A cure for stuttering

film3It’s true I think, as Adam Phillips remarked in one of his later essays, that we continually speak each other’s unspoken thoughts. We are not as discrete as we appear to be. There are many things in our lives that get spoken over and over, that we can’t stop speaking of, that are, in a sense, barely intelligible markers of things we don’t really know we are turning into utterance. It’s as if there is always something unspeakable inside us.

We all have pockets of unintegrated stuff hidden away within; autistic bits, psychotic bits, dissociated bits, and so on. They try and make themselves known again and again, in all sorts of weird ways. It’s as if we keep stuttering over and over, even stuttering about our stuttering. Those of us who are readers and writers may well be the worst stutterers of all. Writers speak in books, over and over. It’s as if the highly literate are people who just can’t shut up.

In my case there is one particular book, a novel of adventure of all things, that I have read repeatedly more than any other. It was written in the early 1960s and was once made into a famous and extremely bad film. I regularly discard it, only to find it stammering its way back into my life every few years. Of course, this begs its own question; why is this particular book so bottomless, why this book of all books?

The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa claimed – heteronymously – to repeatedly read only a couple of books, both written by priests, one on rhetoric the other on grammar. ‘I read and I abandon myself,’ he says, ‘not to reading, but to myself.’ Perhaps Pessoa lets the cat out of the bag here. Maybe in our reading we are just trying to find ways to speak of ourselves to ourselves over and over.

For a long time I used to stutter in my daily conversations, always unexpectedly and unpredictably and, it goes without saying, at unwanted moments. It can be an excruciating thing stuttering, to not be able to say what you want to say, to feel the stream of your thought and intention being fractured and dismembered. It’s like being inside a glass case or like trying to communicate from within the Cone of Silence.


And then it so fell that I had to do some lecturing and run a lot of workshops and speak at conferences. And not only did I not stutter when I did these things, it did not even occur to me that I might. On the contrary, I suddenly found myself fluent, relaxed, spontaneous and without any sense of nervousness even if I was speaking to a couple of hundred people.

The crux of the experience it seemed to me then, was that I felt free to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. Whereas in the verso of ordinary conversation what I wanted to say could never be said or communicated except by stammering. For the stammering person there is no greater feeling of helplessness than to finally get past the gatekeeper of your own stutter and speak your intention, only to have the other gaze at you in utter incomprehension. Of course my sudden unexpected freedom from stuttering – itself an unexpected stutter in my stuttering – can also be thought of as freedom from the complexity and anxiety of reciprocal interaction. A lecture is in no way a conversation. In a lecture no accommodation is generally made for another’s thought or interruption.

Another way of putting it might be to say that the stutterer is someone very good at evoking incomprehension, or someone who is skilled at trying to make the other say the things that they themselves are unable to. Who hasn’t had the experience of wanting to speak the stutterer’s words for them?

Stuttering can also be the default position when there is nothing to be said. If words fail me, then stuttering makes that apparent. Poets are those people who stammer musically. If I listen to hip-hop, what strikes me is how similar the cadences of the verses are – no matter how fluent the rhyme – to stuttering.

Most writers say the same thing over and over. That’s not a criticism; it’s just what writers do. That’s how we recognise a writer’s ‘style’. I always read Beckett’s famous line from Worstward Ho, ‘fail again, fail better’, as a kind of gentle encouragement to other writers, an act of courtesy. That is, Beckett was trying to be nice. Actually, writers just fail. There isn’t any other option. We shuffle offstage still unable to shut up – whoever heard of a silent writer – stuttering as we go.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. I often wonder about writing. You talk about people saying the same things over and over; and writers as perhaps people who just can’t shut up… I wonder about writers being trapped in some kind of internal monologue. People talk about writing and ‘journaling’ as a kind of therapy for working through internal stuff – as though the writing or the thought involved in order to do the writing dislodges some issues which would otherwise remain hidden, but is it an act of therapy or an act of creation? Is the existence of that internal shite dependent upon the writing? Is it helpful or harmful? Is writing a substitute for talking? Perhaps safer than talking – for to talk would mean someone other than the self would be listening. Is it safer just to talk to the self; or talk in books which you never really know who reads or even if they are read at all? For as you say it must be frightening to talk “only to have the other gaze at you in utter incomprehension”. Engaging with the other is scary, because it is unpredictable. It seems though that we can rely on the predictability of our own responses to our own thoughts, and its safety. But there seems such a trap in that. Is there some real internal person who believes what they’ve written to be true?

  2. Thanks for this Kylie, and for providing a response that brings out so many things tucked away inside the post. I don’t think a self exists separately from the writing, as a kind of concrete object that issues forth a novel or a poem or whatever. What writing is could be problematised a lot more I think, and the products of that writing even more so. I’m fed up with novels and poems and other products of writing, myself. What do people think they are doing when they write novels? I’m buggered if I know, but no-one seems to be asking a lot of questions about that. Recently in the Guardian, Ian McEwan was reporting as saying, in the context of accepting the Jerusalem Prize that, “the novel has become our best, most sensitive means of exploring the freedom of the individual.” This seems deranged to me. Writing as a way of repeatedly producing certain objects, or as a’ craft’, looks like something of an autistic process. I think writers really believe in some kind of transcendental essence inside a poem or a novel, I think they really believe in some kind of ‘true self’ that can be found, as if they’re all still living in the Enlightenment. I think they really believe that writing can exist outside of politics. I think they really believe that if they write a novel, and it turns into a book-object and it receives a prize, that confers some real value on a real object. I find this really, really bizarre. Stuttering is an interesting metaphor for writing, and a whole lot of other things, and yes, you are right that having “the other gaze at you in utter incomprehension” is a writer’s great fear, a fear that is never addressed in writing because even though it is the predicate behind all our ways of building relationships and the politics thereof, something we gave to negotiate every day, writers acts as though the problem doesn’t exist.

  3. Hi Wallace
    I think the ‘cure’ was finding the times when I didn’t stutter. I still do it sometimes, usually when I’m on the phone. I hate using phones not just because I tend to stutter more, but because my preferred strategy to cover up stuttering (brief silence) doesn’t work on the phone. Why I stuttered was (I think) tied up with finding a language and expression that was my own. I used to be excessively worried about upsetting people with injudicious words, or being understood in a contrary way. Now I don’t worry about that at all.

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