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.

What to hope for?

As I type this my twitter feed is ticking in front of me, telling me that the boat is surrounded, that the man thought to be one of the Boston marathon bombers, is about to be caught. They have him. He’s alive. The suspect is in custody.

My feed has gone quiet now. What next? What now do we hope will unfold?

In the rush of silence I think of all the horror and heroism of the past week. Of all the ways that people felt fragile and vulnerable and frightened. All of the ways people mentioned how grateful they felt for their loved ones, how tightly they held on to one another.

It has been a long week, we’re all looking for a silver lining.

It seems like a strange time to be celebrating, and yet, on Tuesday night I had a chance to do just that. I was lucky enough to get to be around a lot of people I love. I got to laugh with them, and hug them and thank them for all the ways they changed my life. On Tuesday, April 16th, I had the book launch for Out With It.

bookcourt

It was a night of hours that skidded by too fast. It was gilded, better than I could have ever imagined. There was a billboard in Times Square and a sold out bookstore. It was a night made memorable for all the right reasons.

FB - Crowd at BookCourt

Now, in the aftermath of everything, I think about all the outcomes that we look towards. In the face of disappointments and disasters, what kind of recovery do we hope for?

In the wake of celebration, what then do we hope will happen?

A small part of me gets to hope for big dreams, for Out With It to change the conversation around perfection and normalcy. A much bigger part of me just hopes that a few people read it. I wonder what people will think of it, what they will think of me.

In the aftermath of everything I feel immensely vulnerable. I feel fragile knowing that my book, this thing I looked at in the privacy of my home for almost 5 years, is now out in the world waiting to be judged.

I hope that people like it. I hope I don’t look like a fool. I hope that it does some good to as many people as possible. I hope that the joy I felt on Tuesday will carry me through whatever challenging times, and wonderful times, lie ahead. Looking around an apartment full of cards, and flowers and notes from people I love, I hope that I will always feel as grateful as I do tonight.

Gratitude

Where language leads

When I was little Easter was my favourite time of year.

It was a time of hot cross buns, enough chocolate to send me into a sugar coma and puddles large enough to jump into with my wellies. It was the moment when winter seemed to be disappearing and I could celebrate my birthday with the knowledge that the long summer holiday wasn’t too far away.

For the first 8 years of my life, it was also a time for easter egg hunts at my grandma’s house. Amid the blooming bluebells and daffodils of her garden, my grandma would hide riddle after riddle. As soon as we arrived, my parents and I would be handed the first clue and we’d rush out to the garden to find the next. As we uncovered each new riddle from the dirt we’d read them loud enough for my grandma to hear as she watched us, smiling from the chair of her sitting room.

I wish that I’d stashed these small, handwritten notes in my pocket. At the time they seemed like a ticket into a very adult world of hidden meanings. They were my first introduction to the beauty and malleability of language.

I remember my mum laughing, my dad running across the garden and their gentle hints as they guided me towards the final chocolate egg. I remember scarfing down the creamy chocolate sitting on her kitchen counter as my grandma carefully laid the crust over her apple pie.

I haven’t been to an easter egg hunt in years, I can’t remember any since my grandma died. But the memory of the excitement I felt holding my her handwriting, my awareness of the hours she put into creating each riddle, hasn’t left me.

These days my traditions have changed. I still get the puddles and the hot cross buns, but I have new things like Passover and my fiancé’s birthday. Still I feel like I am carrying on some family tradition, I feel like all those riddles, all that love of language, has lead me somewhere that I could have only dreamed of a child.

This year I get to celebrate the release of my book. Coincidentally the pub date is my birthday so we will be kicking off spring with a big party. Sadly there won’t be any riddles or chocolate eggs, but I’d love you to come and celebrate with me nevertheless.

Book Launch: Putting down the pen and picking up the mic

With my book launch mere weeks away (I’d love to see any and all of your lovely faces there) I’ve been finding myself at more literary events than normal around the city. I’ve ventured out of my pajamas to go to readings, book release parties and meetups.

All-in-all it has been both fascinating and terrifying. Mostly because it makes me fully aware of how brilliant other writers can be, how eloquent and funny and intelligently they can string together their thoughts in front of a room of eager faces.

Public speaking is one thing but spontaneously answering questions in a witty and thoughtful way, a way that reflects both your personality and your writing, is a talent I’m not entirely sure I can emulate.

A couple weeks ago I went to McNally Jackson bookstore for their Conversations on Practice interview with David Shields. I’ve been intrigued by the series for a while but I went specifically because of David. I interviewed him for my book years ago and have been deeply influenced by both his words and his mindset ever since.

It is hard to describe David’s writing accurately. In his words, “literal collage has become the form that releases my best intelligence”. Having heard him speak, it is clear why. David thinks in associations, even as he answers questions about his work he draws on quotes from authors, scenes from films and references to art exhibitions. His aim is to eliminate any façade and in his speaking, much like his writing, he has no qualms mentioning everything from his stutter to his cheat sheet. He casually brushes off the over-polished veneer that it is all too tempting to hide behind.

In a different vein, I attended Leigh Newman’s book launch for her just-released memoir Still Points North. Over an evening of champagne and Alaskan salmon (Newman’s book recalls her childhood growing up in the wilds of Alaska) Leigh read a section from the first half of her book and answered question after question from the packed audience.

Leigh Newman book launch

In both her writing and her speech, Leigh has a warmth, a playfulness and a self-deprecation that makes her impossible to dislike. With captivating ease she told stories that made the room belly-laugh and lean towards her before they furiously typed on their smartphones and tweeted her glorious quotes (everything from her encouragement of radical change to her description of memoir writing as ‘soul-slapping’).

Both writers are brilliant on the page and in person, I can’t rate them highly enough.

While I’m on my literary excursions – which writers do you love to hear speak?

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?

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.

Memoir: Under Attack

memoir writing: we all have a story to tellOn New Year’s Eve Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, wrote a piece for the New York Times’ Opinionator explaining that, over 20 years of teaching, her signature assignment has become the humiliation essay. It is her way of giving her students what they want, setting them on the path to publish essays and sell memoirs.

The piece sparked a host of debate, reigniting the well-worn argument that the personal essay is killing journalism. Punches were thrown across the web, insults typed and sides taken.

As someone who has a memoir coming out in 4 months, I read Hamilton Nolan’s Gawker response to Shapiro’s piece in a state of near numbness. My eyes stuck on the line that most people’s lives are not interesting enough for a memoir or personal essay and I gulped down his assertion that those writers who start by writing about themselves “end up like bands that used their entire lifetime’s worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up.”

Used-up, finished, uninteresting – hardly a hopeful start to a writing career that has yet to hit the shelves.

And yet, it’s noise I’ve already heard, lines that have already played on repeat in my own head for years. Self-doubt is nothing new. I was never trained as a writer, barely trained as a journalist, and I never set out to write a memoir. I set out to listen to hundreds of stutterers and researchers and write something worthwhile. These people had stories, fascinating lives that made me sit forward in my seat and stay up all night transcribing their words. As I wrote their words down on paper I barely wove myself between the lines. But, in the end, I felt like I was hiding. I felt like I was asking everyone else to bare their souls while I sat safely nodding on the other side of the tape recorder.

So I kept their voices in the book but made my life the structure, made my life the line that all our stories hung from. But I was never aiming to humiliate myself, I wasn’t trying to make anyone feel sorry for me, for any of us. Rather, I was trying to unearth something that had remained taboo for far too long.

I was attempting to write in the memoir tradition of the writer’s I adored. Writers like Strayed, Karr, Walls and Flynn. Far from the inward-looking narcissists that Nolan dismisses so eagerly, these are people who write about themselves with humanity and who look outward to encompass the world we all live in. As Stephen Elliot puts it, they are the type of writers who “inhale their surroundings.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be shaming those people who write about themselves but rather all of us should hold ourselves to the highest standards in both our writing and our lives. If we can be thoughtful in all of that then, perhaps, we can rise to meet our collective potential.

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!

Should we all be striving to live without irony?

Christy Wampole recently wrote an op-ed for the NY Times titled “How To Live Without Irony”.

how to live without ironyThe piece explores the idea of the hipster, her belief that Generation Y has an aversion to risk and her assertion that, ““to live ironically is to hide in public”.

True enough. We can all hide behind irony, we can choose to make fun of things rather than treat them with sincerity, we can choose to shield ourselves a little behind laughter. I agree that “irony is the most self-defensive mode”, that, when taken to an extreme, “it bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat.”

The piece was so thought-provoking that I posted it on Twitter. Minutes later I got the reply, “When you have health stuff going on, living ironically seems frivolous and a bit pathetic.”

I tried to write back but I couldn’t find quite the right words. As much as I loved the sentiment, a part of me disagreed. Irony and sarcasm can be the basis for humour and, perhaps because I’m English, I find something deeply appealing about self-deprecation. When my Godmother was dying from lung cancer and hooked up to a million tubes in her hospital bed, she was still the one with the best one-liners, the sharpest wit and the most stomach-aching jokes. She was, almost always, making fun of herself. I’ve never met anyone more loved.

I don’t agree that we have to take ourselves seriously every moment of every day. I think that there can be room for both sincerity and sarcasm. I don’t criticize myself, or anyone else, for using irony to make sense of the world.

And yet, I do think that it can be easier to treat everything ironically. I think it takes courage to be honest, to be unabashedly passionate and fully seen.

What’s your take on irony?

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