Katherine Preston, author of Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice (July 2013), is a Durham graduate with a truly inspirational and uplifting story to tell. Following Katherine’s return to Durham this term to deliver a talk at Hatfield College, The Bubble caught up with her to discuss the challenges and rewards of writing, and how to make something remarkable out of what life throws our way…
The Bubble: You describe yourself as a ‘writer, blogger, stutterer, and speaker’. Why do you think writing is such an important medium when reaching out to others, and what does it allow us to do that other forms of communication don’t?
Katherine Preston: Writing forces us to find clarity, to work on uncovering the crux of something. Unlike the rhythmic dance of conversation, writing gives us the luxury to be patient with ourselves, to be alone with ourselves and to inhale the details of the world around us. It teaches us to trust in our readers, to write for an imagined person whose time we don’t want to waste and whose opinion we value highly. Memoir writing in particular encourages us to be courageous and open. As a very private person, I find that I can sustain a level of vulnerability in my writing that that I find far more challenging in person. Often when writing Out With It I was writing myself towards some unknown understanding, with blind faith that the process would lead me somewhere. The moments when I unraveled my thoughts and pinned them down on the page provided the fuel for the hours of trying and thinking and failing my way towards my next glimpse of understanding. Those moments when I was engaged and alert became the moments that I strove towards.
TB: Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice was written after having left your asset management job to tour America and interview stutterers, speech therapists, and journalists, and these voices and experiences are woven into your book. Why did you choose to write in the format of a memoir, rather than perhaps a more journalistic account?
KP: Out With It was not the type of book I ever thought I would write. Having studied history at Durham I was fascinated by the oral history form and, after interviewing over a hundred stutterers and researchers, I spent months transcribing their voices. I quickly became wedded to each person, to the cadence of each of their stories. When I came to write the book I imagined a journalistic investigation, a book where I wove myself quietly behind the scenes as I wrote the stories of various people I’d interviewed. It was all very well intentioned but it didn’t work, the book just wasn’t very good. I wasn’t doing justice to the people I had met and I believed that I could write a better, more compelling book. I realized that I had to allow myself to be as scared and as vulnerable as the people who had generously told me their stories. So I radically changed the book and I turned Out With It into a memoir, making my life the thread that wove all of our stories together.
TB: You have previously said in interview that you didn’t always perceive writing as a career that people take seriously. Have your perceptions changed now that you’ve become a writer yourself?
KP: For a long time I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible for me. I constantly found myself wanting against the great writers that I admired (I still do, but these days it is more aspirational and less stultifying). And yet writing was always my greatest passion, and the only ‘job’ that I ever really hoped to have. Having published Out With It I have seen how wonderful and how difficult writing is, how slippery words and ideas can be and how much grit we must nurture to face failing over and over again.
TB: Writing such a personal account of your experiences must have been difficult to do, and taken some courage. Did anything in particular help or encourage you to take the first step, and start writing?
KP: When I first started writing I didn’t imagine that I was going to write a particularly personal book. That knowledge probably freed me to write. Or at least it freed me to write a pretty mediocre book of oral histories. When I came to transform that first draft into a memoir my editor, my agent and my ridiculously talented writers group all inspired me and challenged me to write the best book I could. It was thanks to them, and the endless faith of my family, that I felt able to break free of the silence that I had hid behind for so long.
TB: What have you gained from the experience of writing and having a book published?
KP: I have learnt that there is nothing sentimental about following your dreams. It is a great privilege but it is not always easy. I have gained a deeper understanding of myself, my fears and the wealth of resilience I can draw on. I have seen that the most wonderful people I know are the ones who show their vulnerabilities and embrace all the ways they are perfectly imperfect.
Today’s publishing world can be competitive and difficult to navigate. How did you find the experience of searching for a suitable publisher for your book, given how much the writing process must have meant to you?
If any writer ever tells you that the answer to that question was easy, I’d be shocked. Finding a book publisher is a process racked with disappointment. All the writers I know have received more rejection letters than they’d like to count. At one point, my fiance turned it into a game. He dared me to get to 100 rejections. He meant it as a joke but I came dangerously close to reaching that goal. The fact that I ended up with my wonderful editor, and publisher, at Simon and Schuster still feels like the greatest stroke of luck.
You’ve received a huge deal of praise for the inspirational quality of your book. Can you think of any particular book that has had a similar effect on you, and why?
It is so hard to choose only one book but I have been deeply affected by Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Solomon has this immense ability to bring out the humanity in the people he interviews. Far From The Tree is a wise, frank and expansive book about parenting, difference and the nature of identity. Strayed is the type of honest writer I aspire to be. Her memoir, Wild, teaches us what it means to persist and prevail, what it means to try and heal ourselves.
Is there any particular moment that especially stands out to you regarding the reception of your book, Out with it: How Stuttering Helped me Find my voice?
There have been hundreds of moments that I have tried to burn onto my memory. Moments that I am grateful for, or surprised by, or hours that I have wanted to slow down to a crawl. The first of those began with the book launch at this beautiful bookstore in our old neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It was a night made memorable for all the right reasons and I remember in the Q&A session after my speech one of the other stutterers in the room put up her hand and asked, “How do you feel now that you are the voice for stuttering?” It was the first time that I truly felt intimidated and excited by the future of this book I had created.
Do you hope to publish any further books in future?
Yes, although I worry that I’m tempting fate by saying that. But yes, I have started on a novel that I hope will someday become more than a glaring white page on my computer.
Finally, what message or advice do you most wish to get across to those who read your work or hear you speak?
Someone once wrote to me that Out With It teaches us how to love each other better. I can think of no better conclusion. I want people to see the power of human compassion and hope. I want stutterers to know that their voice is worth hearing. I want us all to realise that difference unites us, that being ‘normal’ would be both rare and lonely. Life may not always be easy but we can bind ourselves to the one we have been given, and we can make something remarkable out of it.
Katherine’s website can be accessed here.
Images attributed to Andreas Serna.