Reading, Stammering, & David Mitchell.

I got a kindle for Christmas, and yesterday I purchased my first ebook for it: ‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell. ‘Cloud Atlas’ was one of the best books I’ve ever read (possibly the best book I’ve ever read), so I have to read more by this guy. ‘Black Swan Green’ is strikingly different to Cloud Atlas so far, but I’m just as captivated by the writing, and it’s already having a pretty big impact on me, partly because the protagonist, Jason Taylor, is a stammerer. He’s more of a stammerer than I am, but his descriptions of how it feels to get stuck on words are painfully familiar. I’ve never read about this condition in a work of fiction before. I wish this book had been around when I was in middle school. Being able to relate to the character would’ve made me feel better about my not-so-secret little secret.

David Mitchell himself is a stammerer. According to Wikipedia, Mitchell says “I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13 year old.” It’s interesting how stammering is such an awkward thing for stammerers to talk about. Even though I’ve “confessed” to it in a blog post that was probably read by most of the people I talk to on a regular basis, I still pretend it’s not a thing and try to hide it when it happens and avoid talking about it in person. Disguising a stammer is a luxury only afforded to the mildly afflicted, I suppose, so I should be thankful for that. That said, it has been pretty frustrating lately and I’ve been substituting a lot of words with “thingy” and “whatsitcalled” in conversation with my boyfriend. (He’s the primary victim of my incessant talking.)

Something I never thought about much when I wrote the blog post linked above was the difference between stuttering and stammering. I think technically the term ‘stuttering’ does encompass the whole collection of speech disfluencies, but Jason Taylor makes a neat distinction between the two terms that works for me:

Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they’re as different as diarrhoea and constipation. Stuttering’s where you say the first bit of the word but can’t stop saying it over and over. St-st-st-stutter. Like that. Stammering’s where you get stuck straight after the first bit of the word. Like this. St…AMmer!

Like David Mitchell and his character, Jason Taylor, I am more of a stammerer than a stutterer, and it’s so strange to pick up a book and have the author address and describe the sensation in a way that I can understand so fully, even although I (thankfully) don’t experience it to the same degree as the unlucky protagonist does. He refers to his stammer as the Hangman, a malicious character always waiting to trip him up, to ambush him, to strangle him with blocked words.

I’m considering giving a stammer to one of my characters in the next thing I write. I reckon it’s a pretty common condition, and perhaps if it was featured in books and films more often in a way that wasn’t played for laughs (“Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”), then it would start to be normalised and become less of a thing for stutterers and stammerers to be so deeply ashamed of.

If you haven’t read anything by David Mitchell yet, please do. He’s brilliant. I’m going to read all of his books. That’s going on my list of things to accomplish in 2013, and I doubt I’ll have a hard time ticking that one off.

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