Writing Who You Are

The spoken word has much to do with how I write fiction.

My professional career in corporate communications spanned some 40 years. For most of that time, I was either a corporate speechwriter or not very far away from speechwriting. Even when I was serving as a spokesman for a crisis (a plant explosion, a train derailment, government actions upending a product and its market, to mention a few), I would usually have an executive speech assignment waiting on my desk.

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. You must understand what’s on the audience’s mind. And you’re constantly moving across communication media – from the words you’re writing to the words an executive is speaking to the words the audience is hearing.

Speechwriting is also rather anonymous. Someone else takes credit for your work. That is, unless the speech doesn’t go well. Then you get the full credit (blame).

Most people in communications hate speechwriting.

I didn’t mind the anonymity. I did mind being at the CEO’s beck-and-call on nights and weekends. I liked 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.

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.

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. You have to know when it’s time to do something else.

The stakes can be high. I wrote hundreds if not thousands of speeches, but I wrote three speeches that changed a company and changed an industry.

Speeches and speechwriting play a critical role in my third novel, Dancing King. It’s no coincidence that the communications guy writing the speeches for the main character also handles his crisis communications. The speechwriter moves back and forth between the roles. The defining conflict between the hero and his antagonists is a speech, one that sums up what the hero is about and the change he’s calling for.

That’s what they call “writing what you know.” It’s also “writing who you know.”

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. Writing is about the word; for Christian writers, it’s about the word and the Word, the logos.

That word – logos – means “word,” but it also means “spoken word,” what we call speech. It’s the oldest form of creativity we know, there from the creation.

Photograph by Bogomil Mihaylov via Unsplash. Used with permission.


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