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.

Stuttering and the resilient sense of self

“Nobody worth your attention gives a damn if you stutter,” writes Cheryl Strayed, replying in her Rumpus Dear Sugar column to a woman who anonymously wrote to her as ‘Ashamed and Afraid’.

Resilience stutterWith her characteristic mix of tenderness and insight, Cheryl tells A & A, “It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing out the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter and taking in the fact that you have the power to redirect the blowtorch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.”

It is a beautiful piece, one that glues your eyes to the page and gives you whiplash from nodding your head so vigorously in agreement.

It is the type of writing that unifies us. Stuttering or not we all need to work on becoming the people we’re here to be. We all need to foster our own resilience, that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and and come back stronger than ever.

Strayed has that quality in spades and in my interviews for Out With It I saw resilience in the most successful stutterers I met. Stuttering might have battered their self-esteem for some part of their childhood, but they were not cowed by it. They described it as ‘toughening them up’, as ‘increasing their empathy’, as ‘instilling a fighting instinct.’ They were formed, rather than undone, by their struggle.

They were not unique, or superhuman, in their ability. We are all capable of astonishing resistance, coping, recovery and success. We just need to work out how we can withstand, rebound and transform the inevitable obstacles of our life into triumphs.

In The Resilience Factor, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte explain seven elements that anyone can cultivate to boost their own resilience:

1) Emotional regulation. The ability to respond appropriately in any given situation and control our emotions and behaviours so they are productive rather than knee-jerk reactions.

2) Impulse control. The necessity to notice our thoughts and sit with them for a moment, quietly, before we react.

3) Empathy. The capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, so we can keep ourselves from misreading situations.

4) Optimism. Not irrational optimism, rather the ability to believe that things can change for the better, to hope for the future, without denying the reality of our lives. The need to aspire and work towards positive outcomes without assuming that they are a forgone conclusions.

5) Causal analysis. The ability to accurately identify the causes of problems and think flexibility. The so-called father of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, focuses on explanatory styles as the the habitual way we explain the good and the bad things that happen to us. The need to look for specific, limited, short-term explanations for bad events rather than seeing them as permanent, personal and pervasive.

6) Self-efficacy. The sense that we are effective in the world, the belief that we can succeed at solving our problems.

7) Reaching out. The intention to create nurturing relationships and strong social support. We often learn by mimicry and a resilient, trusting and supportive community incubates reserves of optimism and resilience.

All of us will face failure at some point in our lives. Those who have been shielded from difficulty, who have spent their life coddled and protected, are not always the most successful.

Those who grow up battling against some form of adversity need more grit, more social intelligence and more self-control to create the kind of giant, full lives they aspire to. If they can develop the strength to derive knowledge and meaning from their setbacks, they are at a significant character advantage. As the researcher Ann Masten puts it, “resilient children have the benefit of ordinary magic.”

Do you have that ordinary magic? How often are you able to transform the setbacks of life into everyday triumphs?

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?

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.

Judging a book by its cover

The book has a title. It is bold, intriguing and memorable. Now we just have to find a cover to match.

Cover designs are not at all easy to come up with. It seems like the best ones draw you in, they persuade you to start the journey and they convey the story’s essence. The most poignant and beautiful covers are pieces of art, they remind us why we still cling to ‘real’ books.

Our designer has been working on images for weeks now. Finally, I think we have a winner. It is something I’m proud to hold in my hand, a image that mirrors the story, a cover that I think I’d be drawn to on the book shelf. I’ll share it with you as soon as I get the final thumbs up from my editor but, in the meantime, here is a very subjective collection of some of my favourite covers to date. I love simple designs, strong colours, surprise, quirkiness and a design that tells me what to expect, what sort of a story I’m sitting down to read:

The Great Gatsby book covercatcher in the rye book covera clockwork orange book coverjaws book coverloneliness book coverThe Brief History Of The Dead coverzoo city cover

when_you_are_engulfed_in_flames cover

What about you? Do you have any favorite book covers?

The agony and the ecstasy of choosing a book title

I think I may have sprouted a few grey hairs.

My editor had to hand in my final book title today. Our past two working titles had been thrown out, and a sudden deadline gave us only three days to come up with a great title.

You would think that it would be fun coming up with a book title. Or maybe you have more sense than me, and realize that distilling a book’s essence into a few carefully chosen words is not exactly a walk in the park.

I pictured myself being struck by inspiration whilst relaxing over a picnic in Prospect Park. Instead, my brain melted in New York’s tropical heat-wave and I drove myself slightly insane trying to dredge up an idea.

On Friday I made lists of titles as the AC buzzed next to my ear. Too vague, too passive, too literal. I threw them in the bin and started again.

I formed towers of non-fiction books around my desk for inspiration. Look Me in the Eye, The Glass Castle, How To Be A Woman, Me Talk Pretty One Day…

book titlesI liked strange titles, titles that surprised me in some way, titles that made me laugh. I left the house, attempted to go for a swim (every pool in Brooklyn required a 3 block sweaty wait and the promise of Lycra-clad hoards) and came home hotter and more disgruntled.

I looked at my tower of books again.

One word titles started to stand out. Some of them were too vague or too grand. But others were bold and memorable and perfectly concise.

LIT, MIDDLESEX, WILD, QUIET…

They stuck in my mind and followed me around all weekend. I thought about them as I danced to a funk concert, as I drove north of the city and as I watched Jeremy coaching little league.

My editor and I exchanged title ideas whenever we thought of something that we didn’t hate. Emails were shot back and forth and, finally, this morning, hours before the deadline, we decided on a title. At least, we think we did. It still needs to go through the hurdle of our publisher’s approval.

While I wait, I’m keen to hear what you think….

What makes a great book title? Do you love or hate one-word titles?

How do you get a book published?

There is no easy process from start to finish. Learning how to write well, practicing every day and then coming up with a great story is an amazing start but the rest of the journey gets a bit more murky and uncertain from there. The statistics aren’t cheery. Approximately 2% of books that are written every year get commercially published. The true figure may be even lower. Self-publishing is now a much more viable alternative but many people still want to go down the traditional path. And the traditional path generally means a shocking amount of rejection and false starts.

book writing

Have I scared you off? Hopefully not. 2% of people are published and there are definitely ways to make sure that you have the best chance possible. For the purposes of this piece I’m going to be speaking about non-fiction (from what I have heard about fiction it involves writing a brilliant novel and then going out and convincing an agent and editor that it would be worth their while to publish it).

Non-fiction requires more planning and strategy up front. It requires you to think like a marketer, to try and answer all the questions that some future editor might ask.

Sound like fun? Perhaps not, but writing is a job, and, just like anything else, there will always be parts that aren’t as wonderful as others. You need to create a professional looking proposal that tells agents and editors that you are serious, that you will help them to sell your book, that you are not sitting around waiting for them to do all the hard work. There are lots of things you should do and no ‘right’ way or going about this but your proposal should probably include:

  1. Cover Page
  2. Table of contents
  3. About the book (1 page summary)
  4. About the author
  5. About the market
  6. About the competition
  7. Production details
  8. About promotion
  9. Table of contents (title for each chapter of your book)
  10. Short summaries for each chapter
  11. 2 or 3 sample chapters

Your finished book may end up nothing like your proposal but it is a good start, a good path to start going down. Once you have a proposal you can create a succinct, polished query letter to send out to agents. Take your time over this – in many ways the query letter is the most important few paragraphs you have written so far. It has to grab their attention and get them hooked enough to ask for your entire proposal.

Give yourself an outrageous goal. For instance, I told myself that I wouldn’t stop sending my query out until 100 agents said no to me. Hopefully you won’t get anywhere close to that number but it is good to prepare yourself, to grow a carapace of sorts. Lots of agents will not be interested. Don’t let that stop you. Keep sending out your query letter, keep networking, keep telling everyone about your book. Be shameless at trying to get an agent because, as difficult as it is to land an agent, your chances are far better than going directly to the editor and having your work end up on the dreaded slush pile….the graveyard of unsolicited manuscripts.

Once you have a good agent you have someone who can take your manuscript to the ‘right’ publishing house and steer you through the pitfalls of the whole process. At the end of it all, once you have signed a contract with your agent and a publishing house, you can breath easy for a few hours. But only a few hours, because now you have to write the book that you sold to them so well. The fun is just beginning…

Book deal: An ode to Lady Luck

6 months ago I was despairing. I should have been celebrating. Jeremy and I had just launched www.ExchangeMyPhone.com, we were still high on paint fumes (having rolled 7 gallons of eggshell white all over our Brooklyn flat) and were paying our bills.

We had moved to New York with no jobs and no savings and we had survived our first winter. I was proud of us.

And yet my latest rejection from a literary agent was staining my desk. Memoirs were no longer vogue, she wrote. Stuttering wasn’t a subject that had mass appeal. Good luck elsewhere.

I added the last rejection letter to my pile. I knew what she was really saying. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t be an author. I’d never get a book deal. My dreams were foolish.

writing: good luckFortunately when Lady Luck thinks she has trampled on your soul enough times she decides to give you a break. Yesterday I danced around my office, drank a celebratory Manhattan and ate some amazing homemade pasta with friends. I had just received my signed contract from Simon and Schuster.

It took me three years to get my book deal. I’m not sure whether that is a long time or a short time. It felt long. It felt hopeless towards the end. When I left England in October 2008 to research my book I had no idea what a challenge I was setting myself up for.

Writing was no joy ride. I faced far too much rejection, mockingly blank pages, a year of horrendous work and a very sad looking bank account.

Is it worth it? Definitely. I met Jeremy, I met hundreds of people from all over the country, I travelled, I lived in Chicago, I moved to New York and finally, at the end of it all, I ended up with an amazing editor, a highly respected publisher and a lovely agent.

I still have a long way to go. I have to finish the writing, I have to prove myself to everyone who has put their trust in me, and I have to get the piecemeal manuscript on my laptop into a real life book. But, with this book deal, I’m one step further along than I was.

I have no advice, sadly. It seems like there is no one clear path. It is not like becoming a lawyer, or an accountant, or a banker. There’s no clear ladder to scramble up with a pot of gold at the end. You do it because you have to, because nothing else will do, because you have some latent faith that, at some point, maybe, you will see your dreams come true.

Out With It: My chameleon book

Out With It started off as a dream, a vague idea of finding myself in the voices of others. To face myself, to spend a year immersed in the subject I had spent a lifetime running away from.

As I started researching I got drawn into 100 lives across America. I spent a year as ‘the interviewer’. I listened to people’s lives, sat in their living rooms, drank their coffee and met their families. I became enchanted by each of them. What made them tick, where did they take their strength from, what worked for them, how did the rest of the world react to them?

I replayed their voices back as I transcribed their words, listened for the intonation in their voices. With my headphones on, blocking out the rest of the world, I was captivated by the variety of their stutterers, the specific cadence of each voice, their unique rhythm.

When I started writing Out With It I wanted to include all of the people I had met. Painfully I narrowed them down to a handful. My picks were neither the best nor the worst. They were just the ones I chose. The book that I wrote was a dedication to all 100 of them.

But it didn’t quite work. The characters didn’t stand out enough. The format of walking into someone’s home, or meeting in a coffee shop or even meeting on the street, started to sound repetitive. I was still hiding behind the stance of ‘the reporter’.

I had spent a year finding out about all these individuals. But, as different as we were, meeting each of them was like looking in a antique mirror. There were pieces where the reflection was dulled, where we didn’t reflect each other so clearly. But we had all worn the same shoes and any differences broadened my understanding, opening my eyes to pieces I hadn’t seen or known before.

What began as a book of oral histories morphed into a memoir. The writing was much more riddled with self-doubt and yet it was honest and vulnerable and I hopefed it would be compelling.

If I’m honest, I probably came to America searching for a cure. Not surprisingly that didn’t go so well but the book is about finding so much more than that. It is about the struggle we all make to accept ourselves as perfectly imperfect.

Struggle to write Out With It

Image courtesy of Don Moyer