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Writer’s blocks

Keith Austin | 01.07.2013

Writing has always come easily to Keith Austin, who started work at his local newspaper, progressed to national and international publications and is now writing novels. But he wonders to what extent his stammer influenced his career decisions.

Words have always been a big part of my life. They have always fascinated me and, looking back, surely helped to form me even when they were recalcitrant and squirmed and kicked in my mouth; when they refused to be pinned down, or when they just plain and simple refused to come out and play.

Not all of them of course, just a few, such as the number ‘seven’. Imagine my despair when I found out the telephone number of a newspaper I went to work for began with a seven. Every call became a nightmare: “I’ll have to get back to you,” they’d say. “What’s your number?”

The written word has never been a problem, ever since those first tentative moments on my mother’s lap as she read to me. There didn’t seem to be a time when words didn’t speak to me. With maths, for instance, there was a genuine eureka moment, as if I were a cartoon character and the light bulb appeared above my head and pinged on, all bright and yellow and surprised.

But words; well, words were always there. It was as if they had just lain hidden in my head, a fully-formed alphabet waiting to get out and cause mischief and wonder. But whilst they played nicely on the page – my first ‘novel’ written in primary school with pencil drawings of monsters by a friend, then the poems, the short stories, the local council literary prizes, the school magazine, and then newspapers – they were bully boys in my mouth.

“Words were always there. It was as if they had just lain hidden in my head, a fully-formed alphabet waiting to get out and cause mischief and wonder.”

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t stammer, from before primary school to, well, now. I was bullied throughout school and at home whilst playing out with the other kids on the council estate. Today it has more or less gone. Indeed, two years ago I wrote an article for The Guardian about my stammer when The King’s Speech came out, and after reading it, even close friends admitted their surprise, saying, “I didn’t know you stammered!”

They wouldn’t have thought that last year when I was trying to find my way to the famous Highgate Cemetery. Try asking for directions for that when the word ‘cemetery’ won’t come out of your mouth for love nor money; you end up sounding like you’re asking for Highgate, which, when you are standing in Highgate, can seem a little odd.

How has stammering shaped me?

I wonder now, though, how much my stammering shaped me. My first novel came out last year and, whilst writing another memoir about the influence of the local library on my chosen career, I couldn’t help wondering how much having a lifelong stammer affected not only me, but others of my ilk.

Certainly, acting was out. A few early appearances in drama class put paid to that. Or did it? It didn’t stop James Earl Jones, Emily Blunt, Bruce Willis, Sam Neill, or Jimmy Stewart. These must be the stammerers who, rather than stick their heads in the sand as I used to do, supposedly overcompensate by taking on speech challenges that even the most fluent people would avoid. This suggestion comes from someone who stammers that I came across online, who has listed what he calls the ‘predictable personality ingredients’ of people who stammer, which include a strong streak of perfectionism, sensitivity to criticism, an inordinate need to please people, avoidance, procrastination, passivity and fearfulness.

I’m not convinced; this seems to me to be as scientific as predicting personality based on star signs. Hi, I’m Keith. I’m a Pisces, I’m sensitive, a dreamer and I love f-f-f-fish. And although the sensitivity to criticism, avoidance, procrastination and fearfulness all describe the younger me, they could also probably be used to describe many a young person.

So, I went online and checked out the lists of famous people who stammer. If my theory was correct I would surely find a preponderance of people for whom writing alone in a room was the preferred career choice. But for every Lewis Carroll there was a Winston Churchill. For every Margaret Drabble, John Updike and Henry James there was a Demosthenes (the pebbles in the mouth guy), a Robert Donat or...actually there do seem to be a lot of them. Cartoonists, writers and singers seem to be overly represented in the lists.

Career options

Does having a stammer ease you towards professions that entail as little human contact as possible? Was my only mistake in the early days not to realise that journalism actually meant talking to people? In fact, in those first few months of agony at the East London Advertiser in Bethnal Green (the newspaper with the evil phone number), I did contemplate leaving and starting a whole new career as a long-distance lorry driver!

At the time I didn’t realise why this odd choice had entered my head. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. After all, I didn’t know any long-distance lorry drivers and since passing my driving test three years previously at 17, I had only ever driven a Ford Escort estate, and the furthest away from London I had ever got was Cornwall. In hindsight it seems obvious - all those miles and miles of driving with nobody around to ask stupid questions, or expect answers: bliss.

I’m glad I stuck at it though. Forcing myself to confront the problem – that damn phone number, the public relations people who always wanted to ring you back saying, “What was your phone number again?”, the face-to-face interviews, the phone calls, the confrontations with colleagues – was exactly what was needed.
My stammer followed me through a reporting career on local newspapers in East London and Oxford. I then managed to worm my way onto a sub-editing (or subbing) desk in Basildon. I’ve never really thought about it before but was this perhaps a way of avoiding speaking to the public? As a sub-editor you deal with your colleagues in the office but rarely with the public at large. I had always seen it as simply a career move but perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps I was still running away. I could edit, write headlines, design newspaper pages – just play around with my beloved words if I’m to be truthful - without ever coming into close contact with ‘new’ people.

Either way, it was the right thing to do. I ended up editing a whole bunch of local newspapers by the time I was 25 and from there I spent fifteen or so years in newspaper production at places such as The Sun, The Daily Mirror, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Evening Standard, The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday.

I also worked in Beijing from 1991-2, and in 1995 I moved to Australia to work for The Sydney Morning Herald. And the stammer? Well, it came along for the ride but it must have run out of steam somewhere in all that moving around and, I suppose, in my increasing confidence in myself. I also learnt ways to deal with it - to switch words, to use my hands as distraction pieces, to pepper my speech with pauses and conversational tics so that any stammering was hidden under layers of artifice.

It was in Australia that I decided enough was enough and I went back to reporting and writing. Because you know what? I realised I enjoy talking to people. Face-to-face if I can help it (the phone can still be an instrument of torture sometimes).

“Whilst words played nicely on the page...they were bully boys in my mouth.”

Writing my first novel

Ever since I was little I have wanted to be a writer, a proper writer with a proper book on a proper bookshop shelf – and I have the discarded manuscripts to prove it. Finally though, it began to happen. A few years ago I decided to take some time off work, leave without pay, to put my money where my mouth (that recalcitrant organ) was. It took three months but I managed it; and at the end of the process I had the first draft of something called Grymm, a horror novel for the 12+ age group. I also discovered that I liked that process, the mechanics of writing.

It’s not all solitary confinement. I wrote a lot of Grymm in my local café, sitting in the corner, drinking coffee, making notes, writing down ideas and outlines. Earlier this year I did the same thing - I was locked away in my flat in Sydney writing another book and loving every moment of it. I was tempted never to come out.

Ha, ha, ha! Just kidding. On the whole I’m lucky. I don’t stammer much nowadays, though it comes back a little when I’m tired or nervous, or when I’m asking for directions to cemeteries. So, if I do pop up in your neck of the woods, please be gentle with me; don’t finish my sentences and be a little patient – I will get there in the end. Of course, if all this goes really well then one day I’m going to have to come out and publicise my seventh book. Which is easy for you to say, but for me, well…

Grymm by Keith Austin is published by Random House and is available on Amazon, iTunes and The Book Depository. Keith has just finished a follow-up book called Snow, White, to be published next March 2014, in which the main character is a teenager who stammers.

From Speaking Out Summer 2013, p14-15.