John Hendrickson stutters.
It’s a fact you glean from reading the title of his new memoir, Life in Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter (Knopf, 272 pages, published now). But it’s also something that took time to sink in seriously for The Atlantic’s senior editor. He wrote about his stutter—and then-presidential candidate Joe Biden—in the magazine’s January/February 2020 issue.
For Hendrickson, the process of writing books meant voraciously reflecting on his life, including his early days in speech therapy, his career in journalism and all the family, platonic, and romantic relationships in his life—not to mention interviewing many of his stuttering colleagues.
“They’ve changed my life in individual ways,” Hendrickson says over the phone. “The way I wrote the book was trying to let some people who stutter help me shed light on and understand individual topics, from relationships to substance abuse and depression to creativity and art.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Question: You delve into yourself a lot in this book. I wonder what are some of the hardest parts of writing and did they surprise you?
Answer: The entire book was difficult to write but it was also cathartic. I’ve spent years researching every chapter of my life from preschool and kindergarten to the present day digging through old magazines, old homework from grade school, email, photos, everything and trying to get myself back into the field. But beyond my own recollections, what I found most helpful here was actually going back and interviewing people from the past. People love my kindergarten teacher, my teacher in second grade, and my friend in sixth grade (laughs). When I reached out to them, I had no idea if they would remember me. I had no idea if they had any memories or opinion of the way you spoke. But what they all said completely blew me away. They had these very vivid anecdotes and crystal memories that filled the whole picture for me.
Your university professorHe told you soYou write to clear your memory. I wonder if your memory has cleared up now that you’ve written this, wowIf the treatment helped, too.
Yes, for the two of them. Writing has always been a balm and release to me for as long as I can remember. But it wasn’t until I was 30 that I finally stopped and went into psychotherapy and started exploring the decades of things I’d been suppressing. Growing up, I told myself everything bad about my stutter could roll off my back and I had that unicorn skin. What I learned was that I was pushing everything so deep, deep down, the hole in my stomach, that I held. As I got older, that weight got heavier and heavier to the point where I felt like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. Going to therapy has changed my life in immeasurable ways and helped me start shedding some of that weight.
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Being a journalist and writing about yourself can be really strange and challenging. Would you rather write about something you’ve been a long way from than write something personal?
It all comes down to the first rule of writing, which is just “write what you know.” And if you’ve dedicated years to becoming an expert on a subject – it could be any subject – you know that and can write about it at length, with competence, and in depth. But we always have that about ourselves in a way, because what do we know better than our lives? But at the same time, we only have our own perspective and memories. Reading David Carr’s memoir, “The Night of the Gun” in which he goes back and encounters people from his past, which really inspired me, because people remember things differently.
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You do a great job of showing a lack of fluency in the text. We see long pauses, difficult words to begin with, blocks. What was the balance like in wanting to make that clear to the reader while writing without that, too?
That was top of our mind throughout the entire process. I tried to find the right point between introducing the lack of fluency on the page while also keeping the reader engaged, and keeping the reader progressing through the chapters, because it can be annoying to look at. It’s a set of consonants, a set of ellipses, whitespace. This is not the way we are used to reading books. So I try to use this tool, once in a while, and always write with the reader in mind to make sure they don’t give up on the book. My overarching goal here is to give the gist of what people are saying, and I think, yeah, make some hard choices when doing that.
I was re-reading your Atlantic article. It’s like how some of Biden’s stutters, his “mothers,” include things like that, where you erase them in traditional journalism.
At the end of the day, you want people to read the book, and you want it to resonate. This is a very interesting tension within the disability community, of representation and originality, while trying to make a piece of the action, for lack of a better word, accessible to mass audiences.
You also write that you wouldn’t recognize yourself if you didn’t stutter. Do you think the communityCatching up on the idea that not everyone needs a fix?
yes. The disability pride movement has been around for decades. But it’s really caught fire in recent years, thanks to people like Alice Wong, which manages Disability Visibility. We now see in documentaries, writing and other works a more nuanced and layered portrayal of people with disabilities. Because for so long, a disabled person has been defined by this one thing, especially in works of fiction or in movies or television, they are rarely introduced to the inner life. My goal with this book was to tell a life story from the perspective of a stutterer. But you don’t have to be a stutterer, and you don’t have to be a person with a disability to see yourself in this book.
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