Jonty Claypole spent 15 years in and out of speech therapy. He tried everything, until he was finally told his stutter couldn’t be cured. He began a journey to make peace with his stammer, learning to use it to his advantage. In this extract from ‘Words Fail Us’, Jonty explores our fear of disfluency, revealing how accepting it could actually increase our creativity, authenticity and persuasiveness.
One evening in 2009, I found myself in a state of extreme anxiety, standing in the dark and drizzle outside Holborn station. The entrance was fanned by a crowd of commuters trying to squeeze their way out of the rain, through the ticket barriers and down to the platforms below. No such escape was available for me, though. I had a task to do; one that filled me with more fear than almost anything I had ever done.
For some time I procrastinated, finding endless excuses, mostly to do with the fanciful notion that those passing me were the wrong sort of people. But finally, fed up with being wet and cold, and disgusted by my own inaction, I made my move.
Lurching towards the nearest passer-by, I said, “Excuse me!” The man stopped. He was a tired, harassed-looking commuter who glanced rather regretfully towards the station entrance but turned nonetheless.
I looked him in the eye and smiled. “Can you tell me the way to…” And then I blocked on a hard C sound. I felt my top lip quiver, my nostrils flare, my chin strain. I hit that “Co-” sound five times, never breaking eye contact, and then released: “Covent Garden?”
To my surprise, the weary businessman didn’t laugh or sneer, but simply gave me directions and hurried on without another word. Apparently he just wanted to get home. Emboldened, I repeated the exercise on another passer-by, then another.
I did it seven times in total. I’d like to say they all exhibited the same disinterested reaction as the first, but one gave a quizzical smirk as I blocked and another laughed outright. I then returned to the strip-lit classroom barely a hundred metres away, where ten people with stutters like mine were gradually regrouping.
This was the City Lit course for Interiorised Stammering. We were all people who had constructed our lives around avoiding the act of stuttering for the simple reason that, on a good day, we could just about manage to do so. We had just made our first out-of-the-classroom foray in the technique of voluntary stuttering.
I am ashamed to say that despite a lifetime of stuttering and avoiding stuttering, I had never looked anyone in the eyes at the crucial moment. I had spent my life fearing the disgusted reaction people must have to my stutter without ever looking to see whether it was true.
Facing my fear of public speaking
That night was a turning point. When I looked that commuter in the eyes, I also looked for the first time at my stutter itself as something I might try to understand rather than hide from. In the ten years since, stuttering has ceased to be a significant presence in both my spoken and unspoken use of language.
The reason for this is, I think, a perfect storm of elements. There is, of course, the impact of the City Lit course and the excellent speech therapists I was lucky enough to encounter. While endlessly emphasising that there is no cure for stuttering, that they could only help me change my attitude to it, they also made me fear it less, with the outcome that I did it less.
There are other, more prosaic changes that probably played a role. I was getting older, for a start. We still don’t know why conditions like stuttering often alleviate with age. It might be about acceptance, it might be about changes in the brain.
Then there was my job. I accepted an irresistible promotion that meant I couldn’t avoid public speaking any longer. Within a couple of years I was readily and regularly participating in talks, interviews and debates, often on air or in front of large groups of people.
I feared it dreadfully at first, neurotically preparing and over-preparing for days, but you can only maintain that level of fear, with the requisite preparation time to compensate, for so long. I learned to speak impromptu. I found that along with the fear was a seed of pleasure that flowered and grew with each event until the anxiety and enjoyment complemented one another.
While I still block on words much more when public speaking (and, I should add in self-admonishment, still resort to the sort of word substitution I am trying to avoid), it generally doesn’t prevent me from saying what I have to say.
Along with the fear was a pleasure that grew until the anxiety and enjoyment complemented one another.
My fluency also increased through researching ‘Words Fail Us’. I became fascinated by those, like Lewis Carroll, Edwyn Collins and Jess Thom, who found a creative outlet for their speech conditions. I felt proud to be associated with what I increasingly saw as a historical and cultural tribe: people with a fundamentally different experience of language going back as far as records allow.
Most of all, I found myself deeply moved and inspired by the bravery of those I met: people for whom every sentence was imbued with disordered speech, who in the process of coming out had wrestled with appalling self-loathing, real rather than perceived social discrimination, and who, in some cases, even considered suicide. My own experience of stuttering, mostly interiorised, felt petty in comparison.
I am particularly inspired by the younger generation who, still in their teens or in their twenties, openly identify as people with speech disorders and manage to recognise and celebrate the distinctiveness of their speech while also acknowledging the pain it has caused them.
Creativity and tolerance
There’s a final reason why I think I am more fluent, yet also identify more strongly as a person who stutters than ever before. Shortly after completing the City Lit course, I met a woman whose experience of stuttering was similar to mine. Not only did Constance stutter, but most of her family did, simply as my mother had done. Finding myself part of an extended family of people who stutter, although with great variation, was a joy.
In the early years of our marriage, Constance and I found ourselves having to do a lot of public speaking for work. It was a new experience for both of us. We would spend hours rehearsing presentations at one another, which would generally begin with a giant block followed by moments of verbal collapse throughout.
We were trying to pass for fluent, and by the time the talk came, most difficult words had been carefully ironed out. I think the whole process made us less self-conscious and we prepare less intensely now. If we stutter, that’s fine. And, of course, just that mental acceptance means we do it less.
At the time of writing, our two children are learning to speak. If learning to speak is a form of stuttering, when does it become considered a ‘problem’? And if one of our children does stutter, will we take them to speech therapy, and at what point?
As one of the many born with a speech disorder, I dream, for future generations more than anything else, of their acceptance. But there is an unexpected risk here. Once the shame and the coping mechanisms disappear, once the fear of language and the need to use it differently are rendered obsolete, will speech disorders still have the same creative and productive characteristics, or will they diminish? I want to preserve rather than eliminate such qualities.
The solution, I think, is to go one step further. As well as accepting speech disorders, let us all distrust language a little more: vigilant for the delusions and misuses it is put to; more open to experimentation, trying unusual words, strange sentence structures, and resisting rather than striving for more consistent use.
Rather than seeking for better inclusion of people with speech disorders in society, let’s instead seek to make society use language more like they do. We will, I think, be more tolerant, creative and wiser for it.
About the contributors
Jonty Claypole is Director of BBC Arts, Chairman of the arts centre HOME in Manchester, and is named in The Bookseller 150, a list of the most influential people in publishing.
Rory is a socially engaged arts producer and Founder of the cross-arts collective Hiatus. He is a person who sometimes stammers, and is passionate about social justice, equality and using the visual arts as a platform to stimulate dialogue and exchange. His work is focused on process, conversation and challenging audiences to reconsider the way that neurodiverse individuals and groups are represented.