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?

What are you without a voice? Story of Roger Ebert

I’m here as a man who wants to communicate” – Roger Ebert, TED, March 2011

Those words were spoken by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, in a way. Maybe you saw the TED speech. Maybe you have long known about Roger Ebert’s life story. Maybe not. If you have not, see it here now. It will brighten your Monday.

TED is full of moving speeches given by shockingly eloquent speakers. This is no different. Except that Roger Ebert can no longer speak. His words were spoken by his wife Chaz, two friends John Hunter and Dr. Dean Ornish and Roger’s favourite computer voice Alex.

roger ebert

In 2006, surgeries for cancer took away Ebert’s ability to speak, and today he is forced into a virtual world where a computer does some of the living for him. Through his MacBook Pro, Ebert has found a way to continue to communicate and has escaped the silence that would have been his only option without today’s technology.

Ebert is a prolific writer. He continues to talk passionately to the world through his keyboard. On facebook, twitter and via his blog journal his voice is ‘normal’ and far more articulate than most. Idle chatter does not exist in his world, rather every word he types or speaks has meaning. He has a greater respect for language than most of the verbose world.

“What you see is not all you get”, types Ebert. He knows that most people have little patience with his speaking difficulties and that most people look away from illness. Yet he remains committed to connecting with his audience. At the end of the talk, he tells a joke through his ‘voice’ Alex. And it works, a belly laugh rolls forward from the audience. He explains how important it was for him to find a digital voice that could muster the right timing and inflection to tell a joke. He looks proud of the reaction.

Due to the missing sections of his jaw and the lack of engineering behind his face, Ebert perpetually smiles. Only his eye’s can register the emotion he feels. Watching them closely in the talk they once flashed concern for his wife but they largely remained joyful, twinkling as he acted out the words that were being read for him. He never looks like a man who feels sorry for himself. I sense that he doesn’t want our pity. Who does?

roger ebert

Ebert, before he was diagnosed with cancer, giving his trademark two thumbs up

Towards the start of his speech he says, “The act of speaking, or not speaking, is tied so indelibly to one’s identity”. Without a voice the written word has become central to Ebert’s way of living. He has a readership of thousands and thoroughly encourages online debate. His inner monologue has become public knowledge in a way that it might not have become otherwise. He has become a product of his ‘condition’ but not a victim of it.

My admiration is boundless.

Bill Withers: Still Cool

It is one of life’s more pesky ironies that I cannot sing. My virtual tone-deafness has always seemed unfair in light of my stutter. Away from the delicate ears of others, I have been known to belt out the odd 80s classic in the shower and I have never once stuttered. In fact, of all the stutterers I have met, I have yet to hear about one person who stutters whilst singing. Grabbing on to this little factoid a surprising number of people have suggested that I turn my daily conversations into a real life musical. No doubt I would be completely fluent singing away in my padded cell.

Stuttering singers span the breath of music history from Carly Simon to Mel Tillis and Gareth Gates (for those of you Brits who were teenagers back in 2002 and remember the early novelty of Pop Idol). But there is no stuttering singer as quintessentially cool as Bill Withers. I remember thinking that when I interviewed him back in 2009 for my book on stuttering and I felt that again last night when I stumbled on the recent documentary ‘Still Bill’ in my Netflix account.

bill withers

“Some people are born cool”, he observes in his trademark rolling voice. It seems like he must be talking about himself until he cracks a smile and carries on, “I was an asthmatic stutterer from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” His playful wit establishes from the beginning that this is a rare musician’s documentary. There are no fawning crowds, no crumbling rock and roll hedonism. Rather we are given a picture of Bill’s daily life as he spends time with his family, records music with his daughter, shoots the breeze with friends and celebrates his 70th birthday.

We are shown a humble man who chose to walk away from fame for a quiet life, and is happy that he did. As he tells his kids, “It’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful you’re gonna have to pass through All Right. And when you get to All Right, take a good look round and get used to it because that maybe is as far as you’re gonna go.” Is he talking about himself? It seems hard to believe but the line reminded me of something he said when I interviewed him years ago. I had been sitting with him in his wife’s office for almost two hours when he got a call from Simply Red’s management asking him to come as a VIP to his next show. His surprise morphed into gratitude and, when I asked him if that kind of thing happened all the time, he laughed, “No sugar, most people think I’m dead these days or too old to walk over there.”

Both in the documentary and in person you can see only a hint of Bill’s lifelong stutter. It is so slight as to be barely noticeable but there is a strong feeling that this seemingly minor challenge has shaped his life. He comes across as a deeply emotional man and we see him quietly cry twice in the film. Once from fatherly pride and once as he talks to a group of children that make up Our Time’s theatre group for kids who stutter. Intimately indentifying with them, he observes that stuttering can make other people nervous and says, “We have to go just that little bit further to help them feel at ease.”

Bill seems like a man that treads softly and makes a big noise. The film is peppered with wise, unscripted words. It is about a man who knows who he is. He’s still the same guy he was growing up in Slab Fork, he is still the guy he was when he started his family and he is still a stutterer.

If you missed it, you can always catch it on Netflix here.