Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Guest Post: A w-w-w-word in your ear by Keith Austin



WORDS have always been a big part of my life. They have always fascinated me and, looking back, surely helped to form me even when they were recalcitrant and squirmed and kicked in my mouth, when they refused to be pinned down, or when they just plain and simple refused to come out and play.

Not all of them, of course, just a few such as the number ‘seven’. I wrote in The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jan/09/stammering-the-kings-speech) of the tribulations of being a stutterer and working at a newspaper where the first digit of the phone number was a word I couldn’t say, but I do wonder now just how much the stammering shaped who I am today.

The written word has never been a problem. There didn’t seem to be a time when words didn’t speak to me. It was as if they had just lain hidden in my head, a fully formed alphabet waiting to get out and cause mischief and wonder. But while they played nice on the page they were bully-boys in my mouth.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t stutter. From before primary school to, well, now. Though today it’s more or less gone and, indeed, after the Guardian piece came out even close friends admitted surprise: “I didn’t know you stuttered!”

I wonder now, though, how much the stuttering shaped both me and others of my ilk. Certainly, acting was out. A few early appearances in drama class put paid to that: “W-W-When sssshhall w-w-we three m-m-m-meet again, in thunder, lightning or in r-r-rain?”

Though it didn’t stop Nicole Kidman, James Earl Jones, Emily Blunt, Nicholas Brendon (Xander in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series), Bruce Willis, Sam Neill, or Jimmy Stewart – erstwhile stammerers all

These must be the stammerers who, rather than stick their head in the sand as I used to do, supposedly overcompensate by taking on speech challenges that even most fluent people would avoid.

That suggestion comes from an online stammerer who has also lists what he calls the predictable personality ingredients of stammerers: a strong streak of perfectionism, sensitivity to criticism, an inordinate need to please people, avoidance, procrastination, passivity, fearfulness.

I’m not convinced; this seems to me to be as scientific as predicting personality based on star signs: “Hi, I’m Keith and I’m a Pisces, I’m sensitive, a dreamer and I love f-f-f-fish.”
My stutter followed me through a reporting career on local newspapers in the UK before I wormed my way on to a subbing desk. I’ve never really thought about it before but was this perhaps a way of avoiding speaking? I had always seen it as simply a career move but perhaps I was still running away. I could edit, write headlines, design newspaper pages – just play around with my beloved words, if I’m to be truthful - without ever opening my mouth.

In the ensuing years I learned to deal with the stammer, to word switch, use my hands as distraction pieces, pepper my speech with pauses and conversational tics so any stuttering was hidden under layers of artifice.

Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to be a writer, a proper writer with a proper book on a proper shelf in a proper bookshelf – and I have the discarded manuscripts to prove it. Finally, though, it happened with the publication of Grymm in 2012 and Snow, White, in May last year.

And in Snow, White, at last, I got my own back. The main character, John Creed, is a teenage boy with a stammer who, because of it, is bullied at school. I knew, quite literally, how he felt. This time, though, the outcome was different.

The stammer? It’s still there at times. So if I do pop up in your neck of the woods, please be gentle with me; don’t finish my sentences and be a little patient – I will get there in the end.

Of course if all this goes really well then one day I’m going to have to come out and publicise my s-s-s-sssseventh book. Which is easy for you to say but for me, well …


Keith Austin is the Sydney-based author of Grymm, Snow, White (both published by Random House) and Jago, the 3rd in his loose Fractured Fairytales trilogy (Jago is available at www.keithaustin.org/jago-2  for $15 plus P&P).

Keith will be appearing at the Somerset College Celebration of Literature on the Gold Coast from March 18-20. Visit www.somerset.qld.edu.au/celebration-of-literature for more details.

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