Stuttering and James Griffin

About the presenter: James Griffin of Melbourne, Australia, is currently the producer and presenter of The Last Word, ABC TV's program about writing, writers and ideas. In 1999 he was the producer and presenter of the occasional series, Books With James Griffin and of the weekly book segment on ABC TV's The Arts Show. He was also the Associate Producer of that program.

In recent years James has been:

  • the Editorial Producer on ABC TV's book program, Between The Lines.
  • the Associate Producer of A Very Irish Obsession, a documentary on Irish writing which went to air on ABC TV in 1998.
  • the Associate Producer of ABC TV's Sunday Afternoon Arts Program (with both Peter Ross and Mary Delahunty)
  • the Producer of ABC Radio's Sunday Morning Arts program on 3LO in Melbourne.

James is also an occasional contributor to Books and Writing on ABC Radio National.

In ABC radio James has also been a writer, producer and director of radio plays and documentaries, and a reporter on the performing arts for Radio National's arts programs.

In the 1980's he worked for 6 years as a music presenter on Triple J.

He has also reviewed books and theatre for various print publications and on various ABC radio outlets.

James currently writes songs in collaboration with Joe Camilleri and also with country singer, Lee Kernaghan.

The Griffin/Camilleri song, Snakeskin Shoes was a top ten hit for the Black Sorrows and at the 1999 Tamworth Country Music Awards Lee Kernaghan won the Heritage Award with Changi Banjo, for which James wrote the lyric.

As a singer, guitarist and songwriter, James has been a part of Australia's rock music scene for twenty years.

In the 70's and 80's he fronted the Sydney based bands, The Agents and James Griffin and the Subterraneans, both of which performed regularly on the independant band circuit. During these years he released five albums of original songs and wrote many radio plays.

In 1992 James performed his play for a solo performer, The Land Of A Thousand Dances, (a monologue with songs) at Melbourne's La Mama theatre. The Land of A Thousand Dances was first produced in the 1980's as a double record album of spoken word material and as a radio play. It was the first project by an Australian recording artist to venture into the then new field of spoken word performance.

James is currently working on a book of interviews with Australian Songwriters, to be published in 2001.

Stuttering and James Griffin

by James Griffin
from Melbourne, Australia

My name is James Griffin. I live in Melbourne, Australia.

I currently work for ABC TV Arts where I produce and present the TV program, The Last Word, an interview program dealing with writers and their work. In television I have worked as researcher, producer and interviewer. My current job combines all three

I am also a songwriter and singer and have devoted much of my life to performing in bands and also to performing poetry and other spoken word material.

My background includes work as an announcer in radio, presenting music programs, interviewing writers, artists and performers.

As a child I had a very bad stutter. I don’t know where it came from & I don’t recall when it began but I don’t think I had it before I started school.

This essay is in 2 parts. One is background and the other is an account of my attempts to deal with stuttering.


I’ll begin this account by offering some notes on my background. It seems to me that with stuttering the circumstances of ones life are relevant. I don’t know why I think this, but I do. Never having previously attempted to document my experiences as a stutterer, I’ve decided to go with my first impulses as to what seems relevant, thinking that there must be reasons why I stuttered in the first place and also why I am able to deal with it.

I was born in 1953 in Corryong (pron: Cou(as in cough)-ree-ong, a small country town in the far north east of the state of Victoria in Australia. Corryong is an isolated, predominantly farming community, of about 1800 people. It lies in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, part of Australia’s great dividing range.

I am an only child. My father was the manager of the grocery department of a large department store that also included a bakery, a drapery and a hardware department. He came originally from another small town - a former gold mining town - called Chiltern and went to Corryong for work during the depression. He then served in New Guinea during WW2 before returning to his job in Corryong.

My mother worked in the same store for a few years immediately post WW 2. Apart from that she spent the rest of her life at home - initially helping her mother run the house - and later as wife and mother in her own right. She grew up in Corryong, her family having moved there when she was 3 - from the slightly larger provincial town of Seymour in central Victoria.

Both my parents left school at about 14 but both were constant readers in adult life. My father was very interested in politics and current affairs.

My mother had hearing difficulties which made it hard for her in school but she was very musical. She excelled in sport and was a champion golfer and tennis and netball player.

I was shy and self-conscious as a child but was clever and good at school work. I read constantly, but also enjoyed craft and art based activities and was always drawing and making.

I found school very demanding socially and often went home for lunch - but that was the custom of many families and was possible because of the smallness of the town. But I think my school life was pretty normal. I didn’t get bullied or singled out for harsh treatment beyond the normal ebb and flow of childhood friendships and I had close friends all through school and saw them on the weekends as well.

I was often teased by one of my friends and his older brother and his friends - partly for my stuttering but also because of my sometimes quaint and archaic use of language (based on things I’d read and thought sounded interesting) - and because I took life very seriously and was easy to bait - but by the time I was 9 or 10 yrs old I’d punched that friend for being insufferable - and was rebuked by his father - but in those days fighting (fairly) was still regarded as manly and as an acceptable way to resolve differences between boys.

In fact fighting back against bullies was reccomended and was a rite of passage

I did not like fighting however and did not see it as a solution - and I have not struck anyone in anger since the age of about 12.

Although I often felt overwhelmed by the social aspects of school, thinking back, I realise that outside of school, on the weekends, I was often a leader - I think mainly by dint of sheer imaginative energy on my part. Growing up so close to the end of Word War 2 and fuelled by an endless stream of Hollywood westerns at the local picture theatre (for a while, two theatres, in those pre TV years), much of our games revolved around being adventurers, soldiers, cowboys and indians - and my passionate and romantic attachment to these games made me a natural focal point for other boys who liked to play them too.

I mention these things to indicate that although I stuttered and was sometimes laughed at for it, particularly in class, it didn’t leave me isolated or friendless. I put this down to the fact that my parents were always very supportive and loving and to a small town environment where people did, by and large, try to accept physical idiosyncracies in others ( stuttering was seen as physical) - as people had to assume they’d be in each others lives for many years.

Now that I reflect on this, I suspect that there was also an assumption that I’d grow out of it - rather like acne in adolescence - but I don’t think it is something I’ve grown out of . It’s more like something I’ve learnt to control.


The following is a series of anecdotes and recollections that illustrate my difficulties and the strategies I came up with to counteract them.

It’s fair to say that my High School years were very much taken up with my stuggle to overcome my stutter.

Perhaps because of the imperatives of the 1950’s & ‘60’s that saw all adversity as something to overcome and which saw self pity as the worst of vices and a sure sign of cowardice - a notion reinforced by Hollywood westerns and Australia’s own myths of triumphing against the odds - I saw learning to speak fluently in public as a challenge and I was determined not to be beaten - so I deliberately put myself into situations where I’d have to sink or swim.

For example, I persisted in speaking in front of the class and by the end of highschool I was leading the school debating team.

It’s interesting to me now that there seemed to be no formal strategies from the school or the local doctor to help overcome a stutter. There was general good advice from teachers to take one’s time, or relax, or think of another word - but in retrospect, it’s clear that no-one in an isolated rural community in the 1960’s had the faintest idea what to suggest really. People did, I think, wonder if it was a nervous disorder, and were too polite to push that particular line of enquiry.

The most useful support I got - and it was useful, and should not be undestimated - was the goodwill of teachers and other adults, and of many school students, who patiently waited for me while I stuggled with the words I was trying to say.

I do recall being encouraged - I think by a teacher - to participate in a play in the local church hall when I was about 11 or 12. It was a Punch and Judy play and I was about as anxious as I ever remember being about speaking in public - particularly as I had to pretend to be someone else, which is hard when you’re shy - and I did stutter a little and was most unhappy with my performnace, but I also felt that I had confronted fear and not lost completely.

My particular kind of stuttering was not the rapid fire repetition of a consonant - as in b-b-b-b-bed - or the vowel repetition we hear in the cartoon character, Porky Pig. My difficuty was a kind of seizing up - a constriction of the throat and chest where the sound would not come out - so I’d have to sneak up on it by inserting another sound that I could make to get my voice going and hope that once started I’d be able to say the word I really wanted to say. The sound ‘um’ became my most used voice starter - but then I would get stuck on it, so I’d be halfway through a sentence, would seize up, say ‘um’ and then come out with ‘um - um - um -mum -mum mum ..’ in a long stream until I finally got out what I was trying to say in the first place. Obviously this was not satisfactory, so I then had to look for alternative strategies and to stop saying ‘um’.

One strategy was to rearrange the order of words in the sentence or to find an alternative word. This was sometimes humorous as in the time I was in the milk bar trying to order a vanilla flavoured milkshake - my favourite, but ‘V’ was a sound I really struggled with. So I’m standing there, I’ve said ‘Could I have a …’ and I’m stuck on ‘V..’ and nothing will come out, for what seeems like hours while the eyes of everyone in the place are on me, so in desperation I finally burst out with ‘… Caramel milkshake please!’

My constant ‘umming’ was of course a source of considerable amusement to my classmates.

Another moment of complete mortification was, again when I was about 12 - or maybe 13 - and I rang up my friend Robert from the telephone at the shop where my father worked. We did not have a ‘phone at home and I really don’t think I’d ever tried to use one before. His mother answered and I could hardly get a word out - and eventually she and I agreed to call it quits, well before I got anywhere near saying what I wanted. I think I ended up asking a nearby adult to pass the message on for me. This remains my clearest memory of the complete refusal of my speech faculties to work at all.

Now, in my adult life, I use the telephone constantly as an extension of my work - and even of my personality - in everything from inviting people to appear on television to, in the past, selling my bands to entertainment venues.

I think an important motivation for me to overcome stuttering was a desire to perform in public. It was an odd need in one as shy as I was, but I passionately wanted to do it - and when I realised, in my mid teens, that I really wanted to sing songs, the need to perform began to find a shape. I had always loved songs and the language of traditional ballads. I finally started learning guitar at 16 after discovering Bob Dylan and began writing my own songs almost immediately.

The fascinating thing to me about music is that I never stutter when I sing. I can sing any sentence without a hitch and I think taking up singing has been very helpful.

So much of speaking is to do with confidence and I think the singing has helped enormously in that regard - just through my knowing that, in one mode at least, I can say anything I want to.


By the time I completed High School I had almost stopped stuttering. I think in part because I was older and more confident - and partly because I had found strategies to circumvent the more extreem aspects of it. I still had the stutter but I did it less.

But although I intended to be a singer and songwriter I certainly did not, at the end of High School think I would become an interviewer on television and radio.

And what my life over the past 30 years has demonstrated is that stuttering is not, for me, something I’ve ever really overcome completely. I have strategies to deal with it - and I don’t think many people who don’t know me would realise I ever have stuttered - but it’s never really not there.

There are several key tools I can point to in my on-going quest to overcome it.

1. Reading Out Loud.

In television and radio I’ve had to learn to deliver quite long statements - and I often have to write them first to make sure I say exactly what is required. Regular reading out loud does seem to help with stuttering . Maybe it’s the enforced speaking of a set text that simply makes one overcome the stoppages that cause the stutter. The benefits come gradually over time - and interestingly, over the past 7 or 8 years, since I’ve been reading almost every day to my young children, my fluency with general speech and with the delivery of work related scripts has increased dramatically.

2. The more sentence stuctures and words I know the better.

If I can say what I want to say in many different ways, there’s a better chance of finding a version of the statement that I can get my tongue around. I’ve always read voraciously and I think that’s been very helpful in this area.

3. Learning to speak in public without a script.

This is in apparent contradiction to what I’ve said above, but if you can make it up as you go along you won’t get stuck trying to say what’s written - and one’s ability to say any given word seems to vary from day to day. So, what I write today, and can even say, I may not be able to say tomorrow. What I do now is write down what I intend to say. Then when I make the speech I don’t read it. I just talk about as many of the ideas and make as many of the points as I can remember. But it is the case that I practice this regularly in my work as an interviewer, so I’m not saying it’s the solution for everyone.

However, it is true that the more confident you are that you can get through any speech, whether it be to one person or to one thousand, the easier it is to relax - and the easier it is to relax the easier it is not to stutter.

To conclude

I do want to say that it’s been very revealing to me to have to write these thoughts down. And I’m most grateful for the invitation to do so. In this paper I’ve written many things I’ve never really thought through before and I hope these thoughts are of interest - or even assistance - to others.

And one last thought that’s just occurred to me is that I do, probably because of the stuttering, think of it all as performance.

All my public speaking is a performance of me not stuttering. I’m acting out a non-stuttering version of me - but I never expect to wake up and find the stuttering gone - although it’s always getting better. I’m still finding new ways to speak more fluently.

October 9, 2000