I prepared to read a story adapted from a blog post a few months ago. It was for a very small storytelling symposium called Newton Speaks-voices of our city. It was moderately attended, there in the middle of the day on a Tuesday but nevertheless, I prepared. Everyday for a week, I read the story out loud—such is the practice of an old stutterer preparing to speak in public. I did the same when I’ve spoken in church over the past two years. Those readings were mostly done via zoom, although I did read two poems on Christmas Eve in the church building. Those readings of my own work and the work of some poets went well. I felt I could be expressive and I was not overly concerned about my speech which was not perfect, but not bad. This time, I was interested to see what I could do, how I might feel about the reading, how I judge my expression to be and my speech. Everyone was still in masks. Recently, going without masks into a few places has got me thinking about more of the implications of mask wearing. Apart from health concerns, masks hide, masks protect, masks make it hard at times to communicate which sometimes reduces the number of words spoken, ideas exchanged. Masks hide reactions and expression. And walking around the world masked can feel very safe and comfortable. I hadn’t understood that before this pandemic.
What a still-crazy time this is!
Zoom has been a mask as well. It was strange when I did those speakings for church. I was at home, talking to a whole group of people and yet in the very intimate setting of my study or at my kitchen table. When I did the “This I believe” talk, I wondered what it would have been like to stand in the high pulpit that our minister does every week. What would it have been like standing up so high and speaking? Our minister has commented about standing there speaking and looking down at those listening. It could be exciting, exhilarating, but it might also be intimidating. I am happy to have done my speaking at the kitchen table.
In the past few years when I have spoken, people have complimented my voice or my delivery. Mostly this was for guided meditations. When this first began happening, I was wary of compliments, suspecting that people were being kind because I was keeping track of the hesitations and repeating sounds. I did not hear anything in my voice or my speech to compliment. Slowly, over time, as I’ve been asked to speak or read I have become more pleased with my own voice. Oh my, that is too close to the familiar idiom about someone who is self-centered. But it is true for me. I have been learning to be pleased at the sound of my own voice.
When I performed as an actress, I could be fluent. This is not an extraordinary phenomenon. Then I was not aware of the sound of my voice but rather the way I was able to manipulate words. I was no Judi Dench but I was able to play with volume, pitch, rate and most lovely, pauses. I was, however, only able to do that as a character. When I spoke as myself, I was too conscious of my imperfections, too obsessed with not falling into a pit of blocks and repeats to enjoy the sounds that I made.
Just to be clear, stuttering did not stop me from talking. There were plenty of times when I was shy or reticent but when I had something to say, I spoke with blocks and hesitations and repeats. There were exceptions to all of my generalities—some truly awful times when I had to open court hearings with the traditional, Oyez, oyez, and introduce the judge and the case. My speech was truly awful with a judge who did not like me. Yes, indeed, for the person I expected the most criticism from, I became my old moderate to severe stuttering self.
This story reading followed my recent experiences. It was a good dramatic piece to read, about the war in Ukraine and writing pysanky to stop the evil in the world. It was easy to find the drama in it. And to use that drama. It felt very powerful, my practice paid off and I approved of myself. I appreciated the kind words of praise said to me afterwards and I could say sincere thank-you’s.
How I wish I could tell all this to my old friend, Carolina. My first reader of so much of my writing attempts. She was always a splendid reader of her own work—to listen to her was to be drawn into the world she wove with words. As I was standing at the podium reading my own small story, I flashed on her standing to read. She was so much shorter than I am but she spoke with power. How we would have loved to do this together! How she would have encouraged me to do more. Remembering her support and encouragement gives me such strength at this moment.
Perhaps it is very much time to do more.