We’re back to a profile of the former Carter speech writer who had also worked for the Department of Energy and Northrop Grumman. In this posting we’ll explore the writer’s ideas on process and research.
Like many writers, it was clear the subject hadn’t devoted much time to thinking about her composing process. She agreed with my definition of her as a “head editor,” someone who works much material out in her head before beginning to commit words to paper. Her scholastic experience with journalism had taught her to “write fast clearly. … I’ve always, I’ve never had any time, no luxury for that, I’ve always been on short turn arounds and deadlines.” But this approach can also be a matter of preference, and of personality, similar to the Creative Writing graduate who told us he didn’t adhere to the “write every day” dictum because he wanted to have a sense of his content before composing. “The thinking is done before I start writing,” said the subject. “If you know what it is you want to say, it’s pretty easy to say it. If you don’t know, then you spend a lot of time figuring that out and waste a lot of paper that way, I guess. … It’s like people who say they can write a screenplay, ‘Oh, how long did it take you to write Casablanca.’ ‘Well, it took me about thirty days.’ But the truth is, it’s been written over a longer period of time before they put it on paper. That’s two different things.”
While the Clinton speech writer could cite Peter Elbow, think of writing as discovery and a form of cognition, and only know what was to be said through the act of composition, the Carter speech writer would probably lose patience with an Elbow approach in a hurry. It’s not that the subject wished to wrap the act of writing in mystification, or to advocate a romantic image of inspiration illuminating the dark sky of consciousness like bursts of lightning. But like many writers whose professional lives are made up of supplied rhetorical tasks that need a hurried response, she preferred an instrumentalist approach that seemed to fit her experience.
Much of what she said about preparation was strikingly similar to the depictions of the other interviewed speech writers, a formulation of the “rhetorical situation” through an intense, yet systematic, discovery of the will of the speaker, the expectations of the audience, and the subject matter at hand. When asked in an e-mail to describe her processes, the subject replied: “First, you panic. Then you figure out who actually knows about your topic and you go after facts and figures—‘factoids’ I call ‘em. You research the audience—talk to someone from the group if possible. Search online news clips, etc. Be aware of daily news and general events in the world.” In the interview the subject spoke of spending a lot of time on the phone. “You go to people who are the senior advisors if you’re in an agency, who are the program officers. What is it that they want to, they want to focus on, that you want them to focus on.”
Like the others, she mentioned acquainting herself “with the speaker’s point of view as much as possible through personal interactions and other research sources.” Again, she would adjust to a speaker’s particular persona and preferences. Hazel O’Leary, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, liked “talking points” and a “point of view” that often showed up in the speech’s title. “It was like journalism, you want to put the most amazing, interesting thing up front. …Well, she used this theme more than once, but I know she used it with the society of environmental journalists. … And it was ‘Not your father’s DOE.’ And she liked to use a lot of graphics and she didn’t use power point, but she used big like sports pictures of stuff. And then we’d key the target points to the different boards. … It was, you know, a bunch of old white guys, and now it’s Hazel O’Leary, African American and all these other sort of women and different groups. … In other words, things had changed and so forth. And then … you kind of then go from there to, from general to particular, I guess. And then come back around and sort of re-state it again. … You try not to have more than three, one-two-three. [The value of triadic amplification seems to be a given, as we have previously observed.] It’s not your father’s DOE because bum, bum, bum. This is not rocket science.”
While O’Leary liked a centralizing “point of view,” the subject’s job was to find, at times, the element in popular culture, like Oldsmobile’s ill-fated attempt to lure younger customers to its brand, that would make the theme stick in the audience’s memory. For instance, she discovered a way to present a “here’s the problem, we’ve got this solution” structure within the film “Speed.” O’Leary, the subject said, “wouldn’t go for movie things,” but “I wanted her to realize … that she didn’t necessarily have to know all about it because she was going to tap into their [the audience’s] general consciousness and that movie was so big that year.” In the film Dennis Hopper, as the deranged villain who has planted a bomb on a Los Angeles city bus, talks to the hero periodically by phone, taunting him with the question, “What do you do?” “You know, you’ve got this, you’ve got that, dadadada, ‘What do you do?’” That question, following the description of a problem and preceding the articulation of a solution became the motif around which the speech was structured.
Perhaps this was an example of how writing takes place before the writer ever begins composing, through an absorption of cultural artifacts that can be drawn upon later. And it is this generalized awareness, possibly the product of a liberal arts education, that combines with diligent research to allow the speech writer to create even when knowledge of the subject matter is initially negligible. “Good research is essential. Get a great understanding of your topic—talk to geeks, or whomever—they will talk on and on, and you will learn a lot. Then, since you are not an expert, think about how you can explain the topic to other non-experts—how did it come alive for you?” Another benefit of that liberal arts education was in sorting through what solo research yielded, like the subject’s once frequent use of the Lexis Nexis data base and the web sites of advocacy groups. “You have to understand what those are and what they aren’t.” Students, and writers generally, “have to learn the difference between gathering information and analyzing information for weaknesses and strengths.”
The subject clearly had a strong personality, one she was willing to assert on occasion with her clients. At the same time, she recognized the limitations of her own knowledge (“There are a lot of things I don’t necessarily have an opinion on too; I don’t know enough to have one.”) and didn’t seem troubled when the argument she had to construct for a speaker didn’t dovetail with her own position. “You kind of deal with these people as individuals really.” Since persuasive argument must absorb, refute, or finesse alternative positions, a professional speech writer can adjust to the speaker’s point of view, as long as it is not too far distant from her own. In her current job, the subject may not be as “proactive” regarding weapons of mass destruction as her Republican colleagues, but at the same time she didn’t agree with Secretary O’Leary decision to “shut down nuclear testing” during the Clinton administration. She once helped with press relations for women members of peace groups at a summit in Geneva, even though she thought such groups could be “wooly headed.” “Admirable, maybe, but realistic, not necessarily. You know it’s not always the same thing. And so I wasn’t necessarily madly in agreement with them, but I had no problem helping them getting their message out. I don’t object to peace groups, you know.” And even though she wasn’t against the death penalty, she wrote a quite successful argument against the practice for the Wisconsin congressmen she once worked for. “It appeared in a bunch of papers. … I don’t think they have the death penalty in Wisconsin. So it’s a logical position for him to have.” Whatever the argument, you try to find “an unassailable way to state it so that there is no counter-argument, or you’ve already de-fused it.”