Friday, August 13, 2010

A Companion, Not An Enemy

Talking with NRP's Terry Gross about his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell explains how he domesticated the stammer that he had found paralyzing and isolating when he was younger:
It took a long, long time to understand that a stammer is more like a kind of a force field, and the more you throw at it, the more it throws back at you. You sort of have to outwit it rather than outfight it. And, in a way, not even outwit it.... I think of it now as a kind of a companion. It's a part of me. It has a right to exist as I do and I need to sort of come to a working accommodation with it.

A friend who was an alcoholic once said to me that an alcoholic never stops being an alcoholic. He may - but what you have to aspire to be is a teetotal alcoholic. And in the same way a stammerer, I think, certainly in my case, will never not be a stammerer but you have to aspire to becoming a non-stammering stammerer. And this involves certain strategies and techniques that you can sort of encrypt into how you speak so that I'm able to do this interview, for example, which 20 years ago would've been unthinkable. And in the end, these strategies can become so well-integrated into who you are and how you speak that they become behavior and speech patterns rather than techniques....

I view my stammer now as a companion and not an enemy. I might've been a writer without it, but I certainly wouldn't have been this writer. One of the strategies I was referring to, which you meet quite early on in your career as a stammerer, is you autocue sentences ahead of time. You see what words are coming up, and say right now I'd have difficulties with words beginning with S. If I, certainly as a younger person, if I saw an S word was approaching then I would try and reengineer that sentence to avoid needing that S word. And this teaches you how language can be employed many, many different ways to say the same thing.
And then the lesson from his experience for the rest of us:

If life is obstacleless, if you're just coasting along without responsibilities, without duties, without sort of having to take care of an elderly relative or an offspring with special needs or whatever, well, perhaps, that's what existential malaise is. Maybe that's sort of when you start to drift and have problems of another type. Maybe your problems and your obstacles, rather like your stammer, is in fact, a kind of friend in disguise for you. I don't know if we're venturing into self-help territory too much here, but it's something that I kind of believe in.

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