meet them, to embrace them, whoever they may be.

How David and Goliath redefines the underdog

“Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through tough times & you discover they aren’t so tough after all”, writes Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book David and Goliath.

David and goliath
Today is International Stuttering Awareness Day, a day when those words, and Gladwell’s new book, are well worth exploring.

David and Goliath argues that for the strong, “the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often sources of great weakness,” whereas for the weak, “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

It is an attractive idea (one I believe in wholeheartedly) and the most intriguing piece of the book focuses on the theory of “desirable difficulty.” Gladwell argues that people have the potential to succeed not in spite, but because of their disorders. That they can learn something in their struggle that proves to be an enormous advantage.

As an example of desirable difficulty, Gladwell highlights a man called David Boies. Boies is dyslexic and he went from being a construction worker to “one of the most famous trial lawyers in the world.” Whether or not it is true, Boies attributes his success to the ways his dyslexia forced him to adapt. Because he found it hard to read, he became a phenomenal listener. Because of his need to simplify issues to their basic components, he presents a case that every juror can easily understand. For all of its difficulty, his limitation has fostered certain great strengths.

It is an idea that I have heard over and over in the stuttering community – the idea that stuttering has the potential to make us more empathetic, more humble, more resilient, more driven to succeed. I know that, in my own life, stuttering has forged an obsession with the rhythm and complexities of language that makes me the writer I am.

And yet, beyond those qualities, David and Goliath introduces another, somewhat unexpected, strength: the willingness to be disagreeable, to exhibit a lack of concern for social norms. We need to play by own rules in order to succeed.

It reminds me of the joke about a stutterer who applies for a job as a bible salesman. His would-be bosses are sceptical so they give him a challenge. They give him 20 bibles, more than their best salesmen sell in a day, and ask him to try and sell as many any possible in an hour. He agrees. With one condition. If he sells them all, they must give him the job. They shake hands and he sets off. 30 minutes later he returns empty-handed. Shocked, the bosses give him the job and ask him to tell them his secret. How did he do it? “It was no trouble at all”. He tells them. “Aaaaaaat every h h h h h h house I knocked on the dddddddddd d d d ddoooooor, introduced my my my my my my my my myself and told them that they c        could either buy a bible from m   me or I cccccccc c ccc c c cccccould stand there and rr r r r rrrrrrr r ead it to them.”

However silly the example, it takes a certain amount of courage to be the man in that joke, to own your limitation and work within its strengths. As a society we need people who take that idea one step further, people who have used whatever difficulty they have and turned it into a form of greatness.

We need those people who are courageous by necessity.

Stuttering and the Power of Powerless Communication

Often stuttering is seen as a hindrance, perhaps even a disability. When most people are asked to name successful stutterers they tend to mention men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch. They marvel at the confidence and prestige of those stutterers who have somehow overcome their condition, whose voices no longer betray their speech difficulties.

But if we look a little closer, the truth is more complex.

In my research for Out With It I saw that many people who stutter end up being quite successful, gaining respect in everything from the boardroom to the basketball court. There were certainly those who were dissatisfied and unfulfilled, but those who were successful were not always those who had conquered their stuttering. Those people who had both excelled, and continued to stutter, seemed to have certain traits in common. I will explore traits of resilience in my next post but today I’m looking at the idea of embracing powerless communication, how it specifically relates to stutterers and how everyone can harness its power to generate trust and respect.

I first came across the concept in Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Give and Take. Grant is the youngest tenured professor at The Wharton School and a prolific academic in the area of workplace dynamics. His seminal book gives remarkable insights into what actually works in communication.

In his chapter on the power of powerless communication, Grant argues that, when it comes to collaboration, we are more inclined to hire, promote and value people who communicate powerlessly. This includes: talking tentatively; asking people questions (giving them the joy of talking), specifically asking them for advice; and being open about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, not just our strengths.

The first two are relatively easy to understand and implement, I find the latter the most intriguing. It is worth exploring through the lens of stuttering.

When writing Out With It I discovered how often people are drawn to stutterers, how likeable they seem to be. At first I balked against the discovery, worrying that the attraction was perhaps born of pity. However, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised it was the opposite – they were drawn to the stutterer’s courage and lack of artifice. In a world full of noise and nonsense, stutterers were seen as somehow trustworthy and genuine. Because their speech had nothing to do with their competence, it did not demean them in their audiences’ eyes. Rather it raised them up.

The idea that something that we often perceive as a weakness can actually be an important asset was a personal breakthrough, but Grant proves that the idea is applicable to anyone wishing to improve their communication.

Everyone has a weakness, whether it be their weight, their height, their looks, their clumsiness etc. Often our weaknesses have nothing to do with our competence, but we try to hide them to appear in control or knowledgeable or attractive. In actuality, when we speak in a way that reveals our shortcomings and expresses vulnerability, people can relate to us as a human beings. They are attracted to us.

What do you think? Would you ever share your weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the work place?

Book Launch: Putting down the pen and picking up the mic

With my book launch mere weeks away (I’d love to see any and all of your lovely faces there) I’ve been finding myself at more literary events than normal around the city. I’ve ventured out of my pajamas to go to readings, book release parties and meetups.

All-in-all it has been both fascinating and terrifying. Mostly because it makes me fully aware of how brilliant other writers can be, how eloquent and funny and intelligently they can string together their thoughts in front of a room of eager faces.

Public speaking is one thing but spontaneously answering questions in a witty and thoughtful way, a way that reflects both your personality and your writing, is a talent I’m not entirely sure I can emulate.

A couple weeks ago I went to McNally Jackson bookstore for their Conversations on Practice interview with David Shields. I’ve been intrigued by the series for a while but I went specifically because of David. I interviewed him for my book years ago and have been deeply influenced by both his words and his mindset ever since.

It is hard to describe David’s writing accurately. In his words, “literal collage has become the form that releases my best intelligence”. Having heard him speak, it is clear why. David thinks in associations, even as he answers questions about his work he draws on quotes from authors, scenes from films and references to art exhibitions. His aim is to eliminate any façade and in his speaking, much like his writing, he has no qualms mentioning everything from his stutter to his cheat sheet. He casually brushes off the over-polished veneer that it is all too tempting to hide behind.

In a different vein, I attended Leigh Newman’s book launch for her just-released memoir Still Points North. Over an evening of champagne and Alaskan salmon (Newman’s book recalls her childhood growing up in the wilds of Alaska) Leigh read a section from the first half of her book and answered question after question from the packed audience.

Leigh Newman book launch

In both her writing and her speech, Leigh has a warmth, a playfulness and a self-deprecation that makes her impossible to dislike. With captivating ease she told stories that made the room belly-laugh and lean towards her before they furiously typed on their smartphones and tweeted her glorious quotes (everything from her encouragement of radical change to her description of memoir writing as ‘soul-slapping’).

Both writers are brilliant on the page and in person, I can’t rate them highly enough.

While I’m on my literary excursions – which writers do you love to hear speak?

Next Big Thing Blog Hop

My blog this week is looking a wee bit different from normal because I’m taking part in something called the Next Big Thing blog hop.

Essentially writers across the world are invited to answer questions about what they’re working on so readers can discover new authors. This week, I’m it.

Last week I was “tagged” by Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly.  In her words, her book is about “a quirky teenage journalist and a microbiologist running from his past who investigate a secret society in their remote New England town. “ Sound intriguing? Check out there rest of her answers on her Facebook page.

Here is my Next Big Thing:

Out With ItWhat is the working title of your book?

My editor, my agent, my fiancé and I all sprouted a couple grey hairs coming up with the title. It took us months but finally we came up with Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice.

Where did the idea come from?

When I left my job in London in September 2008 I wanted to immerse myself in stuttering, to meet other stutterers, researchers and therapists and finally face my biggest fear. Perhaps I even hoped that I would stumble on a cure. I decided that I would interview 100 people and then create a book of oral histories that would debunk all the misconceptions around stuttering. Gradually the book evolved into an investigative memoir. I held on to the voices of everyone I interviewed, but I made my life the structure that all our stories hung from.

What genre does your book fall under?

Creative non-fiction, memoir, education, perhaps even self-help.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

A vivid memoir of a young woman who fought for years to change who she was until she finally found her voice and learned to embrace her imperfection.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My book will be published by the Atria division of Simon and Schuster on April 16th 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I moved to America to start researching the book in October 2008. I started writing in late 2009 and handed in the first draft to my editor in January 2012. In short, a very long time!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is the first memoir about stuttering written by a woman but it is similar to a vast number of books that deal honestly, humorously and poignantly with subjects that our society does not always like to confront. If you liked WILD, LIT, Look Me in the Eye or QUIET, hopefully you’ll like Out With It.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to change the conversation, to unearth something that had remained taboo for far too long, to stop hiding and encourage others to do the same.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Although the book is about stuttering, it is really about all of us, about all of the ways we are scared and courageous and perfectly imperfect.

Be sure to check out Jennifer Miller and go to Leigh Stein’s blog at leighstein.tumblr.com to read their Blog Hop answers.

From Lost to Found: Book review

I imagine it is rare that a book brings a New York Times reviewer to tears. In my mind the reviewers from the Grey Lady are word-weary, poker-faced readers with stiff upper lips. And yet, the NYT reviewer Dwight Garner admitted to being ‘obliterated’ by Cheryl Strayed’s most recent book, WILD. In his words, ‘I was reduced, during her book’s final third, to puddle-eyed cretinism’.

In the first couple paragraphs of his review I was hooked.

I quickly found out that Garner was not the only person to be lavishing praise on the book. Strayed was receiving the sort of attention that would make a movie star blush – Oprah had resurrected her book club to tout WILD, Reese Witherspoon had signed it for a movie deal and book signings around the country were turning into mosh pits, with standing room only for her devoted fans.

Cheryl Strayed's book WILD

Having read the book, it is clear why. Strayed is someone we understand, someone we want to be, on our best days. Her book, WILD, tells the story of the months she hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, alone, following the death of her mother and the unraveling of her life at the age of 26.  She was inexperienced and under prepared for the adventure, her body throbbing and blistering in revolt against her gargantuan backpack. She was faced with rattlesnakes, bears, swarming frogs, intense heat, record snowfalls and intense loneliness, and yet she moved forward. As she puts it in the book, “the thing that was so profound to me that summer…was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the one thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial.”

Strayed is famous, and loved, for her once-anonymous Dear Sugar columns in the Rumpus. She has written endless pieces helping others by drawing on stories and metaphors from her own life. In WILD, she has pieced some of her stories together, fiercely and honestly she has remembered herself. With beautiful hard-won sentences, WILD teaches us what it means to persist and prevail, what it means to try and heal ourselves.