The importance spontaneity

I’m obsessed with the word ‘spontaneous’.

In a recent article I wrote, the word made its way into at least three sentences. I was spontaneous in my speaking, in my traveling, even in my relationship. I was saying it so often that it was starting to lose its meaning. It was starting to sound foreign and meaningless, like a word you say over, and over, and over again.

What did the word really mean to me? Why did I feel the need to inject it so forcefully into my writing?

In the words of Germaine Greer, “The essence of pleasure is spontaneity”.

spontaneityGreer’s words sum up how I always saw spontaneity. The ability to be natural and passionate, the joy of living life impulsively, without too many constraints. The adventure of ending up somewhere unexpected and discovering something new.

Spontaneity was something I always aspired to, something I always made a place for in my life. I impulsively left my job to write a book, set off on a quest with barely a plan, said yes to anything and everything that sounding intriguing.

But I aspired to other things too, more concrete things, like a house and a family and enough money not to worry too much. We started a business, I wrote a book and I knew the importance, and the comfort, of having a routine.

Gradually, the rituals and routines that we had created started to seem like they were taking over. Every moment in our day was accounted for, every evening planned and every weekend full. We were busy and productive and trapped.

I realized the spontaneity was not just a frivolous thing that made me feel free and unencumbered. It was necessary. It was in the moments that I didn’t have anything planned that my mind could wander and make connections. It also allowed me to see things and experience things that were unexpected, things that challenged me and changed my perceptions.

Without spontaneity I was safe, with it I was living.

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.

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?


We have a friend who is currently solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’ve not heard of it, the trail is a 6 month, 2,650-mile trek from the Mojave Desert to the Cascades, it is a never-ending snake trailing up the spine of the central west.

His journey is the kind of adventure that terrifies me. Yet, sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, I can see its appeal. Years ago, early on in our relationship, Jeremy and I spent months camping in the wilderness, hitch-hiking and trekking through sections of the emptier parts of America.

It was a time before we had a business and, as much as we adore the life we have now, we both miss that sense of undiluted freedom.

So, with that in mind, we decided to go hiking this weekend. Not exactly backpacking across the country, but a start at least.

We packed a few bottles of water, some granola bars, a bag of dried cherries, a couple bagels and set off for Bear Mountain. Just over an hour from the city, it offered a long drive past a smattering of mirror-smooth lakes, the promise of a few hours of lush hiking and the treat of a post-workout swim. The perfect city escape on a steamy weekend.

The car park was packed when we arrived and the lawns were strewn with families picnicking. We picked up a bare-bones map from the visitor’s centre and started out on a 6 mile loop. We were almost disappointed. We had come to escape the city crowds and yet, with all those cars, we expected that there would be only one or two trails littered with eager hikers.

We quickly realized that we were wrong. We saw 5 people in the first two hours and none after that. And there were hundreds of trails, crisscrossing each other across the lush forest, with only the occasional dollop of a paint marking to lead the way. We lost our trail and then picked it up again, or thought we did. We lost our way on the map, carried on walking for miles and then thought we found it again. Neither of us had even been lost on a hike before. Starting in New York seemed unlikely, embarrassing even.

Then we ran out of water. We had hiked for close to 10 miles and had no idea where we were. Our map only showed one trail, one trail which we had ventured far, far off. Our phones had intermittent reception. We started tripping over rocks. We told jokes, cursed when we lost the paint markers, looked at our watches and ate the last of our granola bars.

Finally, we ran into a guide, one of those efficient types with iodine tablets at the ready and a GPS unit strapped to his backpack. He shook his head at us, told us off for being so foolish. Then he feed and watered us and sent us on our way again, with the warning, “Take the red and white makers down this trail and then, when you see a blue maker, follow it to the right. The blue is hard to see but don’t miss it. If you miss it, you’ll go even further into the woods and then, you’ll be shit out of luck.”

Shit out of luck, is not the kind of phrase that you ignore. It is the kind of phrase that makes you certain to scour every tree for a goddamn blue marker. Luckily, 6 hours after we had set off, we got back to our car, sweaty, scratched and aching after an unexpectedly grueling 15 mile hike.

I’ll admit that it was a tad scary, and we were more than a tad foolish, but it was good to know that we could get lost an hour from the city. It was comforting to remember that nature still makes the rules, and that, for all the urban chaos of the city, there is still wilderness on our doorstep.

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.