Owning Your Own Story

What happens when we own everything we are?

By ‘owning’, I mean speaking up about the pieces of ourselves that make us unique, without any expectation of praise or pity.

There is no harm in speaking about the pieces of ourselves that we are proud of, and yet doing so does little more than inflate our own egos. The more powerful part of ‘owning’ our story, is speaking about the those pieces that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed. Bringing our greatest weaknesses out of the closet and into the spotlight.

If we are lucky, there is a certain catharsis in doing so, the sense of a burden being lifted. But, perhaps more importantly, there is the potential to form a connection with our listener, or our reader. To show them how fallibly human we are, to crack ourselves open for a moment and make all of us feel a little less alone.

Owning your own storyIt is an idea that I have been thinking about for years, and yet it was thrown into sharp relief this past week, through the lens of anxiety.

First there was Scott Stossel’s article in the Atlantic’s January magazine entitled, “Surviving Anxiety.” A harrowing, hilarious and deeply thoughtful piece about the life he has spent living in the shadow of near-overwhelming fear. Stossel explores his own complicated relationship with therapy and medication, and he invites us to witness some of the most painfully mortifying moments of his life. As Stossel writes, “My anxiety can be intolerable. But it is also, maybe a gift…as often as anxiety has held me back…it has also unquestionably spurred me forward.”

And then, on January 6th, we saw a visceral example of the anxiety that Stossel had described, with film director Michael Bay’s panicked exit from a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The CES audience, followed by over a million Youtube viewers, watched as Michael froze and then almost ran off the stage saying, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Twitter duly trended, and not always in the nicest way. One commenter wrote, “I’ve often wanted to walk out of a Michael Bay [movie]…Can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity.” A few, more charitable souls expressed sympathy at that too familiar sensation of panicked stagefright.

Later that day Bay wrote on his blog:

“Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing. But I’m doing a special curved screen experience with Samsung and Transformers 4 footage that will be traveling around the world.”

I wonder if the public’s reaction to Bay would have been different if he had written more genuinely about his fear, and rather less about advertising a product? It is hard to know but it is clear that the reaction to Stossel’s article was overwhelming empathetic, with the Atlantic inviting readers to submit their own stories of anxiety and running a longform piece detailing many of their stories.

Much like the Atlantic, I am excited to launch a place on my site for people to share their stories about difference, stuttering, vulnerability and identity. I invite you all to share your stories here.

By far the best part of publishing Out With It has been the hundreds of messages I have received from people telling me how my story made them feel less alone. And yet I believe that is just the beginning of the conversation. I believe that together we can create a compendium of what it means to live with ourselves, we can reach out and connect with one another.

As Stossel writes so profoundly in his conclusion, “in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism or redemption.”

I invite you all to start owning your stories today at http://www.outwithitbook.com/communityvoices

The Gift of Listening

When was the last time you truly listened to someone?

I’m not talking about the listening that you do as you jot down your shopping list, or the listening that you do while you prepare what you are going to say in response. Rather I’m speaking about the experience of listening to someone without any distractions or any impatience. Listening with the express purpose of bearing witness to their story.

Can you remember how you felt the last time you really listened? Can you remember how you felt the last time someone really listened to you?

There is something about being heard that fulfills a heart-seated human need for connection. And it seems to go both ways: the experience of telling someone vivid stories about our life changes us, and it changes the perspective of the person listening.

When I set off to do all my interviews for Out With It, I did a huge amount of research into the oral history tradition. In particular, I became borderline obsessed with the work of Studs Terkel, and with the man himself. In all his books, and his interviews, I got the sense that he loved people, that he listened to them with genuine interest and fascination. Somehow his very presence allowed people to open a floodgate within themselves, and it allowed him to write books that became portraits of the human condition.

Studs Terkel listening
Studs Terkel witnessed stories that too often remained unspoken, or overlooked. He spoke to people who I imagine saw their lives as too mundane or unmemorable to be of interest to the outside world, and he unearthed a vivid, captivating wealth of stories within each of them.

I did my best to emulate Studs in every interview I ever conducted. I thought that I was prepared for the experience of listening deeply, but there was one piece that all my research never touched on. I never imagined how cathartic the experience would be for me, how listening to the rich details of someone’s life could change my own life so profoundly.

And so Out With It became an amalgamation of all of us. It became a testament to their stories, and a telling of my own transformation.

I am proud of the book I have created but there is something final in the completion of the book that makes me nostalgic for that year of interviews. For all the hours spent listening, and all the changes I watched in others (and felt in myself) as they told me their stories.

We all lead extraordinary ordinary human lives, we all have stories that are waiting to be told.

Seeing as we are in the season of gift-giving, can you think of someone in your life who you can give the gift of listening to?

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.

Owning the Voice You Have

I have some very exciting news: this blog has been picked up by Psychology Today so this post can be read here or on my new Out With It page over on their site!

public speakingEarlier this month I spent four days at the World Congress for People Who Stutter. I couldn’t imagine a more thoughtfully run or inclusive conference. The days were a mass of hours spent hanging on people’s words. It was a week when time felt endless and a place where blocks and repetitions were not only accepted, they were normalised.

The conference opened with a keynote from a fluent researcher. The next keynote came from an esteemed author who stuttered once or twice as he candidly explored a condition close to his heart, a carefully crafted speech about the beauty and difficulty of stuttering.
The next couple days followed the same pattern. Multiple workshops and two powerful keynotes a day given by great, honest speakers who spoke passionately about stuttering. All of the keynotes stuttered a little but never enough to break the flow of their speech. Never enough to tie up their dexterous tongues.

As I listened to their speeches I felt my knees start to shake and my mind drift down paths I didn’t want it to take. How could I compete?

I knew that I couldn’t mimic their speech. And yet, despite the fact that I was at a stuttering conference and talking to an audience of stutterers from across the world, a part of me wanted to be as fluent as the other speakers. A long-forged part of my brain told me that I should do my best to wipe out as many stutters as I could.

When I finally stood at the podium to give my keynote, I had spent hours writing and practicing my speech. As I put on my glasses and took in the audience I felt enormously proud to be looking out into the eyes of many of the kindest people I had ever met.

Then I began to speak. It is no exaggeration to say that I stuttered on nearly every word. On the cyclical scale of my speech, my stutter was at its most profound. I pushed through syllables that spanned over long seconds. I felt the pages of my script go limp in my iron grip. I laughed when I got trapped on a ‘me’ that seemed to echo around the large conference hall endlessly.

And yet all eyes in the audience stayed fixed on me as I recounted the journey I had taken to come to terms with my voice. Faces broke into smiles at whatever jokes I told. Fierce applause broke around the room as the speech reached its breathless end.

At the end I felt euphoric and exposed. It is one thing to write a book about stuttering, quite another to stand up and go through the physicality of telling that story.

Stuttering is not an easy thing to do. It takes away the control that we want to have over our language and our appearance. And yet, in the wake of that speech, I realised it is also an incredibly powerful thing. It has its own dynamism that we do not need to bleach out. It can connect us to people, rather than alienate them.

There are times when I have found myself listening more intently to stutterers than fluent speakers, waiting eagerly for their words and deeply appreciating the window that their speech cracks into their humanity.

Unfortnuately we rarely see stuttering public speakers. I hope that will change.

It is well and good having role models who seemed to have curbed their stutter and eased into a more fluent way of speaking, celebrities and politicians who readily attach their names to stuttering but rarely, if ever, stumble on their words. But we need to really hear stuttering if we are going to change the conversation. We need to watch outspoken, unapologetic stutterers talking eloquently if we are ever going to rewrite the ‘fix’ narrative of our lives.

All of us can own whatever speaking skills we have, however paradoxical they may be. We do not need to fit into an aggressive, motivational speaker mold – rather we can speak up with whatever voice we have. We can be proud of the unique qualities of our soft-spoken words, our quirky sense of humor or our stutters.

We can believe that our voice, and our story, is worth hearing.

Who is the most memorable and unique speaker you’ve ever seen?

Talking

I spend most of my days thinking and writing about talking. Today more than most perhaps. Today is the last day of National Stuttering Awareness Week.

stuttering awareness week

On the subway, I watch a father tell quiet stories to his daughter, her fingers twisting around his, her legs kicking her brother next to her as he leans towards them to catch every word.

As I wait for a friend to arrive for coffee I watch two women snorting with laughter, their arms gesticulating, their knees leaning in to one another, their glasses raised and lowered as they listen for the start of some new joke in a language I can’t decipher.

I see a couple sitting next to each other, reading the paper. Swapping sections, pointing at a story, passing a cup of coffee, all without a word.

In my own conversations, I feel myself relax into a laughter-filled Skype call with an old friend. I feel the way our cadence begins to morph and mirror each other, the way we slide into old jokes that take me back to house-parties and lazy dinners.

I feel the pinpricks of nerves in my fingertips as I sit on a high stool and look into the kind, open-eyes of an interviewer, the heat of the lights and the dark presence of camera lens crowding us. I feel sweat break out in miniature beads on my forehead and feel my voice break into the silence between us. In my head, I hear my friend Michelle encouraging me to make believe that the cameras aren’t there, that I’m just having a chat with this lovely woman, as you do, on a high chair, in a bookstore, with everyone watching.

I look down at my champagne flute and take my last sip as I look out at an audience I can barely see. I tell myself, for the hundredth time that I should wear glasses for my book signings, so I can see the people beyond the first row. I shift my weight and feel my hands begin their familiar propulsion as I tell everyone the end of my story. I look at Jeremy, at the grin on his face, as I tell the eager mass of an audience some of our love story. I lean into the warmth of their generous laughter, I feel it release something in me. I carry on speaking, and stuttering, and gratefully answering their questions. I lean against the bar and try to burn the moment on to my memory.

At home I write about stuttering, about the visceral experience of talking. I enjoy the quiet, the calming sound of the controlled voice in my head, the ability to escape into the realm of my own mind for a while. Then I feel the silence of the room weigh on me and pick up the phone, I walk outside and talk about the weather with a neighbour. I get home and I read this story. I laugh at all the familiar fears and all the familiar reactions. I feel proud to be connected to this man, if only tenuously through our speech.

We speak to others to tell them that we love them, to make ourselves heard, to learn from each other or to meet another’s mind. Each of us has a distinct voice, a unique way of reaching out and connecting with the world. Today is as good a time as any to remember how beautiful that is.

Vulnerability and Public Speaking

I’m not sure who would constitute my most intimidating audience, but speaking to a roomful of over 100 Brooklyn hipsters ranks pretty highly.

Public Speaking - PPN

Image courtesy: Andy Gillette and PPN

It is hard to be as fascinating as the guy who speaks for 15 minutes about Peruvian Ayahuasca and ends his sincere talk with an impromptu song inspired by the plant he spent a month talking to. Or the scantily-clad Meta-Physical Jesus, or the man who recounts a story about a possessed Raggedy Anne doll.

It is hard to stand up without any persona, or any shield.

By the time I walked up to take the stage at Bushwick’s monthly speaking series, Presentation Party Night, beer cans were spilling out of the rubbish bins, the room was debating the meaning of virtuous womanhood and I was fully aware of the involuntary shaking that had taken over my left leg.

I was nervous in a way that I haven’t been for a while. Perhaps it was because I was speaking to people who had no idea about stuttering, perhaps it was because I’d left my glasses at home and I could barely see the audience, perhaps I was worried about being vulnerable in front of a bunch of strangers.

Either way I held up the mic to my lips and began to speak into the wide expanse of the room.

Public Speaking at PPNI talked about perfection, about my childhood, about the science of stuttering and the humanity of it. I talked about setting off on a adventure to find a cure and instead falling in love and embracing my ‘weakness’ as my greatest strength.

The hum of the heating-system ebbed and flowed, one guy’s phone rang loudly and the crowd laughed once or twice but largely the place was silent. My voice rumbled and broke into the mic. I slipped into repetitions and fell out of them, I smiled and paused and my leg continued to shake to the beat of its own manic rhythm.

By the end I was spent, I’d given all I could to the speech. It hadn’t been easy but it hadn’t been terrible. It had been honest.

And afterwards, after the cheers and the questions, I have never had so many people come up to me. Each person related my story back to themselves, back to their struggles and their triumphs. They told me about their lives and they asked me more about stuttering. My gratitude to them, to all their joy and compassion, is boundless.

If anyone reading this in NY has a subject that they feel able to speak about for 10 minutes, I can’t recommend PPN enough. Speaking up, making people laugh or cry, encouraging them see the world a little differently – what would you rather be doing on a Sunday night?

Fiercely holding on to joy

Saturday was a strange day. The morning and the evening were wonderful, giggling and telling stories with friends in the city, but the afternoon was quiet and teary. Neither Jeremy or I could get off the sofa. We held hands but didn’t talk much. We both felt useless, drowning quietly in horrific, imagined images.

Newtown has been covered from every perspective, gun regulation and mental disorders have been explored from every angle by every wing of the press. I won’t re-hash their arguments here. Suffice to say the situation has to change, it is not enough to simply grieve, the steady stream of gun violence has to stop. But, in the meantime, it is worth hugging the people we love a little more fiercely, remembering what others have lost and focusing on the joy in our lives.

There’s something about the holidays that, despite the stress of gift-shopping and food prepping and travelling, is inherently joyful: friends hauling a hulking fir tree down the street; Christmas carolers drowning out the crazies on the subway; mince pies baking in the oven; frosty fingers thawing on mugs of hot mulled wine; families telling stories over the crackle of a fire.

This year, despite all the sadness, I have so much to be thankful for: an amazing family, friends I love and a city that really feels like home. This Christmas we are celebrating even more than normal because…

Jeremy proposed!

He asked me while we were away on holiday up in Vermont. After a day spent walking through the evergreens and eating one of the most amazing meals of our life (at this restaurant) Jeremy got down on one knee and asked if I would marry him. I hadn’t realized how over-whelmed I would feel but I managed to get out a yes before he had even slipped the ring on to my finger (between quite a few tears).

joy

So, on Saturday, I held the hand of the man I love and leaned towards all the joy around us and away from all the fear and blame.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season!

The Good Life Project

Have you heard of Jonathan Fields?

Jonathan Fields & the good life projectIf not, let me give you the two second introduction – a former big firm lawyer, he is now a phenomenally successful author, entrepreneur and speaker. He’s one of the cool, popular kids in the startup world. The kind of guy you want to learn from. I had recently emailed him about getting together for coffee but our schedules had been too busy and the meet up had been put on hold indefinitely.

My weekend had slid past in a lazy summer haze of boating and beaching and seafood gluttony, when I had an email from Jonathan on Monday evening.

new york sailing

new york summer beaches

Would I like to be interviewed for his new venture, The Good Life Project. No big deal, he was just inviting 10 people he knew in the city to take part in a relaxed (his words not mine) Charlie Rose style interview where we would talk about what it means to lead a good life. The videos would be broadcast online and released to his 37, 000 fans (if we go by twitter). Oh and by the way, the interview was on Wednesday. Was I in?

Of course I was in. I was flattered, excited and ever-so-slightly terrified. Public speaking is one thing. I’m used to it. I know what I’ll say and I know I’ll have the floor. An interview is something entirely different.

But I had to do it. Because this was a chance to put my mouth where my pen had been and well and truly give in to the idea of being vulnerable.

The day rolled around. A steamy New York day, the filming was running late, 2pm had rolled into 2:30, half an hour was left on the memory card, four cameras were trained on my face and three lights were flicked on. A bead of sweat crested my ankle and fell into my sandal as Jonathan turned to ask the first question.

I would like to tell you that I was eloquent and funny and composed. I’m not sure if I was any of those things. I imagine I was rather more rattled and out of control. I know that I stuttered up a storm. The cameras cut out twice and we had to begin again, palms were raised in a 5 minute warning.

And yet I survived. I felt slightly sick afterwards but I said what I wanted, or close enough, and I got my first taster of what it might be like to start marketing this book that I’m bringing out into the world.

Not easy, not a walk in the park, but exciting and funny and awkward and well worth it. Because ultimately I think that living a good life means striving, living on the edge of uncertainty, laughing at ourselves and embracing those imperfect moments when we recklessly human.

When stuttering comes in handy

Have you ever been pulled over by one of these?

stuttering police officer

Imagine pulling up to the lock your bike outside a bar, slipping your helmet-hair free, and looking down to see a motorized tricycle cruising up next to you.

‘ID please’

Blank look.

‘Driver’s license please’

For my bike?

‘This is an English license’

Indeed, it is.

‘Do you know the American rules of the road?’

All of them? ‘Drive on the right, stop at red lights…’

‘Do you know that bikes are meant to ride on the road, not the sidewalk?’

In the resulting silence, he strenuously copies down information from my license to a ticket pad. In saner moments, I may have agreed that yes, bikes should do a better job of sticking to the rules. Yet, when it dawns on me that he is going to charge me for the 5 feet of pavement that I rode along to lock up my bike on a signpost, I’m not sure if I should laugh, scream or roll my eyes.

He gets bored of waiting for an answer, ‘I have a mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mmmmmmotorbike and I can’t just pull up and d d d d d drive on the sidewalk whenever I please can I?’

He stutters. It shocks me for a moment. It pushes away the anger, “No, no you can’t. I won’t d d d d d do it again.’

I don’t stutter on purpose, I don’t do it to get his sympathy. And yet, it changes something.

I think about mentioning the National Stuttering Association, or even my book, but the moment isn’t right. It might look like I’m pushing my luck.

He lets me off, with a warning, and the bar buys me a round on the house.

Facing the struggle

What do you do when you’re struggling?

I’m having a rough week. Well, actually a rough couple weeks.

‘Rough’ is probably the wrong word to use. I should probably find a better word, a less judgmental term, but rough feels accurate. I’m having one of those weeks when my breathing feels rough, when my language tumbles out roughly and when I feel as if I’m hacking at the air with my speech.

stuttering

I have no reason why, I’m just stuttering more right now. I am running up against this wall at the start of words and in the middle of words. I am stuttering on the phone, at dinner parties, on bike rides and while I sweat my way around long runs.

I feel a little more tired at the end of the day, a little more fragile. And yet I know what will happen. I know that this particular moment will pass, and that it will come back at some future time. I know that everything is cyclical, that it changes with the seasons.

I can’t say that stuttering up a storm is a breeze, but it has proven a couple things to me:

  1. Nobody else seems to care, particularly the people I love.
  2. In fact, the people I love seem to be around more, they seem to stand closer to me, they seem to call me up more often.

There are so many myths that we tell ourselves, so much negativity that can be piled on top of our fraught speech. But there is one clear truth – our stutter, our weakness, does not diminish us. Quite the opposite. Vulnerability draws people to us. We are attracted to people who don’t have a façade up, people who are raw and human.

So whatever struggle you are facing it is better to keep moving forward, keep making yourself heard, because hiding from the rest of the world is far worse than the struggle to spit out your words.