When I was in second grade, I developed a stutter. I don’t know where it came from, or why it started, but, once it appeared, it was as though it had always been a part of my life. I couldn’t remember having ever not stuttered—even though my parents assured me that it was a very new phenomenon.
Stuttering is a curious condition. There is still no singular cause, and its severity can depend on countless variables: genes, social reactions, brain structure, and even the treatments adopted to alleviate it. Stuttering affected me throughout adolescence and into college. I still stutter, from time to time. Throughout my life, though, there have been two important outlets that have allowed me to cope and to create without speaking: music and writing. Recently, much to my delight, I discovered that the development of, and the allure to, these crafts were not without some precedent in the stuttering world.
David Mitchell, the famed author behind Cloud Atlas and other brilliantly original stories, has dealt with a stutter his entire life, too, and he attributes his writing acumen—at least in part—to that stutter. “The writer that I am has been shaped by the stammering kid that I was, and that although my stammer didn’t make me write, it did, in part, inform and influence the writer I became,” Mitchell said in an interview with the Paris Review. “It’s true that stammerers can become more adept at sentence construction. Synonyms aren’t always neatly interchangeable. Sometimes choosing word B over word A requires you to construct a different sentence to house it—and quickly, too, before your listener smells the stammering rat.”
I’ve been interchanging words (or at least attempting to) on the fly since I was 7, precisely so that I wouldn’t be discovered as that stammering rat. I never recognized this constant transposition as something that might actually benefit anything, though; it’s always been a habit derived from sheer terror. But then I read Mitchell’s depiction of his own childhood and found both courage and a powerful resonance in his words.
I’m not the literary icon that he is, of course, but through this piece, I also want to give hope to those stammerers who aspire to live life without fear, and also—neigh, especially—to those that dream of ridding themselves of the social barriers and the inner anguish it can foment. It’s very possible. You are not alone. And David Mitchell is far from the only person at the intersection of the arts and a stutter.
Alongside writing, my other primary outlet is music. I studied vocal performance in college and I’ve been singing my entire life—partly because I found that, for whatever reason, when a melody was adjoined to my words, my stutter disappeared. Neuroimaging has revealed various brain impairments that correlate to stuttering, one being relative deactivation in the left hemisphere auditory areas and frontal temporal region during speech. When we sing, though, we use the right side of our brain. And the sinuous qualities of song and the recitation from memory also help contribute to fluid communication—an anomaly in the life of a stutterer. So I sang, and so I sing.
I was particularly amused, then, when I read that the 1974 song “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by Canadian rock group, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, featured a private stuttering joke. The track’s signature tag—”B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-n-nothin’ yet”—was an homage from Randy Bachman to his brother Gary, who struggled with a stammer. The record company preferred the stuttering take to the original and released it as such. That sputter would go on to become the hallmark of the song.
After reading the BTO anecdote, I looked to see if there were other celebrity-related stammering instances and I was shocked at what I found. There exists a multitude of famous stutterers! Samuel L. Jackson. Emily Blunt. James Earl Jones. B.B. King. Marilyn Monroe. Elvis Presley. Kendrick Lamar. Nicole Kidman. Bruce Willis. And there are many, many others. Stuttering, to degrees that vary from barely perceptible to completely debilitating, affects an estimated 70 million people in the world, and celebrities are not excluded from that population. I have newfound reverence for all of these artists. Coping with a stutter on your own is hard enough; to do it with the world watching takes some real goddamn courage.
This courage, the indomitability of those that dared challenge their impediment, was the inspiration for this piece. For almost my entire life, if you had given me one wish, it would have been to rid myself of my stutter. Middle school, as you can imagine, is not a nice place for a stutterer. And the fear of speaking, reamed into us from bullies and the apparent ease of speech for non-stutterers, only exacerbates its effects. For the stutterer in these situations, to speak is to be a fish out of water. It constricts. It overwhelms. And after it happens, the fear that it could happen again lingers always.
My stutter, though much improved, remains a haunting memory of the terror and embarrassment I experienced growing up. As of this writing, I have spoken openly about it to exactly two people outside of my family, and both instances have come within the last year. Today, though, as I begin my 28th year of life (shameless birthday plug), I am thankful for my stutter, and I am appreciative of the fact that sometimes we cannot see what is best for us. For me, stuttering necessitated a lifelong workaround, and so it shed light on the joys of music, and it unveiled the richness of the written word, and it attracted me to the breathing techniques of meditation. Today, music, writing, and meditation are three things that define who I am, and I don’t believe I would regard them with the same fervency that I do if not for my stutter.
So, to all the stutterers and the similarly afflicted: sing, write, teach, joke, act, dream, and show the world why it ain’t seen nothin’ yet. You are not alone. In fact, you are in very good company indeed.
Image: Public Domain