For someone who writes for a living, it’s strange to think of words as the enemy. But for much of my life, that’s exactly what they have been.
From the age of six to 14, I had a stutter. Like Musharaf Asghar (above) from Channel 4’s brilliantly poignant Educating Yorkshire - who moved viewers to tears recently when his teacher, Mr Burton, helped find his voice for his English spoken exam - speaking out loud was something to be little more than endured. It wasn’t enough to render me mute, but it made speaking an issue. With professional help though - and simply the passing of time - while not entirely gone, my stutter has segued neatly into a mumble. And while I find looking back with humour has helped me over the years, in truth, my experience of speaking has been fairly debilitating.
Which is why I can totally sympathise with new research, published last week, which revealed women would rather die than stand up in front of an audience and talk. The survey of 2,000 women found the only things ranked above public speaking in their top 20 fears was losing family members and being buried alive. Melodramatic, sure, but then as anyone who’s had a speech impediment will testify, not outlandish. Especially when you consider that over 4.5 million of us have speech impediments - British Stammering Association CEO Norbert Lieckfeldt calls stuttering ‘the hidden disability’.
Stuttering is a terror that manifests itself physically with varying severity. Visualise the following: talking and then quite suddenly, not, as you hit a ‘trigger word’. Your tongue beaches itself against your teeth and nothing comes out. Then comes the cold sweat, flushing, before finally, somehow, you muster a word, any word (rarely the original, usually a synonym), and like that - the moment passes. My stutter occasionally resurfaces at inopportune moments. Interviews, meetings, although most recently I remember freezing during a work quiz after some idiot shouted: ‘I’m sorry, Morwenna, I have no idea what you’re saying’ when I suggested the (incidentally, correct) answer.
It’s thought you’re 20 per cent more likely to have a stutter if a relative does. One of my earliest memories is hearing my uncle trip repeatedly over the word 'chicken' while barbecuing one in France on holiday. Maybe my own impediment can be traced back to him? Who knows? Until I was a teenager, I struggled to give it a label at all - I’ve never understood why they coined a word linguistically impenetrable to its sufferers. Still, Lieckfeldt maintains it is treatable through speech therapy: ‘and the vast majority of them will recover normally’. I recovered, but not without an emotional hangover.
Children are pretty creative when it comes to locating weaknesses, so at school I was an open goal. Public speaking was hateful. Ditto Chaucer. As years went by, everyday dialogue morphed into a one great, un-fun journey so I devised ways to hide it, expanding my vocab to skip around the danger consonants. Every word had multiple synonyms (‘worry’ was replaced by ‘concern’), while trigger words (anything beginning with ‘st’ or ‘w’) were cushioned in rambling sentences. I’d also find myself using my hands to distract, adopting slapstick to illustrate or simply spoke in increasingly obtuse sentences, each word wholly disconnected from the neat language of my thoughts. I got away with it for a while, on the outside appearing to ruminate. Inside, though, I was buying myself time while my head performed what is now commonly known as a ‘semantic shuffle’.
Like Mr Burton in Educating Yorkshire, teachers offered unsolicited cures - singing instead of talking is still a favourite - although I found silence was the most effective. It became easier to just speak less. Eventually, around 13, I gravitated towards an almost monosyllabic existence.
People are surprised to learn this about me. I have hilarious rows with people who ‘just refuse to believe I had a stutter’. Which is wonderful. I’d like to say that my speech impediment has now become part of me. GQ’s Dylan Jones compared his to ‘a certain type of "otherness"’ but that simply wasn’t true for me. Maybe it’s different for boys, but having a rubbish voice as a woman feels charmless. I hated not being able to communicate. I hated winter drinking because it drove us indoors and I hated the way people bent down and cupped their ear, wincing in concentration when I spoke. I still hate that a lot.
By university, the stutter had given way to this mumble, born (as a therapist told me) from a fear of being found out; preferable, sure, but as someone who loved words, my impediment only reduced their value, and I began to view them as nasty appendages. I was terrified, truly terrified, my stutter would come back and wanted to expel the very things which gave me away as quickly and efficiently as possible. The relief of writing is indefinable. It was the only medium through which I could convey any real enthusiasm. Even now, I’d rather shave my head than speak in front of a crowd.
The same therapist later tried to pin my stutter on a childhood trauma. There could be some truth in this – emotional and/ or physical stress undoubtedly play a part. I didn’t want to address it, so I didn’t. Instead I drank, then spoke, and grew more confident. Before long, I only had a mumble to deal with. The turning point was living in Italy. Friends were patient as I grappled with the phonetics. Forced to perfect what I was saying, I concentrated on volume and annunciation. It worked.
While I’m on better terms with 'ST', ‘L’ and 'W' still occasionally trip me up, (really handy when you’re in a hotel room trying to interview Vincent Cassel with a gag about w-w-working with your w-w-wife). Otherwise, I’m much improved. Every single morning I pitch ideas to a room full of people with Dunkirk spirit, and every morning I’m staggered I get through it.
Being mild, my stutter mostly dissipated with age and confidence, although I dipped into hypnotherapy to prevent the pre-panic chain of thought. As years went by, I found sheer defiance (I took every opportunity to speak aloud) removed much of the fear. But still, every so often, I feel its grip - I’m not sure that will ever really go.
The summer saw the publication of a compelling memoir Out with it: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice by Katherine Preston. Preston has stuttered since she was seven. She still stutters now but rather more elegantly. It’s the only book I’ve read that deals with the issue accurately. It’s amazing, she notes, how you adapt to various reactions, and equally amazing that people feel that frowning is a suitable reaction.
But as Preston explains (referring to stutters, although I think this applies to all speech impediments), we should almost view it as a gift: ‘It brings out the best and worst in people’, she says, and I agree: mine's a great filter. Good people listen, or try to. At university, a friend later told me he had no idea what I said for the first three months, but agreed to have lunch because he thought (and I quote) ‘there something worth listening to beneath it all’. Which is nice. Let’s hope that rings true – this time next week, I’m addressing a room full of literary publicists. And I really don’t want to shave off my hair…