25th May 2022
Alistair Ross tells us how the lack of stories about people who stammer led him to write and illustrate his own children's book 'Taming the Alphabet'.
Stories are the cornerstone of societies. But as a young boy growing up and contending with a stammer in the 1970s and 80s, I don't remember reading or seeing stories about people who were disfluent. If these characters and their creators did exist, it felt as if their typewriters and paintbrushes had been silenced too. Back then a stammer was seen as a fault to be corrected, rather than a characteristic to be accepted. Fortunately, organisations like STAMMA are changing those expectations today.
Positive representation in stories is key to feeling recognised and included in the wider world. But it took me four decades and two children of my own to realise I could help by telling my own story. When you've expended so much effort trying to hide something, the idea of writing a book about it feels absurd. Until, that is, you realise that it could maybe help others facing similar challenges feel less alone.
I promised myself that one day I would tell a positive story that might help the world empathise with what it feels like to live with a stammer.
Years of speech therapy in my teens had given me the techniques to tame my stammer, to the point where most colleagues and friends remained oblivious. To my immediate family it was something I had apparently grown out of. But to me I knew that, like a wild animal, it could lull you into a false sense of security, wait for tiredness or anxiety, then strike. I had got very skilled at word substitution, which works fine until you must stick to a script. And ironically, presenting scripts well had become an essential part of my day job.
Telling my story
Despite my stammer I had carved out a successful career in the world of communications, creating advertising campaigns for the world's most famous brands. My desire to communicate effectively with the world, despite my stammer, had led me to hone my visual communication skills to a high level. But I was a storyteller for other people's stories.
I promised myself that one day I would tell a positive story that might help the world empathise with what it feels like to live with a stammer. The fear, the frustration the feelings of being alone and failing. It's hard for a wider audience to have empathy without understanding the problem. One of the things I've learned having met many people who stammer, is that everyone's story is slightly different. But telling these stories is important, especially for people who feel so frequently robbed of their voice.
So when I was presented with a period of garden leave between career moves, I set about creating 'Taming the Alphabet'. Twenty-nine original watercolour illustrations that reveal how I see the relationship with my stammer; capturing the long journey towards being able to control my speech. The surreal, dreamlike imagery visualises a tale that's written in rhyming verse but deliberately challenging to read out loud. An abundant use of alliteration creates sentences that are like Ninja Warrior assault courses to those with a stammer. And to be honest, to many without.
The book took three months to complete, with encouragement and input from my two young sons. It was reading bedtime stories to them that helped hone how to pitch my story in a way that would capture the imagination of the child in everyone. With the book finished, I self-published it through Amazon, ordered some copies for family and friends and then parked it; returning to telling brand stories for others.
I sometimes wonder if my imagination would have been less vivid if my speech was more fluent.
Five years passed and then, unbeknownst to me, one of my sons took a copy of the book into his school to do a show and tell. Apparently, it struck a chord with his class and teacher, because the themes within it talked to many of them who struggle with different aspects of reading and writing.
I was reminded about trying to reach a wider audience of people with a stammer. To show that it should never be a barrier to creativity and imagination. I sometimes wonder if my imagination would have been less vivid if my speech was more fluent. Having a stammer is a small part of my identity. I've found ways to tame it. I've also found acceptance that it will live with me. Some days quietly, some days not. But maybe too I owe it a debt. For forcing me to be resilient and be driven to express myself creatively through written word and images as much as through speech.
Creating Taming the Alphabet was a cathartic process. In completing the book, I felt that once and for all I'd turned the tables. I had succeeded in defining my stammer, rather than it defining me.
If you're intrigued to know what happens on my journey or you know someone who is disfluent or struggles with literacy, perhaps this story will resonate with them. Appropriately, for a wild adventure about travelling from A-Z, you'll find it on Amazon.
Alistair's book for children, Taming the Alphabet, is great fun and a bit Jerome Ellis-ish in the way it explores the sounds and the silences. Each page has a superb watercolour illustration (from Alistair himself) representing each letter of the alphabet, with an alliterative paragraph accompanying it.
If you're into (or moving in the direction of) the concept of stammering pride you might object to one of the lines in the book which describes the goal of the adventure as 'to help our speech get better'. That aside, we like the book and think it would be good for parents or speech & language therapists to use when practising reading and speaking with children.
Have you created something inspired by your experience of stammering? Send us any poems or pictures, or tell us about books you've written or anything else you've made to express yourself. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more books about stammering, see our Library, where, if you're a STAMMA Member, you can borrow books or DVDs.