I read an article in a 2010 edition of Writer’s Digest magazine that spoke of authors putting themselves in their stories. I don’t mean how Stan Lee puts himself in his Marvel Comics movies through cameo roles. And not as the narrator who is charged to keep the tale flowing, to interject just enough to allow the reader to “see”, and to “show and not tell”.
I’m talking about parsing bits and pieces of me (and my life) into the tale. And not just in one character, but multiple characters and through multiple situations. While I feel it’s natural for writers to use their backgrounds and perspectives in their books, I believe it needs to be intentional.
For example, the protagonist, James, learns to read by being exposed to Carlton, the master’s son, textbooks. In addition, he clandestinely self-teaches himself to read by sneaking into the master’s study when left alone in the house. Also, Isaac, the first person to befriend James after he’s banished from Johnson Hall, is a stutterer.
I mentioned those two things because these characters and circumstances mimic my life. You see, like Isaac, I am a stutterer. I have been a stutterer all my life. My twin sister is a stutterer. Her first born, my first nephew, is a stutterer. My granddaughter is a stutterer. My stuttering is multi-faceted. I repeat words at times. I get stuck on the first sounds – like the “th” sound. The most common however, is repeating a sound, like the “hard c”.
Through middle school, I couldn’t verbally complete a sentence without stuttering. As you can imagine, it made me introverted, self-conscious, and shy – even more than I already was. I finally got help in middle school (called Jr. High then) with my first Speech Therapist. She taught me relaxation techniques that I still use today.
But the genesis of my verbality began on a Saturday morning. Back in my elementary school days, cartoons came on only on Saturday mornings. Looney Toons were my favorite, and I received an epiphany from a character that would change my life. And it connects me to both Isaac and James, at least in the journey of my life.
Porky the Pig stuttered – often. And I had a connection with him. His stuttering patterns matched mine. His challenge was my challenge. And he offered me a solution.
Before I continue, let’s jump back to James for a moment. As he went through his initial journey in the study, he realized he wasn’t understanding what he was reading. Of course, being a pre-adolescent, not understanding Shakespeare or Dickens is understandable. But he reasoned that if he learned more words, he would understand more.
Now, back to Porky the Pig. As I looked on one Saturday morning, it hit me like the cliché. Porky would get stuck on a word and repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it. Just like I had done many times. Then he did something that changed my life. He substituted that word – with one he could say.
My mind now raced. A neighbor had given my family a full set of encyclopedias and a dictionary. I was 8 or 9 – around the age of my character, James. I decided to use the “Porky the Pig methodology” and fill my head with vocabulary words. My goal wasn’t to better understand what I was reading like James, although that is what eventually happened. I read the dictionary (and the entire set of encyclopedias) repeatedly so I could substitute words I stuttered on with words I was able to say.
Fifty+ years later, the Porky the Pig methodology remains part of my speaking strategy. As an adult male interacting with family, friends, and the public; as a Baptist preacher of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; as a videographer creating YouTube videos; and for 22 years as an Elementary public-school teacher, every day I lean on my Looney Tunes lessons to communicate with others. I still stutter – mostly in my mind, but occasionally in my speech.
One more point I would like to make. As a stutterer in the 1960s, there was a stigma associated with it. Today in 2023, the understanding of children and people with disabilities has gotten infinitely better than in previous years. During that time there was a thought process by some that being a stutter was somehow connected to intelligence – or lack thereof. That I didn’t learn how to talk. That I couldn’t be taught how to talk because of some inferiority.
So, when I put stuttering in the mouth of Isaac, I made sure his stuttering didn’t mask from you, the reader, his intelligence. He had understanding and insight that James, the “smart one”, didn’t have. That was purposeful by me. I was also concerned that some people would think I was making fun of stutterers. I hope you can see now with this blog that is not true.
In closing I wanted to make sure you understood the reason for this blog. It was not to fill out a webpage or create a social media quote. It was to add something of value to the world. I wanted you to understand that as you’re reading A Journey Far: Ibere, you’re discovering parts of me dispersed through different characters, different situations, and different circumstances. And that inserting me into this story was intentional. Now, if it’s offensive to anyone, that was not my intent. Having Isaac as a stutterer was never meant to be malicious. It’s important to me that you as a reader see some of yourself in my story. It’s important to me that you as a reader see other people from your day-to-day journey differently because you’ve taken this journey with me, with James, with Isaac, and with others through their world.
Finally, regarding using the gift God gave you. Imagine, I am a stutterer. But God first, called me to teach in the mid-1990s. And not to teach students who would hang on to my every word with respect and reverence. He sent me to teach students with behavior challenges who would cut up and/or cut me down in a heartbeat. It took me several years to heed that call. Then God called me to preach His gospel in 2002. Mind you, I never considered preaching as part of my future. I was content being an usher. Strolling up and down the aisles with my white gloves, distributing programs and confiscating gum. Not authoritatively speaking to a group of 100+ people, many who knew the Word better than me. It took me several months to heed that call.
In both these circumstances, I did not seek what God called me to do. I mean, I’m a stutterer. But when God calls you, He’s already equipped you to do what’s necessary for the task at hand. I just wanted to share that part as well. Some of you out there may allow the limitations that have been placed in your mind preclude you from doing what’s in your heart and your spirit. You hinder yourself from fulfilling the purpose God created you for.
I’m a living testimony to the power of God. That He can put you in a situation that you think you are not ready for and prove to you that you were always ready for it. That He can send a cartoon character, or a trusted friend, or a difficult adversary, or anything else above, on, or in the Earth to help you fulfill your purpose, if you try.
Thank you for reading this blog. And until next time, th-th-that’s all folks.