A Stutterer’s Guide to Writing Fiction
How do you find "voice" in your writing when your own voice sometimes betrays you?
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The first time I knew my voice was different—or at least, my first memory of this difference—was in third grade, Mrs. Case’s homeroom, when I watched a classmate do an impression of me. The classmate’s name was also Jake, which added authenticity, but this Jake knew karate and was the star of several local commercials, so he took bullying seriously and was very good at it. I’d once seen him crane-kick a fourth grader off the swing set.
“I’m—I’m—I’m, J-J-J-Jake,” he mimicked, “andI’macrybabywhocriesallthetime.”
I was a crybaby who cried all the time, but the voice thing was news to me—the way Jake sputtered and spit, the words gaining momentum until he released them in a flood of syllables. I was defenseless against this attack, which was coming, like a roundhouse kick, from such an unexpected angle.
A week later, Mrs. Case sent me home with a letter for my parents. I opened it, against her wishes, on the bus. It said I was having “difficulty communicating” and that I would need to see the speech therapist. I told my best friend, sitting next to me, that my parents would intervene and spare me from this humiliation. I was wrong, and when the speech therapist showed up to homeroom to lead me away, I knew then that I would never see myself, or hear myself, the same way.
Thirty years later, I’m at home practicing for a reading I’ll soon give from my debut novel. The passage I’m going to read is one of my favorites in the book—a short scene from the point of view of a 122-year-old woman who has just learned that a group of doctors want to study her body after she dies. The woman agrees to their request, but her arthritic hands prevent her from signing the contract. There’s a simple line: “She remembers her hands.”
With a blue pen, I cross out the word remembers and replace it with thinks of. I have just made the line a little bit worse, but there’s no way I’ll be able to read it out loud otherwise, not with a remember sitting so close to the start of the sentence.
My classmate didn’t have it exactly right, with his Porky Pig–style mimicry, the J-J-J-Jake. Stutterers call that repetition, and it’s not much of a problem for me. I deal more frequently with blocks: a total loss of voice when confronted by certain words and sounds. I know before I speak that a block is coming, but there is little I can do but search for a different word. This makes reading out loud especially difficult—I lose the ability to choose. Any word can do it, though as for most stutterers, certain sounds are always difficult for me. I struggle the most with R’s—roasted, remember, Rasputin.
Just as with the old woman in my book, doctors have studied stutterers since the beginning of recorded medicine. Hippocrates believed stuttering was caused by dry or irregularly shaped tongues, and similar beliefs persisted until the 1800s. For centuries, stutterers seeking treatment had their mouths mutilated, their tongues cut into chunks, their palates scored like bread dough. Nearly all of these mutilations were barbaric, and some were fatal. Other historical treatments for stuttering have included institutionalization, blood-letting, and trepanation (drilling into the skull). Stutterers have had grass fibers burned on their skin, they have had knitting needles driven through their tongues, they have been forced to drink tonics composed of goat feces.
These horrific treatments are relics of the past, but the stigmas associated with stuttering persist today. For this reason, I’ve always been more drawn to research about how “normal” speakers react to stutterers. Studies in the Journal of Fluency Disorders have shown that children who stutter face higher and more severe rates of bullying than non-stutterers. Likewise, adults commonly rate stutterers as less intelligent, less confident, and less trustworthy than their non-stuttering peers. Research shows that teachers and even speech therapists sometimes share these biases; one recent study concluded that social workers, amazingly, carried more negative and harmful perceptions of stutterers than a matched, untrained control group.
As a third grader, I knew none of this, but I would soon learn much of it through experience—the way people would tell me to “relax” when I was perfectly calm, the way teachers would talk to me as though my vocabulary was far behind my classmates’ even though I was often reading ahead. For me, stuttering was the hard shove into writing, a place where I could communicate safely and where I could be seen as smart, articulate, confident. Like a lot of young writers, I was crazy for fantasy, and I wrote every day about knights and wizards and kingdoms in peril. There were no creative writing courses in my public school, so I wrote without knowing about point of view, about concrete versus figurative language, about scene versus summary. I wrote without knowing how my stutter would someday find me, even in fiction, through a word I cannot escape: voice.
Creative writers love to talk about voice. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway advises, “Don’t look for words that seem right; just listen to the voice and let it flow.” When discussing point of view in Building Fiction, my former professor Jesse Lee Kercheval reminds readers that “The voice is what holds together the story.” In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott dedicates an entire chapter to “Finding Your Voice.” When it comes to tackling “the writer’s job,” she tells us, “You can’t do this without discovering your own true voice.”
To be clear, these are some of my favorite books about writing—practical, soulful, encouraging. I’ve assigned them to my classes on many occasions. These authors are defining voice in a specific way, albeit one you have to scroll pretty far down in the OED to find: “a mode of expression or point of view in writing.” But this more literary sense of voice still finds it roots in our understanding of voice as a sound, or series of sounds, that can be physically uttered by a speaker and physically heard by a listener. In other words, lost in this discussion of voice and flow is always disability: the way, for some of us, speech and sight and sound often stutter or simply don’t work at all.
This is not a call to arms against voice, which communicates something important about writing and point of view. But I am, maybe, calling for a greater understanding of the ways in which voice is not always “findable”—it is not a sunken treasure that, once recovered from the sea, allows you to become a Real Writer.
Instead, for me, voice is an anxious word. It is slippery and strange and sometimes humiliating. That’s what Karate Jake couldn’t capture with his cruel, red-faced impression. My “own true voice” is sometimes silence.
In How to Find Lost Objects, Michael Solomon describes the Rule of 18 Inches. He says that when you’ve lost an item—your phone, your watch, the TV remote—you’re most likely to find it less than two feet from where you first looked. I was thinking about this rule because last week, as I was leaving my apartment to go teach an undergraduate fiction workshop, I couldn’t find my wallet.
“Have you seen my—” I began to say to my wife, but I hit a block.
As is typical, my stutter has decreased in severity as I’ve aged—some friends, students, and colleagues have said they don’t notice it at all, though I think this is mostly because they don’t know what they’re seeing when I hit a block. They think I’ve just forgotten what I was going to say. I’ve also grown skilled at hiding my stutter: at least once or twice a month I will order food at a restaurant based not on which dish I actually want but on which I think I’ll be able to say. At our local sushi place, my wife knows that if she wants to share the tuna tataki appetizer, she’ll have to be the one to order it.
She also knows that when I hit a block, my preference is to wait in silence rather than for her to try to finish my thought. My insecurity about my blocks can make me stubborn and even mean; I do not like being interrupted.
So we waited for wallet to arrive.
My first fiction workshop in college was run by an old professor who never let us read each other’s stories, only hear them. When your turn came, you would bring a single copy of your story to class, read it out loud, and then listen quietly as the class critiqued the story based on that single instance of listening. The professor said, “If you don’t read your work out loud, you’re not a writer.”
I agree with the gist of his advice, which is simply that writers should try to speak their work. I often encourage my own students to read their stories out loud to themselves before turning them in to the workshop. In Bird by Bird, Lamott returns repeatedly to the act of reading out loud. She describes a student’s surprise at the awkwardness of her own sentences and diagnoses the problem as a lack of vocalization: “The problem is that the writer simply put it down word by word; read out loud, it has no flow, no sense of the character’s rhythm….”
For me, and I suspect for many writers with speech or communication disfluency, reading my work out loud will catch typos but it will not make my sentences smoother or more flowing or more beautiful. Quite the opposite. If I were to let my speaking voice dictate my writing voice, my work would grow hard and sharp like cactus needles. It is the soft sounds, R’s and W’s, the wry remembrances, the whispering winds of a white winter morning, that block me.
When I believe my writing is good—which is sometimes—I find strength in the way my stutter has taught me to approach word sequence with extra care and urgency. I can say a word that starts with E, for example, if it comes after a word that starts with T, but almost never if it comes after a word that starts with A. One phrase that comes up surprisingly often in workshops and which blocks me every time is “an exclamation point.”
I have gained something from this more tactile relationship with language, from being forced to think of words as having shape in this way—from feeling them get stuck in my throat, wrapped around my tongue, affixed to my lips like glue. I can feel the passage of words through my body. This movement is joyful but also scary, because I can’t fully control it, and all of my writing lives in that in-between space. It’s a space I’m proud to inhabit, even if I sometimes wish I could leave.
If I have one piece of advice for non-stuttering writers, it’s to think of words as objects within you, some of which you may never be able to claim. This brings me back to Lamott’s advice to find your “flow” and “the character’s rhythm” by reading your stories out loud. If you’re physically capable of doing so, I’d urge you to follow that advice. But I’d also ask you to remember that words should not always come easily for you or for your characters. Silence is a part of language, and so is pain. Rhythm and flow don’t have to be smooth to be beautiful.
I don’t know if it will make you a better writer to think this way, but it will make you more aware of the tools you use to communicate—it might even make you cherish them more deeply—and awareness is one thing a writer can never have in too great a quantity.
Lately, when I hit a block, I’ve been thinking about the Rule of 18 Inches. Does this rule also apply to objects we can’t see or touch—to loved ones we’ve lost, to memories faded, to words we can’t speak? Are they always so close, just an arm’s length away from where we first tried to find them?
Obviously the answer is yes. That’s the paradox of loss: it’s one thing we can’t lose.
My third-grade speech therapist told me that a block is exactly what it sounds like: something to get past or break through. But I’m not sure I ever do get past a block; I definitely don’t break through them. Over time, they have just sort of accumulated in me, all these words I wanted to say. The remembers and the wallets and the exclamation points.
Some of them I spoke, some of them I didn’t, and some of them, thank god, I wrote down.