Stutterers don’t like the maxim, “You can never make another first impression.”
On the first day of school every year, I had to introduce myself with a name I could barely pronounce.
“D-d-d-d-d-d-d-d. Sorry. D-d-d-BLOCK-d-daniel.”
In print, these neatly spaced letters seem to flow quite easily, but by the time I had finished machine-gunning through them in class, my desk was flecked with spittle and my social status had evaporated.
It peeved me when I caught fellow students mimicking me in the cafeteria, but I positively bled the time someone innocently asked “When you read, do you see the same letters over and over?” — as if looking for a way to forgive me.
L-L-Let’s not f-fff-f-fff-BLOCK-f-forget that it can be p-p-painful for others to witness a s-s-sssstut-stut-stut-funny speaker’s tortured compensations, how they make bizarre word replacements just to keep the sentence g-g-go-go-g-g-hopscotching along. The listener may be rooting for a smooth exit, and may think it’s kinder to look away when it doesn’t happen.
Some stutterers, however, need the strength of eye contact to help them muscle to the next word, to kill an endless sibilant, and to lay a thought to rest.
To pry off the muzzle and say what they mean.
It can be so frustrating.
Stuttering is why I became a writer. From a young age, I learned that I had better write down what I wanted to communicate, rather than subject it to a speech rollercoaster likely to crash. In a piece of text, I could place words exactly where I wanted them, and consonants would end when I lifted my hand off the keyboard.
Over the years I let my tongue atrophy and I tasked my typing fingers with everything left unspoken. I made a career of running away from my voice and became known as the writer who “refuses to read from his work,” according to one event poster.
This didn’t sit well with my friend Francisco.
We were sipping drinks together at the Vancouver launch of my first novel, listening as a local author read my stuff to the crowd. I could sense that Francisco was uncomfortable with the disembodiment in progress — he wanted me onstage. After the performance, he gave me a ferocious squint. “People would love to hear your voice, because it’s you. Why do you withhold it from them?”
I balked, but he had a point.
I had forgotten that during my stint as a B-movie porn actor, my stutter had been quite popular. The scriptwriters fed me choppy dialogue perfectly suited to my speech, and I ejaculated my lines with a glottal, animal energy that was distinctly ‘me.’ The directors wouldn’t let me retake the bits I flubbed, convinced that masturbating audiences would connect with my rawness.
In his essay, The Signal is Jammed: A Confession, Mark Ambrose Harris writes about the intimacy of the voice. “When we hear someone sing, we are listening to how sound resonates in their body… we hear their skull, teeth, diaphragm, lungs, saliva, bones, and muscle.
“Consider the vocal rhythms of someone experiencing sexual pleasure. The sounds of the inner recesses are brought outwards.”
Stuttering throws these “inner recesses” into your face. This can sex up any literary performance and make it memorable.
I guess all Francisco wanted was to hear my diaphragm.
He wasn’t the only one. David, an incorrigible supporter of my work, gave me a loving reproach at an Ottawa event where yet another stand-in read from my novel. Martini in hand, David said “You’ve got to speak up, my boy, speak up!”, and then he made me personalize a stack of books with ink fingerprints.
I peered into the smudged whorls and made a resolution: It was time to give a little more of myself, to get my crunk out de vive voix.
So I shut myself in my office and read from my novel aloud, for the first time — or so I thought. I quickly realized I had mouthed the entire book while line-editing months earlier, with hardly a stammer. I had done it under my breath; now I gradually brought the larynx to life, giving it more power with every paragraph. As my voice picked up volume it started to falter, but nothing could shut me up.
Stuttering is bent; it’s a queer kind of talk. It’s OK to use dissenting syllables when you’re jamming the signal.
I decided to try out my new pipes at a Montreal reading series that week, where I could do it with hometown advantage on my side. I adjusted the mic and opened my mouth.
On the second word of fiction I’ve ever read in public, I blocked.
Nobody cringed or looked away. Instead, I had rapt, curious attention from a roomful of friendly faces. I loosened up and got relatively fluid, thrilled that the audience laughed at the content, not at my delivery. I became a stronger person that night.
Francisco and David, how can I thank you for teaching me to love my voice? If I can get you darlings into the same room, I swear I’ll read to you ’til dawn, blips and all. We can tongue each other, too.
Billeh and Marcus, you were fantastic impostors and gave my work such verve! Now put my book down and go read from your own.
I’m a p-p-ppproud s-s-ssstutterer, and no longer afffffffraid of blowing f-first impressions.