Monday, January 26, 2015

On Being a Writer: Discovering Who You Are

When did I first decide I was a writer?

Perhaps it was when I was 10, and wrote a mystery story longhand.

It might have been the summer before I started journalism school in college, and I had to teach myself to type (it was a required skill for journalism). Or later that same year, when I received a B+ on my first class assignment with the note, “Not bad for a cub.” Or when the grader for my American history class gave me an A on a test, with a scribbled “well written essay” at the top of the first page.

I know that by the time I was writing speeches for other people, around 1975 or 1976, I was also writing short stories.

For more than 35 years of my career, I’ve been involved in speechwriting. It’s perhaps the toughest job in corporate communications (or any other kind of communications). You’re writing for another person. To do your job well, you have to write like that person speaks. That means you have to listen more than you talk.

Speechwriting is also a rather anonymous, despite the tendency of presidential speechwriters to rush out with a memoir as soon as they’ve left the West Wing of the White House. Someone else takes credit for everything you write in a speech. That is, unless the speech doesn’t go well. Then it’s all your fault.

Most people in communications hate speechwriting.

If you’re writing for the CEO, you have to keep reminding yourself you’re not the CEO’s friend, or even his or her colleague, no matter how friendly the CEO might seem. You’re there as a professional writer. I’ve seen several careers flame out because the writer though he or she was the CEO’s friend, chatting the CEO up, repeating things the CEO said, sharing the CEO’s jokes. All of those activities tell everyone that the writer has a bad self-image, and is seeking to inflate his or her importance.

I didn’t mind the anonymity. I did mind being at the CEO’s beck-and-call on nights and weekends. I did like the largely solitary work. I didn’t like the politics surrounding the CEO’s speeches. One CEO I worked for was so sensitive that he had one hard and fast rule: no one in the company could see his speech drafts unless they came and asked him face-to-face for permission.

That cut out a lot of requests from people to “just give the draft a quick read,” usually spoken with an ingratiating smile.

Speechwriting taught me to write with a voice, and that the best speeches were the ones that expressed emotion in the right way and in the right places. It taught me that the most critical part of the job was not the writing but the listening. I learned to listen, and listen hard. Speechwriting also taught me to interpret, and how, for example, to translate a rant that I didn’t know how to write into a CEO’s unspoken fear of speaking to a minority audience. And it taught me know when the time had come to confront the CEO about his abuse (you don’t do something like that lightly or without a lot of forethought about the possible consequences).

I had also been around the speechwriting life long enough to know that it is very rare for a speechwriter to write effectively for both the CEO and his or her successor. Too much baggage can get in the way, and usually does. So you have to know when it’s time to do something else.

In On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, Ann Kroeker (co-author with Charity Craig) says that “writing is more than what I do or coach. I discover who I am.” It teaches you about how you think, how you react, what you believe is important, what cannot be compromised, and what is superfluous.

What you read on a printed page or computer screen, no matter what the subject might be, tells you more about the writer than what is written.

Photograph by Linnaea Mallette via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Jeffrey Scott said...

I've never written speeches for a CEO, but I have often wondered when I first became a writer. Was it in 1984 when I began journalling? Or in school when I realized I always received my highest marks when writing stories. Thirty some odd years later and I still consider myself a writer, despite never having anything seriously published. Well, unless you count my blog, which I don't count.

Martha Jane Orlando said...

I can't imagine being a speechwriter for others, Glynn, but I'm grateful you have shared this here today. It really made me think about my own writing voice: where it's going, where it springs from, what it has already accomplished. I'm with you when you say the subject is "more about the writer than what is written." How can our light not shine through in the creative moment?

Ann Kroeker said...

Your refrain of listening and listening hard--that part of your self-discovery--says much about you as a person and writer. Listening and knowing when to speak, what to say and how to say it flows from your work as a speechwriter; or, perhaps, you were asked to be a speechwriter because you knew when to speak, what to say, and how to say it well!

Love this reflection on your writing life, Glynn!