Friday, August 19, 2005

A Little Straight Talk About Not Talking Straight

Okay, this is one I’ve been putting off for a while, but last night while attending one of my “speech groups,” I let slip that I have a blog, and I think a few people from that group might be checking in soon. It’s important to note that this was the “feelings” group, not the “fluency” group, and as the members of the feelings group are all about “advertising,” I now feel obligated to peel away yet another layer of the onion that comprises the personality of yours truly. I promise to be brief — and in the process explain what I just said.

I speak with a stutter. In terms of severity, it’s a rather mild one. On average, I probably have trouble with one word occurring in one out of every five sentences. Usually the episodes are brief and often times unobserved by the listener, but the stutter is always right there where I can see it and I am ever-conscious of its presence. I have stuttered all my life, as far back as I can remember. In the fifth grade, my school had a speech therapist come to see me once a week and we played card games mostly (I don’t believe the stutter was ever addressed for some odd reason). Aside from that one instance, I never sought speech therapy until I was 43.

Naturally, I grew up self-conscious of my speech and I allowed it to hinder me. This “stepping back” took many forms: not contributing to some conversations even when I could furnish the crucial point, playing dumb in class when called upon to answer a question, refusing to ask girls out whose names were too difficult to say, and so on. Here’s a good one: at a self-serve gas station I used while in college, I avoided pump numbers seven and eleven, as at this one station you had to announce what your pump number was when it came time to pay! My career choice may have been affected by my speech, because I anticipated not having to do a lot of talking as a graphic designer.

At 43, I joined a year-long program where I learned the “airflow technique.” The airflow technique is a method of speaking developed by Dr. Martin Schwartz, who one day came up with an original theory on the cause of stuttering while watching someone’s larynx through an ultrasound device. He believes that stuttering has a physical cause, in stark contrast to all the other experts who think it’s psychological. I attended his weekend workshop in Boston, and then for one year I practiced different assignments every week. At the end of every week, I recorded samples of my speech with a special microphone that could detect subtleties in my breathing, and mailed the audiotapes off to a clinician who reviewed and critiqued them for me. I also joined a group of other “airflow-ers” who met twice each month and practiced with them.

My speech is much the better for it, and I no longer shrink from many of the situations that used to intimidate me. I joined a Toastmasters club for a time and I have made more than a few business presentations. At parties, I think some people, having met me for the first time, have come away thinking me glib. My biggest challenge seems to be the telephone, but even there I’ve had my share of successes. Many people who know I stutter claim not to even notice it. It does seem I can communicate well enough.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I attend two groups. One is a chapter of the National Stuttering Association, which I attended last night. I call this the “feelings” group, because improving one’s fluency of speech is not the primary focus there. It’s more about sorting through the baggage accumulated from living with a disability (hate to use that word, but there it is). They believe we should declare to the world that we stutter and not be ashamed of the fact — “advertising,” in other words. From time to time, we have special meetings where we each stand up and give five minute prepared speeches. That’s what happened last night, and for the occasion I read Name That Moon.

The other group is what I call the “fluency” group. In this one, feelings are not even discussed. For two hours we practice the airflow technique, doing drills and fining each other 25 cents for every misstep when caught not strictly employing the technique (nobody ever stutters during these sessions). It’s hard work sometimes, but a lot of good comes of it.

Well, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I have to say about that.”


Here’s what Peter O’Toole has to say about method actors. I just read this in one of last month’s TIME magazines and thought it was really funny:

“When you’re playing Hamlet, and you and Horatio are up on the battlements, Horatio says, ‘But look, the morn in russet mantle clad/Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.’ Well, it isn’t! You’re looking at Charlie the prop man with a fag in his gob. It’s pretend, for God’s sake!”


Blogger :phil: said...

What a great post mr. schprock. This sounds stupid I'm sure, but you'd never know you stutter by your writing ;-)
Maybe that has something to do with why you are so good at writing, it's been a medium of expression for you that you can control. We all have our stuff, don't we...

12:39 PM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I don't stutter, but I have always been a fast talker. As I've gotten older, I've found that I often mix words up in my sentences (take the camera out of the film)or I combine words and it takes me about three times to get the right word out. Not nearly like stuttering, but frustrating just the same.

Some little girls I know had a lot of family problems. When the youngest got sent to live with her abusive father, she started stuttering. But once she came back here, it stopped. They could never find a reason that she started in the first place.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Mr. T said...

I sometimes stumble/stutter over my words.. I think its sometimes I'm thinking too fast for my mouth to keep up. Which in some cases a good thing because what I'm sometimes thinking should be expressed in words. ;)

Thanks for sharing that aspect of Mr. Schprock with us, uh, Mr. Schprock.

And your pick for the speech was a good one. That post is one of my favorites.

3:02 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thanks guys. Actually, most of the time I don't identify myself as a stutterer, but I do run into blocks from time to time and have to slow down take ’er easy. We all have our Achilles heels, I suppose. You know, Superman and kryptonite and all that.

Not that I'm saying I'm Superman…

3:25 PM  
Blogger Chloe said...

Hi Superman, er...Mr. Schprock-
fantastic post! Although I don't stutter, I totally identified with what you wrote about avoiding certain situations. I have a debilitating fear of public speaking (except when I'm teaching, go figure). I can count on one hand the times I've raised my hand in class since starting grad school.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

In my 30's, I developed this strange stutter. Once in a while, a word comes out before I'm ready for it so I just hold on the first letter for a while. My husband used to pick on me until I told him I couldn't help it, that it just started one day.

Now it only happens probably once a week or so, but I remember feeling so embarrassed that I had to qualify my speech to someone.

Now, this is a silly question, but could you always sing without stuttering? I'm just curious.

And thanks once again for being so open and honest.

5:29 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Yes, that was very open and brave to admit. My achilles heel has been snoring, which made me afraid to fall asleep amongst other people, especially of a prospective mate. I was in a fraternity briefly in college, and had to sleep in a common room with all the members of the house, and frequently would wake up after someone had thrown something or shook me, only to find that the perp didn't want to be known. I wonder about the singing thing too, as the Knitter is no doubt thinking of Mel Tillis, who can't speak a sentence without stuttering, but sings like warm honey.

11:38 AM  
Blogger :phil: said...

mr. schprock, I'm not sure if my above comment was comfirmation of my latent stupidity. I appologize. I've never had a problem with stuttering, but I would get terrified having to speak in front of people. Not just in school, but even in my current work situation where there are constant meetings, as you know. I would get all red in the face and embarassed, and the more aware of it I was, the worse it got. I felt like George Costanza in the Kung-Po episode. It really wasn't until I got into my current 'condition' a year and a half ago that I started to calm down in those situations and I can now speak with comfort and not look like a radish. I admire how you have taken steps to confront your situation and how you have blogged about it and shared that personal aspect of you.

3:40 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Listen, Phil, I have to tell you I got a big laugh out of: "This sounds stupid I'm sure, but you'd never know you stutter by your writing." I told a friend that and he thought it was funny too. I'm not terribly insecure about my stutter (although if it was worse, then maybe we're talking a whole new ballgame). I have a really good support system and I have taken strong steps to make my speech better. Believe me, there was no offense taken.

And, Phil and Chloe, I totally get the fear of public speaking. I joined Toastmasters for a little while and that helped to some extent. With groups of no larger than 8 or 10, if anything my speech improves! I can't explain it. Maybe it's like what happens with James Earl Jones and several other stuttering actors — once the lights go on, they assume another character and not stutter.

Scott and Knitter, something common to nearly all stutterers is perfect fluency while singing. Also, when saying something in unison with other people, stutterers tend not to stutter. It's called the "choral effect." Nobody's really sure why this is.

And by the way Scott, my wife snores. I sleep with earplugs and a white noise device! It really works!

4:27 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

My wife makes me sleep with a pillow that props my head, and she swears that when I do it I don't snore. So all that fret about nothing. That was one of my fears when I asked her to move in with me originally, and she comes up with a position that keeps me quiet. Go figure.

6:33 PM  
Blogger :phil: said...

I'm the opposite of Mel Tillis.
I can talk, but not sing...
go figure.

8:51 PM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Maybe because with singing, all the words are already there in memory and not in whatever part of your brain thoughts that you are trying to express are. Maybe?
I have a fear of public speaking. Thankfully, I don't have to ever do it. Guess no one wants to hear what I have to say anyway. :P

Mr. Schprock, ever get annoyed with how people who stutter are sterotyped in TV and movies? Just curious.

11:00 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

By the way Scott, you could not possibility equal my father for snoring — and I don't think any pillow could help him. How my mother has dealt with that all these years is a mystery.

Hey Phil — but can Mel Tillis play a guitar?

Nypinta, I think generally stutterers are dealt with rather kindly in TV shows and movies. Some members of the organization I'm involved with, the National Stuttering Association, got all up in arms about "A Fish Called Wanda" years ago, but the thing I mainly noticed about Michael Palin's performance was how accurately he imitated a stutter (I hear his father is a stutterer). I thought that scene when John Cleese was trying to get information from him was really funny.

Everybody should want to hear what you have to say, btw. You're one of the best, Nypinta.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Mrs.T said...

In the book I was reading while completely drugged up, the main character had a stutter, and the way she avoided certain things and changed her instinctual behavior reminded me of what you said. You learn to live around it I guess.

Ofcourse on vicodin yesterday I said to GK 'Yeah he thinks I'm a brick short of a wall'or backwards 'Yeah he thinks I'm a wall short of a brick' crap... now I don't know how I said it but it wasn't right... I get 'saying's' sometimes backwards, even off of the vicodin.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Paul (rock star wanna be) said...

An awesome post. I too speak with a slight stutter. I've had some of the same feelings you expressed, but never veralized them.
I've always contributed my stuttering to the fact that I have some difficulty organizing my thoughts in a real time pace.

Again, a great post. Have a great weekend...

11:52 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Mrs. T, you're not going to believe this, but there is someone who attends the NSA group who doesn't stutter, but has a condition speech therapists relate to stuttering that has to do with difficulty in organizing one's thoughts. It's called "clutter," believe it or not. I doubt you have to worry about having clutter yourself. This woman uses a lot of free association when she speaks, gets kind of mired in details, that sort of thing.

Thanks for the comments Paul. I wonder, have you ever needed speech therapy? I know several people with a very slight stammer who really have no complaints about their speech.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Paul (rock star wanna be) said...

I attended a special speech class for about 2 years in grade school. That is about the extent of any type of dealings with my speech problem.

5:38 PM  

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