Next Big Thing Blog Hop

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

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

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

Here is my Next Big Thing:

Out With ItWhat is the working title of your book?

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

Where did the idea come from?

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

What genre does your book fall under?

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

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

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

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

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

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

Experimenting with Patience

Patience is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a tendency to rush myself, and others.

Learning patience

I suspect that living in New York feeds my impatience. Rushing is a way of life here. Our food arrives minutes after we’ve ordered it, the subway shoots us from one end of the island to the other, the streets are clogged with city dwellers sliding, eyes-rolling between groups of dawdling tourists on the sidewalks.

It is a city where time is people’s greatest resource. Services have evolved to outsource anything that might ‘waste’ your time. Task Rabbit will run your errands or clean your flat, a virtual assistant will call your electricity company so you don’t have to wait on hold, Fresh Direct will bring groceries to your 5 floor walk-up so you don’t have to spend precious minutes in the line at Trader Joes.

It is all terribly efficient. But it is good for us? Is it feeding our happiness?

I spent the past two weeks travelling in Costa Rica. It took close to 3 hours to rent a car, every meal we ordered took at lease 30 minutes to make it to our table, we had to wait for an hour in the bank to speak to someone after a machine swallowed our debit card, we got stuck behind suspiciously-leaning-cattle-bearing-trucks that barely broke 40 MPH on the highways while spewing thick black exhaust.

And yet the World Database of Happiness lists Costa Rica as the happiest of 148 nations

Quite possibly it has a lot to do with the natural beauty of the country, or the fact that they dissolved their standing army in favour of pumping money into education, but it might also have something to do with living in a country where things happen in Tico-time.

Tico time happiness

Moving more slowly, waiting more often, forces us to look around. It may infuriate us but it also has the potential to let us see things, hear things and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Maybe all our rushing around is making us blind to the world outside of our blinkered efficiency.

So back in the city of hooking cars, heavy-footed cab drivers and appointment laden weeks, I’m seeing how it feels to talk a little slower, to walk at a different pace and spend a little more time watching the chaos around me.

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.

Why do you do what you do? The ExchangeMyPhone story

As many of you know, I’m the Creative Director of a business called ExchangeMyPhone. Jeremy is the CEO. The business buys old phones from people throughout America and gives them a second life. We founded ExchangeMyPhone together back in May 2011. Today we have a team of fantastic people working with us and we have big dreams for where we want to take the business moving forward. But how did it all begin? Why did we decide to start a phone buyback business?

It is not easy to pinpoint the genesis for anything. Jeremy had always been interested in reuse (he grew up in the bookshelves of his father’s used book business) and he’s been entrepreneurial for as long as he has been walking.

ExchangeMyPhone - the early years

When I first met Jeremy, he told me how he saw tech reuse as the way forward. Everyone we knew had a drawer full of our cell phones that they didn’t know what to do with. He saw a solution and was excited to take all that he had learnt from the family business and put it to good use in a new field. I was pulled magnetically into his orbit.

In many ways, that was the catalyst that started ExchangeMyPhone, but there was something far more personal that kept us growing the business and kept us moving forward when times were tough.

On either side of the Atlantic, we had grown up hating the phone. On the phone our stutters were up against some pretty powerful odds. On the phone all our communication rested on our voices, and sometimes that wasn’t easy. We faced hang ups and were accused of being prank callers as we blocked on our names and sent hot, desperate breaths down the line.

When we met, we were changing the way we saw our stutters and we wanted to change the way we saw the dreaded phone. ExchangeMyPhone became a way for us to celebrate phones and turn them into vehicles for good.

Not only could customers keep their old phones out of the landfill, but they could be paid for something they no longer wanted or needed. We could turn trash into treasure and find a new home for each old cell phone.

But we wanted those old phones to do more, to really make a positive difference, so we launched our ‘checkout for charity’ option. Anyone who sold their phone through ExchangeMyPhone could choose to keep the money or donate their payout to any of the 765,000 registered non-profits in America.

Today, the phones that we once hated are being transformed into donations for charities across the country, they are arriving in new homes and making new faces smile, they are giving people a little money in their pocket to be spent on something wonderful and they are being kept out of the landfill.

Out With It and the Good Life Project

Filming the good life projectHave you ever had that dream where you walk down the road naked? Do you remember the moment you realize that everyone is staring at you in your birthday suit?

Now, imagine that it isn’t a dream. Imagine that, for a moment, the world gets to see you and all your bare humanity. How do you feel?

I feel petrified, or at least that’s how I felt as I stared at my laptop screen 5 days ago, in the wee hours of the morning. Jonathan had sent over advance access to the Good Life Project interview that would be aired in the morning, and I was watching the interview with headphones stuffed into my ears as Jeremy peacefully snored away in the other room.

In the morning, the video would be sent out to Jonathan’s tribe of avid fans and posted for the world to see on YouTube.

I had just gone very, very public with my stutter.

I had no idea how everyone would react. Would they hate it? Would my inbox be filled with vitriol? Would I be laughed at or criticized?

All the negative thoughts were chased by more hopeful ones. Would it comfort some people? Would it start to change the conversation about what is normal, about what it means to stutter? Would it inspire others to be fearless, to embrace whatever vulnerability they were dealing with?

I slept fitfully and woke up feeling hung-over, the image of my own face blocking, repeating and smiling etched into my mind’s eye.

By the time the interview was posted, I had readied myself for every bad reaction I could imagine.

And yet, in the past few days, my fears haven’t been realized. Not even close. Instead, I have been shocked by the messages I received full of nothing but support and gratitude. I have opened incredible emails and messages from strangers, from businessmen and mothers, from friends and people I barely know. I am still in awe of their kindness.

As one of them said, “I can’t imagine how hard it is to have something so personal so public. But I bet it is liberating!”

Liberating is a good word for it. Vulnerable and strong and never cowed. It was how I wanted people to see the book, the pieces that I had been struggling to express in the title.

Just before the video was posted, I heard from my editor. The publisher had given the thumbs up to our title: Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice.

What do you think?

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.

Stuttering: The Gray Lady’s exposé

Phillip is 16 years old but he is taking two college classes this semester. He doesn’t much care for sitting in the back of the class. He is a precocious teenager and his hand is often raised to ask or answer a question. He is far from the apathetic teenager often bemoaned by teachers.

NYT stuttering article

Matt Rainey for The New York Times

And yet he is never called on. In fact he has been specifically asked not to speak up in class. He has been asked to write down his questions on a piece of paper to present before or after class. He has been told that, by participating in class, he is taking up too much of the other students’ precious time. During one class he had his hand raised to ask a question and held it aloft for much of the 75 minute class. He was wantonly ignored.

Why? Because he stutters, because words take him a little longer. So he should be silent and ignored as punishment.

Phillip took his case to the New York Times and they published a piece on his discrimination in today’s paper. They called his experience “unusual”. I’m not so sure.

As a result of stuttering, frowning shop clerks and impatient receptionists have handed me a pen and paper. Their proffering has often been paired with a pitying “would this be easier?” I have explained that I stutter, I have snapped pens in half and I have smiled sweetly. My reactions have run the gamut from the kind to the profane but I have never accepted their offer. Mostly because it is my choice, because they are lessening their own discomfort by telling me what to do, by taking away my right to speak.

Many of us have been asked to hurry up, have been hung up on, have been spoken over, have been ignored. More times than not our sentences have been finished for us. In all honesty it might be helpful. In the moment I might appreciate the respite from the battle of speaking. But the small gratitude I feel soon fades. I am left with a deeper scar. A feeling that my words are not worthy, that I am somehow monstrous and should be hidden.

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