I stared out the car window, a seven-year-old, lost in a vortex of dark thoughts I didn’t understand, not crying, not yet, not in front of the girls.
My little sister, Louise, always eager to dispatch new information, shouted from the back seat while her two friends suppressed giggles. “Ooh, mommy! André was sent to our class today!”
“Oh?” said my mom.
“Yes! Because they said he was stupid!“
Louise (left), me (right), ages unknown.
We’re all pieces on a chessboard of life, the board obscured in a fog, the moves adjacent to us only just visible, our place in the world an adventure to be discovered.
At 49 years old I wanted to understand why I write for a living. Why I write for a living.
On the surface the question is perplexing, a paradox. Why would a dyslexic choose to write for a living, in much the same way a one-armed man would choose to become a professional boxer? It makes no sense. Until it does.
If you do a brain scan on a person with dyslexia, the images that are produced seem strange… The scan looks like an aerial photo of a city during a blackout.Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Chapter Four, Part 1)
Louise (left), me (right), ages unknown.
After dropping us off at home, my mother returned to the school, demanding to see the principal, wanting answers. This was the lady who had dragged me out of class in front of everyone, depositing me unceremoniously with a bunch of younger kids I didn’t know. “He needed to be shamed,” she said, my mother in tears. “Your son wasn’t paying attention in class. He never does.”
“We have a very difficult home life,” my mother said between sniffs, a tear snaking down her cheek. “He’s a sensitive child.”
As it turned out, whatever signals I was unconsciously experiencing were accurate—my parents would announce the divorce a year later. (Sensing something important was amiss I hid in thick foliage below the living room window, eavesdropping, discovering a bombshell I didn’t understand. Dad had come home early after Mom confronted him over the phone, “Tony, are you seeing someone else?” Dad came clean, no deflections or excuses, but was hoping to only tell Mom after Christmas because his family was coming. “Tony, that’s your problem now, I’m leaving in an hour with the kids.” And then, Louise and I bundled into a green VW Beetle (Mom got the car), lodged between suitcases and a frozen turkey, headed back to the city of my birth to move in with Super Gran, me projectile puking out the half-open backseat car window as we hit the highway between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, an acrid-smelling marbling effect streaked inside and outside the little green Beetle, the next chapter of life catching me off guard, my need for order spiraling into chaos once again.)
The principal sighed, “Look, I think he has some issues.”
The child psychologist the school set me up with asked me to do a drawing. The principal called my parents in for a chat, showing them what I made. “Take a look at this,” handing my parents the sketch.
I’d drawn a small picture in the bottom corner of a large white page. My mother looked up, concerned.
“That tells us,” said the principal, “that André has no self-esteem. He doesn’t feel good about himself. He’s sensitive, maybe affected by his home life. We feel it would be best to keep him back a year.”
My parents both agreed.
During my second year in Class 2 a wonderful young teacher who had been giving me extra remedial lessons phoned my mother one day, “Charlee,” said the teacher, “I’ve managed to find a place for André at a remedial school, and I really think André will benefit from it. If you agree, let the principal know.”
God, I loved Livingstone Primary!
The maximum stay was two years, and I was there for the whole duration, aged ten and eleven. I finally felt normal, being around other hyperactive (ADHD) kids on Ritalin who struggled to read and write, an environment that allowed us weirdo’s to blossom within our dysfunction.
But when I first arrived, at age ten, I couldn’t read.
It was a painful affair. In class, the teacher would read to us kids while we lay on the floor, eyes closed, lost in the wonderful stories of The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five by Enid Blyton, books for a younger reader but perfect for us.
Sir Arthur Rd, Durban, South Africa (2022 from Google Maps)
To help progress my reading, Mom—god bless her for trying so hard—would drive us to Sir Arthur Rd, and park up under large trees, the sea in the distance. Mom would read a paragraph, then I would painfully plod through the next one, as we flip-flopped like that for an hour, struggling through a Meg and Mog picture book written for kids half my age.
My reading slowly improved, but around the time I started Livingstone, I’d developed a stutter.
Dyslexia is a problem in the way people hear and manipulate sounds. The difference between bah and dah is a subtlety in the first 40 milliseconds of the syllable. Human language is based on the assumption that we can pick up that 40-millisecond difference, and the difference between the bah sound and the dah sound can be the difference between getting something right and getting something catastrophically wrong.Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Chapter Four, Part 1)
From the research I’ve done about stuttering (also called stammering), it turns out it’s a relatively common speech problem in childhood—studies suggest around 1 in 12 young children stutter—but most children outgrow developmental stuttering.
My stutter was persistent, a malevolent shadow. Other research suggests that people with severe dyslexia show a higher prevalence of stuttering.
The first traumatic moments I remember around my stutter were when doing front-of-class orals in high school. Anxiety and stress increase the likelihood of being caught in an embarrassing stutter-loop. Being shy and introverted certainly didn’t help.
I dreaded orals, vibrating with fear for days leading up to the inevitable catastrophes! Kids can be cruel, and someone stuttering in the front of the class like a stuck record was an opportunity few kids could pass up to laugh and snicker.
It wasn’t until I left school that I learned to avoid certain words or word pairings like radioactive waste, though it wasn’t always possible, like the not-so-simple task of ordering a movie ticket.
I was at Durban beachfront cinema to watch the long anticipated Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (I won’t lie, I had a massive crush on Linda Hamilton!)
The pronunciation of Terminator was one of those tricky phonetic triggers for me. You’ll know what I mean if you’re one of the unlucky 1% of adults with a stammer.
But it’s weird. Beautiful, even, how the human body adapts to counteract disabilities in ways that can feel superhuman, like a superpower. Adults with a stammer will also know what I mean.
We can sense a phonetic choke-point before it happens by saying the word in our head. The te of Terminator, for example (for me).
Or when speaking verbally, knowing what we want to say before saying it, we get to be somewhat strategic by swapping out “problematic” words, or if caught off guard at the start of a stammer, quickly substituting the word with another without the recipient realizing that a magic trick had just been performed.
I needed to order a movie ticket for Terminator 2. I knew the phonetics at the start of the word would almost certainly catch me out—I could feel it—so I went through variations to myself of how I would ask for a ticket:
“Ticket for Terminator 2, please.”
“One ticket for Terminator, please.”
“Can I have a ticket for Terminator.”
“Two tickets for Terminator.”
As I said, I knew the te of Terminator would be a problem, so Terminator by itself was out of the question. Coming in cold like that would be an inevitable car crash. But sometimes, it’s possible to sneak up on the problematic word by getting some momentum from preceding words, like the down turn on a rollercoaster.
To complicate matters, some word pairings, not individual words, can cause the problem. The t of ticket would amplify the possibility of the te of Terminator causing the stammer train wreck.
One (“One ticket…”) is easier, but the anxiety from knowing ticket and Terminator came next could derail the stutter train. The phonetic of two (“Two tickets…”) in this context is easier than one, but then I would be paying double for my damn Terminator experience, a cash-poor student at the time.
I don’t remember how long I practiced saying the chosen sentence in my head—over and over—maybe fifteen minutes. It wasn’t an insignificant amount of time.
Eventually, I was as ready as I would be. Apprehensively, I approached the line, but someone beat me there, slotting in front of me, causing me to have to wait, anxiety building, repeating the sentence in my head like some mantra meditation.
Then it was my turn, and, on cue … I fucked it right up!
“Te-te-te-te-te-teeeeer-minator ticket,” fell out my mouth like molten treacle, heat flooding into my cheeks, sweat drenching my underarms as embarrassment and shame washed over me. I slid over the cash, eyes down, grabbed my ticket, and slunk off like a kicked dog.
The embarrassment is overwhelming when this happens, especially in public. It never gets easier. Ever.
Years later, in my late twenties, I was working in IT, hammering away at a computer keyboard, when the COO approached me from behind and asked a question. Caught off guard, not having the time to think about the best words to use in response, I immediately launched into a machine gun stutter. The walls folded inward like some sci-fi movie wormhole, heat flooding my cheeks, the acoustics of my words taking on a tinny effect as if coming from the other side of the room with cotton wool in my ears, everything dissolving around me.
To his credit, he didn’t skip a beat. But I live with that moment like a gnarled scar.
I recently heard an interview on a talk show with actor-comedian Rowan Atkinson, where I noticed him doing the real-time stammer substitution. It was noticeable to me, but I suspect went unnoticed by the show’s hosts. A quick Google search verified my assumption.
Unlike some other famous actors with this speech difficulty, Rowan Atkinson’s stutter is not widely known. However, stuttering still is definitely a factor in his life. (Source)
Like Rowan Atkinson, I’ve got a lot better at masking the fact of my stutter. Most people will never know. But they also don’t know I’m a world class magician, carefully choosing words a few steps before they fall out my mouth.
The process produces a substantial cognitive load, depleting energy. It can be exhausting. Because of this “invisible” always-on background juggling act when communicating verbally, I lack the freedom of fluid, unencumbered speech everyone takes for granted.
It’s hard to explain.
Think about it like this. Within the constraints of our vocabulary, there are almost infinite permutations to express a thought or idea as a verbal expression. But you mostly don’t have to think about what words to use; they just come out of your mouth, fully formed.
Now imagine having to think about what words—within the context of a sentence not yet spoken—to use, and, in real-time, run word combinations in your head to identify thorny phonetics and word-parings, substituting potentially problematic words, reconstructing the sentence, then expressing it verbally. Hoping shit doesn’t go sideways.
So there’s a lag. Slowness. And there’s anxiety, always anxiety.
It may not be noticeable to someone not familiar with the constraints of stuttering, but our malevolent stutter shadow is there, waiting to trip us up, to embarrass us, the fluidity of speech compromised.
Thirty years after a teacher called me stupid, I was living on a beach resort in Marbella, Southern Spain, with my wife, Anita. It was 2009, the iPhone was still new, and Amazon had just released the Kindle app.
I remember lying on the bed one Saturday afternoon in May, exploring the App Store, and noticed it was possible to download books for a few bucks. I purchased The First Apostle by James Becker (real name, Peter Stuart Smith).
I still don’t know what compelled me to think I was going to read a book. Even in high school, I didn’t “read” books—my friend’s mother, Daphne, would read books we gave her from the library and explain them to us, just enough feedback to allow us to write our book reports. I don’t think I’d ever read a proper book cover to cover before. I was 35 years old.
Lying on the bed I started to read.
I don’t remember when I stopped reading that day, but it was multiple hours, lost to a world of words, the movie spooling in my head more vivid than any Hollywood Blockbuster.
Then I purchased Persuader by Lee Child. And just like that, I was hooked. I’ve read fiction every day since, thousands of books according to my Kindle digital library.
I’ve been making up for lost time.
I’m still a painfully slow reader, constantly stumbling over words, but I can’t stop reading.
There’s a beauty and elegant simplicity with words on a page, arranged in perfect order, blossoming worlds so real, characters so vivid, a magic trick hard to believe it’s not real.
“Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”Anne Lamott
At some point during high school in the late ’80s, I acquired a ZX Spectrum. While I was drawn to the games (a lot, I won’t lie), it was my introduction to programming that I valued most.
I acquired my first IBM-style PC in 1991 for my 18th birthday, powered by MS-DOS, a text-based environment. Bundled with MS-DOS was GW-BASIC, a programming language developed by Microsoft, which became my gateway drug into a world where I could imagine something and then create it using lines of code. This wasn’t sophisticated code.
The rush I got from creating something from nothing never failed to fascinate me, causing a dopamine spike I craved, easily powering me through countless late nights like a spotty-faced Duracell Bunny.
I never became a computer programmer, that’s someone else’s story. But three countries later (South Africa, United Kingdom, Spain, Gibraltar), and three decades later, in late December 2016, that familiar spike of dopamine suddenly came roaring back, like a light switching on.
I was making my morning coffee, and a news piece came on the radio about a Skype sex scam. The injustice of the news report (I’m highly motivated by injustice!) compelled me to create my own alternative narrative, where I could dole out justice to a degree that felt appropriate and just to me.
So that weekend, I hammered out a 5,000-ish-word short story.
I had never written one word of fiction before. Nothing. Which showed in how badly it was written. But this time, unlike reading a narrative invented by someone else, I was the architect—I had discovered God Mode! I got to create something from nothing, just like I did as a pimply-faced teenager inventing lines of code.
And just like that, I was hooked all over again.
Since writing that first short story on a whim in 2016, aged 43, the idea of getting better at CNF (creative nonfiction, like this essay) and fiction has constantly been whispering in my ear, nagging me. Where words on a page could create something from nothing, a creative expression so powerful, it could change hearts and minds or, like this first story did for me, provide a powerful self-therapy session.
Gradually, I’ve surrendered to the idea, unable to fight the fear of getting to the Pearly Gates one day not having embraced creative writing. Not wanting to take that regret into the afterlife with me, I’ve been working at getting better at creative writing.
It’s a slow hard road.
But that’s OK. It’s the whole point because the joy is in the atelic process of doing the work, wrestling with words on a page, engineering magic.
One of the things I discovered on this journey is that there are two kinds of writers (this applies to nonfiction and fiction). Those who need to plan and plot before writing a word (like John McPhee, as expressed in Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process), and those who need to discover what they think on the page.
I’m the latter.
There’s an excitement I get from taking a single thread of a thought, idea, concept, or prompt and pulling on that thread, word by word, sentence by sentence, allowing the ideas or story to form on the page as paragraphs are revealed to me, leading to insight, an endnote, or plot twist, that sometimes surprises me as much as the reader.
Creating something from nothing is a magic trick that never gets old, never failing to fascinate. The process of discovery, as words interact on the page to form prose, is pure magic.
For me, reading and writing feel surprisingly similar: I discover the story as I go. There’s a major plot twist two thirds of the way through Neon Fever Dream that reframes everything leading up to it. I didn’t see the twist coming as I was writing the rough draft of the novel. I just reached that point in the story and realized what had to happen next. It blew my mind, and from what I’ve heard, many readers shared my experience.Eliot Peper, Novelist
Writing this essay was all discovery.
While I had stories, vignettes I felt represented the cornerstone moments that have shaped my path across the chessboard of life, in trying to answer the question, “Why I Write,” the expression of those stories happened on the page, as words interacted with words and new thoughts emerged in the moment, often surprising me.
Writing is not one’s finger poised over a keyboard, waiting to transcribe thoughts as they emerge in the mind.
There’s no magic in that.
Robert Yagelski, a professor of English Education, in his book, Writing as a Way of Being, explains the difference between “self expression” and “expression of the self”:
Writing is a form of self expression. I have a self that is separate from the writing process—I have thoughts in my head, and writing is a tool to bring those thoughts to an audience.
Expression of the self (through writing): the self exists in the process of writing; it’s a becoming—what happens in the physical process of writing that creates thought itself in that physical experience.
Unless you’ve experienced this as a writer, this idea will be difficult to understand. But as Yagelski explained, thoughts emerge on the page through the process of writing. This doesn’t—and can’t—happen in one’s head.
There’s a physical interaction between mind and page as words are expressed as sentences, informing new ideas that didn’t exist a second earlier, and those ideas form new sentences, then paragraphs emerge, and if you’re lucky, magic happens in front of your eyes and you’re hooked all over again.
These magical moments never get old.
I crave it.
“Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”Madeleine L’Engle (Award-winning writer and poet who produced more than 60 books during her career.)
I was working with a writing coach, Alida, on my fiction, and the lesson was around the idea of ‘show don’t tell.’ I had ten minutes to write a scene based on a simple prompt:
The Girl Was Cold.
I wrote the start of a scene as best I could under the pressure of doing the writing live on a Zoom call. I could feel there was a story there wanting to be told, but I had no idea where the story would go. So after our call, I was compelled to pull on the thread and find out.
The scene was early morning, still dark, and our yet unnamed protagonist was huddled under a bus shelter, waiting for her ride. Words interacted with words; before I knew it, the girl was jumping to get warm.
Then, just like that, out of nowhere, an idea emerged on the page large as life with implications that would become the story’s engine. I stopped writing, staring at what had just happened, mind whirring.
What had emerged was seismic, but too soon.
I put the big idea aside and continued to write the scene, pulling on the initial thread. Finally, the bus arrived, and the girl got on. Words collided with words, then, just like that, the next piece emerged, her bus destination, the implication of which, however, was still elusive to me, like trying to grab onto a cloud. So, surrendering to not knowing, I wrote the next scene.
When the plot twist happened in the final scene, it was a shock (seriously, André!?), but, as a mere vessel for the story, it wasn’t for me to judge and avoid writing the ending as it emerged and wanted to be told.
So I wrote the ending.
I’m including the first edition of this story as described above (it’s 960 words).
“Everyone’s genius is right next to their dysfunction.”Graham Duncan (Talent Is the Best Asset Class, Ep. #362, The Tim Ferriss Show)
My best subject in high school was technical drawing, which I enjoyed and found easy. Perhaps I could have become an architect. English I hated and barely passed. Yet I write nonfiction professionally now, crafting fiction on days off and the hours in between, and loving everything about it. Go figure.
Looking back at the chessboard of my life, I can see the lines of cause and effect, invisible to me before, the fog having evaporated away. It’s clear to me now that I wouldn’t be a writer if I had shed stuttering like 99% of children. I’m sure of it. Without my stutter, my reading and writing challenges would have nudged me in a “safer” direction, nowhere near literature, never discovering the joy, and myself, in words.
Stuttering is external—I don’t stutter in thought—making self-expression an anxious and painful affair, a tightrope walk always right on the edge of disaster. But within challengers are opportunities, gifts hidden away waiting to be found, but rarely are. Stuttering nudged me to find another way of self-expression, to push through the bloody membrane of dyslexia, embracing the joys of working with and through it.
Internal and invisible to the world is a creative playground of words where my self-expression can thrive within its dysfunction. The irony isn’t lost on me.
I read slowly, write slowly, think slowly, learn slowly.
But, for me, there’s beauty in this slowness.
It makes me a better thinker, a better sense-maker, a better observer, a better magician—a writer.
Like the rest of us, I’m still a dysfunctional weirdo, constantly bumping up to the edge of my abilities, revealing the canyon between my craft and what I know is good, yet being satisfied with the disappointment, knowing it’s the path of a craftsman. I wouldn’t have it any other way.