The first interview I ever did concerning a subject’s public and persuasive writing took place in April, 2006 and was something of a trial run. As I mentioned in the August 26th posting, the subject was an undergraduate at Slippery Rock, a student I had in my Technical and Scientific Writing class who has since gone onto graduate studies.
The subject was a non-traditional student in her thirties with a husband and three children at home. But what made this student particularly unusual was the experience she had accumulated doing speech writing, and other forms of writing, for various political figures and causes in Pittsburgh. After “growing up in an English teacher household” in a small city in the southern tier of New York State, coming to Slippery Rock out of high school as a theatre major, then dropping out and spending some time touring with off-Broadway shows, the subject married a musician who currently teaches in the Pittsburgh school district and had her children before returning to the university to complete a degree.
Her introduction to the world of civic discourse was through joining “politically active” groups in the city. “Not just for politicians, but for causes that I believe in, and even doing a little bit of writing, revising at my children’s school … things like their newsletter. … And so then people who were involved in the public forum then had said, ‘Well, you know, could you take a look at this for me?’ And that was just more written editing, but it’s definitely something that has to grow. You don’t just find an ad for speech writers.” Instead, work comes through “word of mouth,” through a form of networking in which people become familiar with who had had successful experience writing in particular genres, or on particular subjects. “Finding out who’s good at what and it works out that way in any facet of a political campaign.”
As her career progressed, the subject gained experience in a variety of genres—power point presentations, flyers, newspaper ads, and newsletters from legislators to constituents or candidates to voters. She first characterized the newsletter items as “essentially a speech in written form” and then as “a series of really brief position papers.” The space constraints for these items taught her “how to drive the point quickly and concisely.” Moreover, newsletter arguments have often served as “a jumping off point for a speech I’ll write,” to the point where it has influenced her composing practice. “I’ll write something that could easily be read and then I’ll expand upon that and flower it a little for the speech. I’ll add the grace and style. I’ll allow for pauses that a speaker makes, that a reader won’t. That’s one of the very intentional elements of speech writing, is deciding what the speaker will emphasize and I don’t have any control over what the reader will.”
As a teacher, I have often spoken to students about using paragraphing and sentence structure as ways to gain some control of the way a reader will “translate” or interpret their material. Now the subject was indicating that it was through the orality of speech making that a writer could control interpretation, in ways that writing strictly for reading could not. This could be taken as an exaggeration. Another way to consider her perspective is to imagine that writing for voice heightens a writer’s awareness of how the creation of deliberate rhythms and pauses through phrasing, punctuation, and indentation can at least influence interpretation. In other words, we should always write for a “voice,” no matter what the genre may be.
The subject’s professionalization has also led to a more sanguine attitude towards the positions she is willing to advocate for a “pay check.” “If I’m not getting paid, I’m not going to write anything that I don’t believe in. And if I’m getting a pay check, my own opinion has to stay out of it.” In school, when doing papers, she has even deliberately argued positions opposing her own, “to see how well I can master writing that which I don’t feel. … Not too long ago, in fact, in Pittsburgh I had to write some comments that were delivered to the Coalition for Catholic Women and one of the tenets that this speaker wanted to cover was his support of pro-life and I am absolutely pro-choice. And you know, I had to come up with several points on how and why he would support the pro-life stance and that was difficult for me to write at best because it was totally contrary to what I personally would have written.”
Some might take that observation as an indication that speech writing could be a way to “sell out” one’s convictions. But there are other ways to see this process. In my interviews with all five speech writers, it was remarkable how few changes in affiliation appeared to take place. The work was dependent on proven skill but also on loyalty, on a sense that writers and their clients shared core political and moral values. Any skilled rhetor needs to absorb opposing perspectives in order to either strengthen the position they’ve held all along, or to alter the position upon discovery that it will not withstand the scrutiny robust public debate should ideally engender. One could argue that the political and cultural impasse regarding legalized abortion is due in part to the failure of people who feel passionately one way or the other to consider why their opponents may hold the positions that they do. The speechwriter whose client cannot afford to ignore the opposition must learn to wrestle with a spectrum of arguments.
Our political discourse is currently filled with the voices of people who demonize rather than engage their opponents, a tendency that perhaps reflects the often observed narcissism of our culture. Maybe we can develop a more useful perspective by studying and emulating the practice of speech writers, and our next posting will feature a discussion of process and technique in the case of this particular subject.