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When the stutter in the room is bigger than you are. (Illustration: Renee Jacobi)
When the stutter in the room is bigger than you are. (Illustration: Renee Jacobi)

The Sunday EssayDecember 24, 2023

The Sunday Essay: From dead air to stuttering through it

When the stutter in the room is bigger than you are. (Illustration: Renee Jacobi)
When the stutter in the room is bigger than you are. (Illustration: Renee Jacobi)

I’ve lived with a stutter all my life. I’m finally accepting it as part of me. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Renee Jacobi.

There’s an incident that’s been stuck in my mind for close to a decade. I was invited on national radio to discuss a play I’d written about the perils of social media. Appearing on a radio show is a pretty uncommon experience. Appearing on a radio show when you have a stutter is even more unusual. 

At that stage of my life, I was still fairly nervous about talking in public. A lifetime of people frowning in confusion whenever I encountered a block did not recommend it to me. Whenever I went out for food or to pick up tickets to an event, I’d ask friends to do the talking part. It wasn’t that I couldn’t talk (obviously), it was that I simply didn’t want to deal with people’s confusion and ignorance. Does anybody really want to deal with either of those things? (Answer: Yes, performance artists, but they tend to get paid for it. I have yet to be paid for my stutter, but welcome all offers.)

It goes without saying that an audio-only medium is not a natural fit for someone with a stutter, especially the kind I have, where you experience ‘blocks’, or periods of silence where words don’t emerge. It results in what is professionally known as “dead air”.

To get around those blocks, I go back to the start of a sentence, change the words I want to say, or simply wait until my brain, body, or some combination of both decides to stop blocking me. The irony of being a playwright, tasked with the clear and effective placement of words, all of which are said out loud, isn’t lost on me. 

Anyway, before I went on air, I chatted amiably with the journalist interviewing me. She was very experienced – by far the most established journalist I’d encountered – and while she wasn’t especially warm, she was pleasant enough. I remember encountering a few blocks; no more or less than in any other conversation. It was fine.

Then we got to the actual interview. It was pre-recorded, I might add, so there was no need for me to be perfectly fluent, with plenty of opportunity to re-record.

During the recording, I encountered a block. The journalist was exasperated. The actual phrasing of what she said escapes me, but I remember something to the effect of, “Why do you keep stuttering? Can you try to talk like before?” Her tone was one of snippy frustration, like I’d overcooked her steak or given her soy milk instead of oat.

That experience has stuck with me. I was there to discuss my writing, an art form where I’ve never had any issue saying what I mean. I’ve never even experienced writer’s block. To be unable to discuss my work without impediment wasn’t just anxiety-inducing, it was properly humiliating. 

But I can handle humiliation. The hardest thing was feeling like I was the smallest person. Smaller than my speech, smaller than my stutter. In that moment, my stutter sat across the room from me, separate, sucking up all the air.

A few months ago, I was asked to read some of my writing out loud to an audience at the New Zealand Young Writers Festival.

This is a deeply normal request for a writer’s festival. I was part of a panel and all the other guests were poets, so it was clear what they would read. I didn’t have anything planned. As a journalist, I am understandably never asked to read my work out loud, and as a playwright, I have the tremendous joy of listening to people with professionally-trained voices say my words out loud.

By this stage, I wasn’t especially nervous about speaking in public. It had been eight years since my unfortunate encounter with the journalist on national radio, and I’d done a lot more public speaking by then.

As I figured out which text to deliver, I reflected on how, in my entire career as a playwright, I’d never actually read something out loud that I had intended to be performed by another person. 

I’d also never been asked. 

People just assumed it was something I didn’t want to do. The obvious explanation is that I’m not an actor, and professional actors barely get enough chances to perform, so why would anybody ask me? The less obvious explanation, the one that clawed at the back of my brain like unhealthy insecurities tend to do: no one ask me because I couldn’t get through it fluently.

I ended up picking a piece of mine that I’d heard an actor read recently, a reading I’d helpfully had recorded. I listened to it a few times to pick up the cadence and flow. 

After two poets and a comedian read their material in front of a few dozen people at the writer’s festival, I read mine. Here’s a small part of it:

“You need someone who will allow you to have days that don’t drain you, but fill you up with life and potential and energy, and raise you into the sky.

You need someone who makes you not forget but let go of the bad, and remember or hold the good, the great, everything that makes life good and life easy.

You need someone who laughs at all your jokes, including the unfunny ones.

Even though none of your jokes are unfunny, obviously.”

It’s a bit 10 Things I Hate About You, if I’m honest. At any rate, when I performed it, people applauded. They also applauded everybody else. I wasn’t special. But more importantly, I wasn’t different. Others might have stumbled, may have had their own blocks. Even the most talented actor isn’t fluent all of the time.

Eight years after my stutter had me feeling like the smallest person in the room, reading out loud to a room full of people had me feeling the same size as everybody else.

I thought about my stutter, its size, and where it sits in the room in relation to me again last month. I performed in a playreading for the first time. I read the role of Em, in my queer, gender-flipped adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, which is set in modern day Queenstown and is a deeply silly play. Me playing Em was a longstanding inside joke with one of my best friends. The idea of a venue in New Zealand shelling out the money for a 10-person play is as ludicrous as the idea of me, a non-actor with a stutter, playing the lead role in a two-hour show with some extremely intricate dialogue and a lot of punchlines that require precise timing. 

Like most inside jokes, it went too far. I ended up scheduling a reading of this play in Hamilton, and after realising it would be too big a hassle to find someone from Hamilton who could play Em or drive an actor in from town, I decided I might as well play it myself. What was the worst that could happen? (Answer: Throwing up and shitting myself at the same time, onstage, in front of everybody. Unlikely, but within the realm of possibility.)

It forced me to answer a question I have dreaded putting into words, even inside my own head: “What is the worst that could happen if I stutter in this situation?” Whenever I do, my brain leaps to scenarios like emergency telephone calls, giving directions, and yes, radio interviews. 

The reality is, in most scenarios, the worst thing that can happen if I stutter is that… people realise I have a stutter. 

When people realise I have a stutter, they do sometimes assume I can’t do certain things. Things like ordering drinks, calling to make a doctor’s appointment, and collecting the tickets (in fairness, I very rarely want to collect the tickets, but that’s because of impatience, not stuttering).

From one vantage point, stuttering might be viewed as involving a kind of privilege: the privilege to exceed people’s expectations. From mine, however, this was no consolation. I lived with the cold knowledge that once people knew I had a stutter, they expected less of me. Low expectations take something away from you.

The reading went well. As many people have pointed out, on a spectrum that varies wildly from “deeply insulting” to “pretty complimentary”, I might as well have written the role of male Emma for myself. But what’s less important than how well it went is the fact that I did it at all.

I stuttered, because I have a stutter. But it didn’t stop the writing.

And it didn’t stop me.

Earlier in the year, before the playreading and the writer’s festival, I hung out in a room with a bunch of kids who have stutters. I was observing a workshop run by a man who stutters (differently to me), who runs workshops like these all over the world. The goal is simply to get a bunch of kids in the same room and allow them to be with other people who stutter. Even more crucially, to be in the majority.

It was the first time I’d been in a room containing more people who stutter than those who don’t, at least in a non-therapeutic context. The facilitator said to the kids, “In this room, you have as much time as you need.”

You have as much time as you need. What a beautiful illusion to give to a child. There is no dead air. It’s your air to fill whatever way you like. If it’s words, great. If it’s stuttering, great. Everybody takes time. You get yours.

Talking is the primary way we express ourselves in a modern world, even when so much communication has moved online. It’s how we directly convey information, face-to-face with each other. It’s also how we indirectly convey information, due to the tone of our voice. For most of my life, I’ve felt like the way I talk is the least authentic way I can express myself. How I dress, how I move, especially how I write is closer to who I am and what I want to say than what comes out of my mouth.

Now that has changed. It’s not that I don’t stutter, I still do and likely always will. My last words, whatever they will be, will probably be stuttered. It’s more that I’ve come to view my stutter as an authentic part of me, like a scar you get used to seeing in the mirror. 

Whenever I’m in a room and required to talk, my stutter is there with me. It’s not bigger than me. It’s not smaller than me. It doesn’t sit there, metaphorically watching me, ready to jump on me and create dead air. It’s just there. A part of me.

Keep going!