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.


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.

The best thing about England is the people

I just got back from two weeks in England and everyone in New York has been asking me what I got up to. Did I go see the amazing Hopper exhibition? No, but I heard it was fabulous. Did I eat at any of the restaurants I mentioned on my last post? No, but I did eat out a lot. Did I merrily peddle around the London canals on the Boris bikes? Sort of, for a brief time, before I realized that I was wearing a skirt and not entirely opaque tights. Did I catch the stage production of The King’s Speech? No, but from all accounts it was wonderful and I wish I did. Did I gorge on every food stall with free samples at Borough market? Yes, finally I did do one thing that I was planning on do.

Borough market England

Honestly, I didn’t do many of the things I had planned to do in London. I didn’t have time to play tourist in my own city because, well, I spent 2 weeks laughing.

That is not to say that I did nothing. I went to two fabulous hen parties and two amazing weddings, I went out to eat with old friends, went on long country walks and had a very decadent afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental. And yet, what I remember most was how much I laughed. I laughed so much that my cheeks hurt at the end of the day and my mascara ended up running in unattractive lines down my face. All that laughing had very little to do with where I was (London was rather rainy apart from two sunny days) but who I was with.


My friends have somewhat unfortunately ended up scattered across the globe. England has a smattering of amazing school friends in London, Sunderland, Bristol and Edinburgh but from that point onwards it all gets rather aggravatingly international. Oman, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Dubai, New York…you would think that we hated each other from the way we have all fled out across the globe. Luckily, we have email and Skype and all sorts of other fancy tech to keep us in touch. But there is nothing quite like being together. Nothing quite like watching someone bust out a hilarious dance move, or cry as they try to tell a joke, or laugh so hard they snort and then laugh some more. There are some things that you just can’t capture over the computer.

Luckily, I have enough happy memories to keep me going until the next time we get together and I’d rather have those memories than a checklist of sites seen any day.

New York City mantra

Jeremy has a cheery little ditty that started when we were facing the nightmare of apartment hunting in the city. He chants it when a taxi driver won’t take us to Brooklyn or when he spends too long at the Post Office. I hear him mumbling it as he manhandles our bikes into the basement, ‘This city will kill you’.

As I said, cheery.

He’s right, of course. All of the stories are true. New York is dirty and cramped and smelly and hectic and expensive. It is not somewhere you come for an easy, peaceful life. It can be a very difficult place to be, a challenging place to carve out a home.

Yet, in between trying to kill you, the city has moments when it is truly magical, when all the hardships seem trifling in comparison.

There’s a guy in Washington Square Park. He calls himself the Crazy Piano Guy. He drags his grand piano into the space between the park’s fountain and its grand archway. He plays amidst the tourists and the homeless and the buskers and the NYU students. If you stand long enough you’ll watch kids dance, lovers kiss, old men argue and young families take their holiday snaps. You can smell the street carts and hear cars honking in the distance. You can see the world unfold to the sound of his keys hitting the notes. It provokes a certain sense of wonderment, a feeling that you can come alive in this city.

New York piano man

New York Living: Pumpkins are making me patriotic

On Monday night I walked into the supermarket and saw a pizza combing the frozen foods, a dinosaur being carried through the bakery section and a slew of superheroes at war in the dairy aisle.

On my way home I walked past houses with giant spiders crawling through their windows, witches swooping over their doorways and impressively ghoulish pumpkins guarding their entrances.

Over the weekend I partied with a host of Sega characters, a giant white swan, Hunter S Thompson and Santa. It was messy. You can imagine.

New York does Halloween very well indeed. It makes me adore my adopted home just that little bit more.

And yet, as much as I love this place, there are still pieces of England that I long for…

I miss the way everyone apologizes for everything. “I’m sorry” or “pardon me” prefix everything from asking where the bathroom is to simply navigating a busy city street. In America I sound perpetually apologetic, in England I sound like everyone else.

I miss the fact that no one claps for the pilot when he lands the plane safely.

I miss the NHS.

I miss rolling hills and a pint at a country pub.

I miss the stiff upper lip. Fall down a flight of stairs in Britain and you are expected to do nothing more than crack an embarrassed smile and limp away, protesting that it is really nothing at all.

I miss Sunday roasts, blackberry crumble and hot cross buns.

I miss taxi drivers who know every address in the city and haven’t learnt to drive by playing Grand Theft Auto.

I miss chatting to friends over a cuppa rather than over Skype.

I realize that England has its problems, there are pieces of the country that I don’t miss at all, and I have no immediate plans to return to the homeland. But those thoughts are much too practical…I’d rather sit in my cozy New York flat picturing the UK as an idyllic land of digestive biscuits and sarcasm.

New York versus London

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

10 interview tips that I learnt the hard way

I had a big interview this week (hence why I have been quiet on the blog front) so I started reading up on the notes I made years earlier about the art of interviewing.

At the end of 2008, I spent a year interviewing 100 hundred people around America. It was one of the most humbling and formative years of my life. I started off clueless. It was a crash course in the craft of interviewing and I learnt on the job. I know for sure that I started off terribly and got better (my apologies to my first few victims who sat across from me as I quizzed them Gestapo style and flicked through my reams of questions).

My year of interviews ended late in 2009 when I decided it was time to wrap up the research and start writing my book. Today it has been almost 2 years since my last formal interview.

Naturally I was vaguely petrified. My subject also happened to be one of the most famous journalists of our time. Things weren’t looking promising. So I decided to look over my notes and try to take some of my own advice. These were some of the interview tips that I came up with:

  1. A list of heavily researched questions might be a good framework but the best interviews are conversations. Largely one-sided conversations. People have stories that they want to tell. It is the interviewers job to get out of the way and let them tell it. Listening, really listening, matters more than anything else in getting a gutsy interview. Watch their bodies and their faces and their eyes. Listen for the inflection in their voice. Pay attention to what they are telling you not what you want to hear.
  2. Care about the people you’re interviewing. Take time with them, don’t hurry the process along. If they can see that you are genuinely curious about their thoughts they may open up to you. I spent 3 hours with Bill Withers. A lot of the interview was just chatting, getting to know each other. We giggled a lot.
  3. Let pauses linger. Silence can be uncomfortable but try to relax. Let the time expand and let them say everything they want to say.
  4. Looking stupid to them is worse than looking stupid to your reader. Lots of scientists I spoke to had to describe things to me as if I was a schoolchild. I have no doubt that they questioned my intelligence but I came away with a fuller understanding of the story than if I had feigned knowledge I didn’t have.
  5. Use lots of open-ended and follow-up questions: “What do you mean by that?”, “What makes you say that?”, “What happened next?”, “Can you give me an example?”
  6. Ask one question at a time. It is all too tempting to structure a multi-part question but don’t get complicated, don’t try and sound clever when you’re asking questions. Remember that it is the answers, not the questions, that matter. Keep it simple but not too simple. Don’t ask anything that could be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  7. Think about the timing. Don’t jump in with your hardest hitting question. You haven’t built up the trust yet. Start broad and go specific. On the flip side, don’t leave your most important question to the end. You might run out of time.
  8. What’s the news? Listen out for something surprising or something they haven’t mentioned before.
  9. Don’t self censor. Just ask.
  10. This may be a personal bias but I’m not a fan of phone interviews. My clumsiness comes out (I hung up on Jack Welch and Skype ruthlessly disconnected Emily Blunt) and I find it difficult to read people. My best interviews have been in people’s homes. Maybe it is a trust thing. I interviewed Bill Walton in his sitting room recovering from surgery and it was one of my most honest and moving interviews.

I’m still learning. Any comments or ideas for you would be amazing to hear.

Luckily the interview went well. I was nervous as hell but my recorder worked like a charm and my poor victim was an awesome storyteller. Now I just have to write something vaguely cohesive. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

The necessary evil of networking

I like meeting people. In fact, in love it. In a world where facebook and twitter mean that you can interact with the world from the crusty safety of your pajamas, there is nothing as powerful as actually seeing people’s faces, striking up a real conversation, listening to them and maybe even putting on some glad rags for the occasion.

Dinner plans, I’m keen. Drinks, start my bar tab. Housewarming, I’ll bring the bubbly. I’ll happily get on board for the odd art gallery opening, book signing or music gig. But if someone tells me that I’m going to a networking event, my mouth goes dry and I experience the stage fright of a wobbly teenager.

mad men networking inspiration

Studying Don Draper’s skills is becoming a great excuse to watch Mad Men re-runs

This is by no means ideal. Having just launched a phone recycling business, Jeremy and I are doing our best to meet people and broaden our community in the city. Business cards are swapped as frequently as Jeremy once traded baseball cards. There’s lots of elevator pitches and hand shaking to be done. The whole experience leaves me in a cold sweat and, just writing the words, I’m beginning to feel a little hot under the collar.

I sense that my speech has something to do with it. I’m sure it plays a role, it makes me a little more apprehensive, a little less ready to launch into the fray. But I don’t think that my stutter plays the staring role, more a ready and willing understudy. I know I will stutter meeting someone new, I have a 95% chance of stuttering on my name at least, and that certainty is almost reassuring, I have some idea of what will happen, how the conversation with the stranger across the room with play out.

So, if not the stutter, what is it? Why the aversion to the business chat? I think it has something to do with the honest fact that I’m not brilliant at it. It is not that I’m not passionate about the company. I am deeply passionate about it but when I start my pitch I feel uncomfortable, aware of my crassness, of the blatancy of my approach.

I have friends in the city who are champion networkers. The type who laugh and banter and only when you leave at the end of the night do you realize that you are more fascinated by their company than any other venture you have heard of in the past month. You are compelled to Google them as soon as you arrive home. You like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter because you want to be part of their world. If they weren’t so damn likeable I’d hate them for it.

So how do you become a great saleswoman or networker? I’m very keen to find out. I’m of the belief that practice can help anything but, to spare me the slow months of a steep learning curve, any thoughts from you would be much appreciated.

Public Speaking: Bringing back the show and tell experience

I have recently taken to the public speaking circuit in New York. The irony is not lost on me. Eloquence, wit, clarity and charm might be the more ‘normal’ attributes of a public speaker. Stuttering is not one of the more typical traits of the trade. And yet it has its upsides.

1) My audience is remarkably engaged. Whether they are leaning in to listen a little harder or whether they are genuinely fascinated in the subject, I’ll take it. I have noticed that stuttering makes people listen. Not in the mindless, doodling, half-hearted way that I used to listen in university lectures. Rather in a what-is-going-on and how-can-I-catch-every-word-she-is-saying kind of way.

2) My voice and my words work as a team. This is not an entirely usual experience for me. At times I can feel like my words and my voice are at odds, both vying for attention as they send out conflicting messages. Yet, when I am talking about stuttering, my voice serves as a prop, neatly underlining what I am saying about my speech. I turn into a walking show and tell performance.

3) No one is afraid of speaking up in the question and answer sessions. Having recently watched me stutter through a 20 minute speech, they feel markedly less self-conscious. Whatever difficulty they have in public speaking they feel a little less worried about exposing it.

4) No subject is off limits. I offer the class the chance to ask me anything they want after my speech so the classroom becomes a very honest place very quickly.

5) My speech will probably not blend in with the other lectures they had that day. If I allow myself to be truly narcissistic I would love for my audience to be inspired, fascinated and motivated by my talk. I hope some are but I’m sure there are others who are less enamored. My less ardent supporters might be bored, might feel uncomfortable and may even hate what I’m saying but they will probably still remember the talk by the end of the day. If nothing else I have given them a memorable story to tell their friends.

I’m not Sir Ken Robinson yet. My sweaty hands still gesture wildly and I have moments of briefly loosing my train of thought and lapsing into a desperately searching silence.

My talks so far have been to graduate speech therapy classes so my audience is not exactly a fair representation of the population at large. I have trapped them in a classroom and they seem to have some genuine interest in the subject. As far as audiences go, they are not too terrifying.

They are also expecting me to stutter. Standing in front of their hopeful faces I worry about letting them down. What if I am suddenly struck by fluency? I worry about disappointing them. I think how awkward we would all feel if I didn’t say one stuttered word. Luckily I haven’t let them down yet.