30 Years

They met in the Yemen. Of all places. My mum was on holiday and my dad was working out there. I’ve heard the tale enough times that it took on an Arabian Nights quality long ago. There were years of long distance love letters to follow, a year in Greece and a life to start again. Then, on March 22nd 1984, they got married in London’s Chelsea Town Hall. They celebrated over lunch with all the friends and family that could make it and drove back to their new home that night. 3 weeks later I arrived.

I’ve always thought of us as the three musketeers, the three of us taking on the world. But today is all about the two of them. I wish I was celebrating with them but instead I’ve raided my photo albums as a toast to my two favourite people…

With parents age 5





IMG_0250Folk music always makes me think of my dad, of the toddler version of myself watching him strum his guitar strings, and there’s a Simon and Garfunkel song playing in the background this morning, “Still crazy after all these years”. Perfect timing, as always.

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

American Hustle and the art of reinvention

American HustleWith our New Year’s resolutions freshly spoken and champagne still trickling through our bodies, we capped off our New Year’s Day by going to see American Hustle. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you stop reading and go watch it immediately. Because, beyond the fact that it is so good and so uniquely itself, I can think of no more fitting movie to start off a new year, no movie that better embodies the reinvention that all our new year’s resolutions seem to evoke.

I’m not going to give away any of the plot but, as the main character Irv would say, it is a movie directed and acted ‘from the feet up’. A movie that starts with Irv’s grand, bloated belly emerging from his unbuttoned shirt and a meticulous ritual that creates his elaborate comb-over. A comb-over that fools nobody and an appearance so incongruous with the intelligent, deceptive con-man that we are to meet. From the start we know that these are not simple people, these are not even good people, but they are very much raw, alive and fully-realised.

The characters in American Hustle are operatic, almost Shakespearean, and yet they are also immediate and instinctive. They make up stories and con each other as a survival mechanism, and it is their gritty, determined reinvention that makes the film so addictively watchable.

In the words of the film’s director David O Russell, “The currency of humanity is the belief in dreams or narratives.” And it is that idea that makes American Hustle so fitting for the start of the new year. Because whenever we think of all the things that lie ahead of us in 2014 (be it a new job, a new baby, a new project) we have to present them to ourselves in a way that sells them. We have to buy into the narratives that we create for our lives, in order to realise them.

Irv’s motto in the film is that people believe what they want to believe. It is that understanding that makes him the successful hustler he is. And yet, his motto is also relevant when we direct it at our own lives. We believe what we want to believe about ourselves, about our commitments and about our lives. So why not choose to believe that all our hopes and dreams and goals for 2014 are possible and probable?

With that in mind, what narratives are you looking to manifest this year?

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?


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.

Escaping the Silence: Stories from Out With It

It was 6 months into my year-long trip when I knew that I had been wrong, about a lot of things.

I was bumping along a dark New Mexican ridge with little idea where I was going, trying to remember my host’s quickly delivered instructions. The night had engulfed our Subaru station wagon and, with no reception on my phone, the blinking ‘check engine’ light looked more menacing than it had before.

I was on my way back to the ranch we were staying in for the night, leaving my 70th interview. I was reluctantly driving away from a man who had warily invited me into his home to ask him questions about his life, about what it meant to him to be a stutterer. Our interview had started awkwardly, both of us sitting politely on either side of his sofa with my recorder lying conspicuously between us.

He was different from any of the other 69 interviews stored on my recorder. He was the first man I had met who had never seen another stutterer before, the first person who had barely spoken about his stutter to anyone. He and I edged around the loaded word for a while. He mentioned ‘that thing I do when I talk’ and I nodded. He smiled when he ‘did it again’, I asked him to carry on.

As the hours slipped by and the sun sank into the earth, he told me how he had questioned his faith, spending many years thinking he must be possessed by the devil. He remembered reading that people had cut the ligament underneath their tongue to ‘cure’ their stutter and he held the scissors there more times than he was proud to admit. In his thick Mexican accent, he told me how he had become a teacher despite all the people who had told him that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t. He told me how honored and scared he was that his church had asked him to travel with them as an interpreter when they went to work with prison inmates in Colombia.

Gradually he started to lean towards me, he began to sound proud of all he had achieved, and he asked if his wife could join us. He started to laugh and smile and, as I sat back on the sofa, he told her things that he had never dared mention before. His daughter bounded in and he explained who I was, explained that he was talking to me about his stutter. It was the first time he had mentioned the word to her, the first time he had ‘come out’ as a stutterer. She told him that was cool and started showing me her toys, unfazed by the relief that was painted across his face.

When he walked me out to my car, his rough, weather-beaten features were backlit by the light streaming out of their kitchen door and I could barely see his face. But I heard the crack in his voice as he reached out his hand to hold mine and say thank you. I said it back and hoped he could see how grateful I was.

As I flicked on my headlights and started to drive away, I realized that I was thanking him, thanking all of the people who had allowed themselves to be interviewed, for something much more personal than I had realized. I was thanking them for finding the courage to tell me their stories, but also for holding up a mirror and showing me far more of myself than I had ever expected.

Six months ago I had left my home in England to explore stuttering. I had wanted to find out who it happened to, the ways they handled their speech and why we all stuttered. I thought that once I knew the ‘why’, I was one step closer to a fix. Although I left England keen to immerse myself in stuttering, I was looking for answers. I was looking to make my stuttering neat and tidy. I wanted to sanitize it and put it in a box so I could push it away and move on with the rest of my life.

Sitting in my car I knew that I had been wrong. As I planned the next day of driving in my head, I was excited by the thought of each interview yet to come and I was humbled by the generosity of each interview behind me. I saw that stuttering had become a password and an equalizer. It had invited me into the homes of everyone from farmers to celebrities, and it had led an intensity and an honesty to each of my conversations. It had brought me more adventure, and had made me more fearless than I had ever imagined.

I heard stories of courage, determination, heartache and painfully funny stories of miscommunication, and I realized that I was not interested in distancing myself from these people, or this condition, any more. I didn’t want my life to be polished and sanitized. I didn’t want to hide my speech. I realized that I was proud of the imperfections I had, proud of the tribe I had been born into.

I wrote this piece for the International Stuttering Awareness Day conference. Check out their website for a host of brilliant articles and stories.

Improving your writing & becoming a great storyteller

Most of us experience doubt at some point in our creative lives and all of us are constantly striving to improve. So, how do you make your work match your ambitions? How do you make yourself a great writer?

First, you need to love writing and you need to know what good writing is. As Ira Glass explains, most people get into creative work because they have good taste. They may not be able to create great work immediately, but they know it when they see it. You have to read enough to know what good language tastes like, what it feels like on the page. Even Hunter S. Thompson used to type out pages from “The Great Gatsby” just to feel what it was like to write like Fitzgerald.

You need to understand the rules. You need to understand structure and character development and plot and the cadence of spoken language. You can get that from reading, from asking questions, from taking lessons, from whatever source you fancy, but you need to make yourself an expert in your chosen field.  Then, once you know the rules, you can break out of the structure, or choose stay with in it. You can be as creative as your imagination will allow.

You need to see your writing as a job, a skill that you want to hone. You don’t have to write on a typewriter, or only write great work, or ask for others praise. You just have to write. You have to write every day. You have to have faith that the rubbish you are putting down on paper will gradually improve into something you can be proud of.

It may take you years but, once you have created something that you don’t hate, you should start to get feedback. Start off with your mum or your best friend if you want. Give yourself a little confidence boost. Then choose people from your field and ask them to be brutally honest. Heed their advice. Edit. Show them again. Try not to be destabilized by negative reactions. Start again if you have to. Push yourself to improve. Don’t give yourself a hard time if it takes a while. That’s normal. Keep going. Finally, be proud of yourself. Be proud that you stuck with it. Be proud that you have created a piece of work that you don’t hate, something that know is pretty great.

That’s my advice but what do you think? How do you make your work as good as your ambitions?

Check out this great video made to the words of Ira Glass:

Everyone has a Story: What’s the best storytelling technique?

I went to a class last night at General Assembly called ‘How to tell your startup story’. I was interested for our company ExchangeMyPhone but also as a memoirist. What is the perfect storytelling technique? Does that even exist?

storytelling here

Photo courtesy of Mike Grenville

Obviously we all have the story of our lives. We have all lived a certain number of years, we have a journey to tell people about.

The tricky part is figuring out which story, of the many stories we have, is worth telling. Specifically which parts are interesting?

According to Jerome from Narativ, the answer to which story is pretty simple. You have to find out which ones are relevant to your end goal and to your audience. And the only way to find that out is by testing them out and practicing over and over again. You have to see what different stories work well with different listeners. Some of your stories may bore people to tears, others may sit them on the edge of their seat desperate to hear what you will say next.

At the crux of the class was the idea that there is no one perfect story, that our stories should change depending on who we are telling them to. We should essentially hang our stories from our figurative belt and draw upon them as needed.

However, although we may have an arsenal of stories at our disposal, the format should remain the same for each one. Each piece should have a beginning, a turning point and an end.

Was storytelling really that simple? It had to be more complicated than that. Surely.

And it was. We got into body language and dialogue and details and relevance. But it all came back to the methodology. What happened? What was the obstacle? How did you find a solution?

It is a handy tool for anyone who has ever experienced writer’s block. Work out where you are heading, why you are telling the story and what your goal is. Then take away all the opinions and conjecture and just tell us what happened. If it is your story, no-one can argue with it. Once you have told us what happened, raise the stakes. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the tension, and the more of our attention you have. Set up key moments in the story when things shift and move us towards the ending.

With that, I’m back to writing for the afternoon but I’d love to hear your stories.

If you had to write three sentences (a beginning, a turning point and an ending) what would your story look like?

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.