A presidential speech-writing process — Bill Clinton

presidential speech-writing process
“Little Rock Nine” memorial; detail of Elisabeth Eckford’s statue Photo by Sgerbic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bill Clinton’s library released a fascinating digital exhibit this week. If you’ve ever wondered about the presidential speech-writing process, hop on over to Commemorating Courage: 40th Anniversary of Desegregation of Central High.

This coming Monday marks the 60th anniversary of that signal event in our history. Three years after the Supreme Court abolished the “separate but equal” practice of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Arkansas still hadn’t integrated its school system. When nine young black men and women enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High in 1957, their governor called out the National Guard to turn them away. President Eisenhower eventually intervened, sending in troops to escort the students into the building on September 25, 1957.

I think sometimes karma has a hand in “booking” speakers. Bill Clinton was 11 when the “Little Rock Nine” finally entered their new high school. It was a formative experience for him—and as president, he made sure to shine a spotlight on the event. The first person of color to serve as president, Barack Obama, got to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the March on Washington. A great symbol of the progress we (thought we had) made. That kind of personal connection between speakers and events doesn’t happen every day; when it does, I get the shivers.

Presidential speech-writing process, on full display

So dive into the Clinton Library’s exhibit on Little Rock and you’ll see everything from handwritten notes from the first speech-prep session, to research materials, to drafts prepared by the lead speechwriter, June Shih. You’ll also find a photograph of the president still revising his remarks “backstage” in the High School, just moments before he took the stage.

The folks in my Weekly What program will get a full analysis of the speech and the differences between drafts. But spend a little time on the Clinton Library’s website and you’ll find several articles about different aspects of the events surrounding the school’s desegregation, as well as some moving photographs of President Clinton holding open the high school’s doors for the now-grown Nine, and awarding them the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Clinton’s speech recognized that the country still had a ways to go. But its optimism about the effect the Little Rock Nine had on the education system seems quaint today, 20 years after his speech. The New York Times magazine last weekend ran a piece called “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.” “Resegregation”—spellcheck doesn’t even recognize that as a word! But apparently in some parts of the country, municipalities are forming their own school districts as an end run around integration.

Surely this is not the best way forward for our country. It’s certainly not the future President Clinton envisioned for us 20 years ago. So take a trip back in time and imagine a world of educational equity, freedom, and justice for all.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October—and get the Weekly What self-directed writing program for free. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

DIY Writing — How’s that going for you?

DIY — do-it-yourself. Is that the way you learn best? Me too.

I’ve been a DIY learner pretty much my whole life. One day when I was a toddler, I heard one of my mother’s teacher friends talking about my education. She mentioned the time—still some years off—when I would learn to count by twos.

“I can already count by twos!” I announced indignantly. And indeed I could. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but once she named the skill I recognized the game I’d made up with my grandmother’s playing cards.

DIY
Hardanger altar cloth by me, photo by Nina Nicholson

Many years later, I bought something that looked like a counted cross-stitch pattern book and was working through one of the pieces when I encountered a stitch I couldn’t figure out. I went back to the store for advice and the proprietor said, “Oh, that’s probably in the beginners’ book.”

There’s a beginners’ book? I’d done it again—taken a skill that some people find impenetrable and taught it to myself.

For the record, it wasn’t counted cross-stitch; it’s a Norwegian craft called Hardanger. I made this altar cloth for my old church using the technique, which turns ordinary linen into something resembling lace. And, yep, I’ve still never had a lesson in my life.

DIY writing?

If you’re a DIY learner like I am, you may think that what you already know about writing is sufficient.

Well, is it?

Are you satisfied with the work you turn out, or do you secretly wish you could be a stronger, more consistent writer?

You don’t need the “beginners’ book.” You just need a nudge in the right direction. Someone to point out great writing techniques you may want to emulate. Analyses to get you reading more intentionally—reading like a writer

And because writing can so often slip to the bottom of the to-do list, maybe you’d like a reminder every now and then, a writing prompt to kickstart your creativity.

A DIY writing program

That’s exactly why I created The Weekly What—a yearlong DIY writing program.

Every week you get a writing prompt. Use it or save it for the proverbial rainy day. And every other week you also get my personal analysis of a piece of great writing: a speech, a magazine or newspaper article, a blog, an essay. (Full disclosure: there may be more than one piece about baseball.)

Read and absorb these at your leisure. And then join us once a month for a group discussion with your fellow Weekly What-ers. Swap insights about the analyses. Talk about how you’ve used the techniques in your own writing. There’s nothing as validating as hearing someone else struggle with the same challenges you’re facing.

I’ll be releasing the next cycle of The Weekly What starting on October 4th. But register by October 1st and you’ll get a half-hour private coaching session with me, absolutely free.

If do-it-yourself hasn’t done it for you yet, this may just be the extra support you need.

Don’t you know you’re a good writer? — Frequent Questions

Q: Don’t you know you’re a good writer?
A: [incoherent mumbles]

Full disclosure—today’s Frequent Question doesn’t come from a reader. But it’s definitely a frequent question: Mine.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve worked with start out thinking they can’t write. And again and again, I find myself asking them some version of the question above.

Their answer, sadly, is usually some variation of No. Nobody ever told me. I had no idea. Are you really sure? You’re not just saying that?

One of my challenge writers posted a beautiful piece to our Facebook group—an insightful essay about creativity and how it takes many bad ideas to generate one good one. Brené Brown would have been proud to write that. So would Seth Godin.

And then in the last paragraph, she called herself a “wannabe writer.” I wanted to cry.

good writer

Another of my writers called herself “a non-writing aspiring writer.” Hard to imagine how that could be true since the “non-writing” writer wrote those words in a writing assignment!

It’s interesting, this need people have to deny what they are doing while they’re doing it.

I mean, if I took violin lessons I wouldn’t call myself a violin player the first time I picked up the bow. But I wouldn’t call myself a “wannabe” violin player either. No matter how squeaky my “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” might be (memories of that 3rd grade Christmas concert still sting), I was playing the damn violin. And if I’d kept at it, I bet I’d have gotten better at it.

The writing you do today may not be as good as the writing you do two weeks—or two years—from now. Or it may be every bit as good. We all have occasional flashes of brilliance balanced my much more frequent flashes of mediocrity. That’s the way creativity works.

But you don’t need someone to anoint a writer. It’s a verb. You want to be a writer? Write.

Everyone wonders: Am I a good writer?

Look, I don’t mean to give you more sticks to beat yourself with. So you’ve wondered if you’re a good writer. Who hasn’t? But please, please, please don’t let that stop you from writing.

Every time you make words come out of your fingers—on a keyboard or with pen and paper—you are writing. And it’s a verb—remember? If you write, that makes you a writer.

Self-confidence deserts everyone from time to time. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic:

“Creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it.”

If you haven’t read that book, go buy it and spend just 15 minutes reading it right now.

Because you need to hear things like this:

“You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.”

Of course, as I see it that’s not 100% accurate. You do need permission from one person: Yourself.

And that’s one of the main emotional issues we tackle in Writing Unbound. Getting out of our own way, giving ourselves permission to use and develop the talents we have. Claiming the title of “writer” because—say it with me: It’s a verb.

I write.
We write.
Therefore we are writers.

So here’s the first thing I tell the people in Writing Unbound: Whenever you start to write something, put these words at the top of the page:

I AM A WRITER.

Eventually you’ll believe it. And then you get to modify that sentence:

I AM A GOOD WRITER.

Just keep writing every day. Don’t let anyone stop you.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Daily writing practice —consistency breeds success

Some people practice yoga. Other people practice their golf swing. Me, I practice writing. Every day for the last 511 days (as of yesterday). That’s what you call a daily writing practice.

Why is a daily writing practice important? Two reasons:

  1. Consistency and
  2. Consistency

First, consistency: a daily practice makes you better at whatever you’re doing—the old 10,000-hour rule. I’ve written about this a lot (here and here, among other places) so I won’t revisit the discussion.

The second point of consistency, though, is not for you. It’s for your audience. You might call that the Field of Dreams rule. And my friend Melissa Smith is a shining example.

Daily writing practice leads to 1400% more readers

daily writing practice
Daily writer Melissa Smith

Back in March, her blog had about 250 subscribers. She says she remembers the date well “because that’s when I was sure it couldn’t still be just family and friends.” Six months later—with zero marketing—she’s at 3600. That’s more than 1400% growth. With—did I mention?—zero marketing.

Melissa says:

“When people ask why I have been having success with my blog I tell them the single biggest reason is because I write and publish every, single, day. They would rather me give them magic answers, tips, tricks, and awesome SEO. It’s so much easier and so much harder for them as well.”

I added the emphasis there: Every. Single. Day. No, it’s not magic; just work.

If you show up, people will show up with you. Of course, then they’ll expect you to keep showing up. Meet their expectations and you’ll develop a relationship with your followers, sustained by your daily writing practice.

Melissa runs ThePVA.com—an excellent matchmaking service for VAs and employers like me—but it’s not her work blog that’s attracting so much attention. Melissa is documenting her year as a “Roamer,” a group of entrepreneurs settling in a new country every month. It’s not shiny travel porn, and that’s key to its success. Melissa is a real person writing about her real life. The homesickness. The joy of discovering new places, new pursuits. The friendships she’s forming. It’s like a one-woman Amazing Race.

I don’t know what Melissa plans to write about when her year of Roaming ends. But I do expect she’ll be writing. Once you’ve seen what a daily writing practice can do, there’s no going back. That’s why I hit Day 511 yesterday and why I’ll do all I can to make sure I hit 512 today.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Barking at the fog — lessons from Fenway

Fenway, not barking
Fenway at her workstation

So there I was yesterday morning slaving over a hot keyboard, when my CA (Canine Assistant), Fenway, started barking. Her workstation faces the big picture window, so I looked outside. Not a creature was stirring, to paraphrase Clement Clarke Moore, not even a chipmunk. But something seemed different, and then I noticed that the air seemed whiter.

Yep. Fenway was barking at fog.

She calmed down after a bit. And about half an hour later, the fog lifted. Cause and effect? Maybe to her.

To me it’s just wasted energy. And it reminds me of how often I do that. Traffic jams. Unsubscribes. Shortstops missing an easy double play. None of these things lies within my control. Yet I bark at them. Of course—it makes me feel better. Or does it?

Do you ever find yourself barking at the fog?

I’m going to try an experiment this week and not get angry about things I can’t control. A Buddhist would probably tell me that category should include everything. But I’m not that enlightened yet.

So if I get stuck in traffic—I’ll be grateful for GPS and podcasts.

If I some people opt out of my mailing list—I’ll…well, maybe focus on the growing number of people who do find value from it. If you might be one of them, click the button and I’ll send you a free gift.

Keep in touch. Subscribe to Elaine’s Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.

And the shortstop? Hey, I’m past getting mad at the Mets’ defensive errors. We’re in “wait ’til next year” mode already. At this point, I’m just in it for the hot dogs.

Anyway, I’m going to be more intentional about staying in the moment and not wasting my energy on things I can’t control. How about you? Give it a try—and let me know how it works out for you.

The dench Dame Judi Dench — Song for a Sunday

Listen to Judi Dench rap. (I bet you never expected to read that sentence.)

“Hey, I’m Jude-to-the-D—Pow!”

I came across a Huffpost article about Dame Judi Dench “learning to spit lyrics” with a British rapper.

While she does look fetching in the flat-brimmed DENCH cap he gives her, the talent she displays is not so much rapping as it is mimicry—and rhythm. The Dame’s got rhythm.

Have a listen to the video if you like, but the thing that made me want to bring this to your attention is this line in the accompanying article:

“In the United Kingdom, Dench’s surname is sometimes used as slang to describe something amazing.”

Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench, photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY 3.0

A quick check in the Urban Dictionary confirms Dench as a synonym for sick (in a good way) or nice, and offers the examples:

That was dench bruvaaaaa
look at her saaaaaaaan she is well judi dench

What an extraordinary thing to have one’s name enter the lexicon—and as high praise, no less.

Of course we all know Judi Dench as a marvelous actor. But do you know she’s also quite a, well, a dench musical theatre interpreter as well?

In a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in London, she sang the over-sung, often cloyingly sentimental “Send in the Clowns.” Frankly, the song had always put me right to sleep. Until I saw her interpretation. It’s dench, all right. Totally dench. Enjoy.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

“Shockingly expensive” — truth in marketing

“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”

That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed yesterday. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.

shockingly expensive food

This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.

The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if it’s “shockingly expensive.” But I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)

Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.

Shockingly expensive — and truthful

Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you see often in advertising.

In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed course costs nearly $500. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s a year-long program. Where are you going to find that for $59?

Think a shorter course will be less expensive? Actually, my 10-week program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.”

When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, to interact with their fellow writers, and to experience real change together.

If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every penny”—check out my Writing Unbound program.

I can’t promise you a puppy on your lap as you savor your organic breakfast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and get you writing things that people actually want to read.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe yes, maybe no

Some activists unveiled a banner about racism in baseball at Fenway Park this week. Baseball has figured into a couple of political conversations I’ve had in the last week. It’s left me wondering: Can baseball bridge divides in our society?

The case of the curious Lyft driver

I caught a Lyft when I arrived at the Cincinnati airport a couple of weeks ago. It was around midnight but my driver was chatty and I mentioned that I was in town to catch a baseball game. His next question came right out of the blue, like a pop fly in July:

“Are you married?”

He had kind of a thick accent—from somewhere in West Africa, he later told me—so I thought perhaps I’d misheard him. But when I didn’t answer, he asked again. Much more emphatically. Half-turning around in his seat:

“Are you married?”

I laughed and said, “That’s a very personal question.” He explained that he was just wondering because I was a woman going to a baseball game alone.

I tried to smile as I made it a teachable moment: “Well, as you’ve probably noticed in the year and a half you’ve been here, women in the United States often do things without their husbands. And husbands do things without their wives.”

I’m not sure I convinced him that our culture really does allow women to have agency (at least it has historically). But he did ask me how much the tickets were, and said he’d try to catch a game one of these days. If I didn’t manage to enlighten him, perhaps I created a baseball fan.

Can baseball bridge divides? The case of the translator

I found myself watching a game on TV with a relative of mine.

can baseball bridge divides?Baseball is one of the few things we have in common (although he roots for the wrong team). Then in the post-game interviews, one of the players showed up with a translator by his side.

“Now that—that I don’t go for,” my relative said, appending the familiar blather about how if you’re going to play ball here you should learn the language.

I knew I’d have to address the situation—I’m done letting teachable moments pass—but a combination of jet lag and my cold had ground down all my feistiness. So I said quietly, “Oh, I don’t know. Learning a new language is hard.”

And then a question popped into my mind. So I asked it, willing my voice to stay calm and curious:

“Have you ever tried to learn another language?”

I expected to hear something about high school Spanish but he just said, almost sheepishly, “No.”

Was his mind opening a crack?

“Well, it’s hard,” I said, still gently. “And then imagine that you’ve got to speak in this new language you’re learning in front of TV cameras and millions of people will hear you speak, and your bad accent, and maybe you don’t use all the right words. I can’t even imagine having to do that.”

My relative couldn’t either.

Listening, thinking can bridge divides

Now, my relative is not going to run right out and join a pro-DACA demonstration. But he’s thinking about at least one part of the immigration issue in a new way.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe. Not with banners but with personal interactions.

One conversation, one new idea planted. Starting right where you are, whenever you get an opening, whoever you can talk with.

It’s a long road, but it can lead to lasting change.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Judy Gitenstein’s Commandments — Guest Post

Judy GitensteinJudy Gitenstein has worked on staff at Dell Publishing, Random House, Avon Books and Bantam Books, and now independently with writers who want to get the inside scoop on the industry. She is a writing coach, editor . . . and secret weapon.

Especially this week, she’s my secret weapon. I’d asked her to guest back in August, when I went on vacation, but she wasn’t able to fit it into her busy schedule. But—hallelujah!—her blog arrived at exactly the right time: when my doctor ordered me to bed for two days. Thank you, Judy Gitenstein!

 

Commandment 3 (of my ten commandments of writing and publishing): Do what works for you

by Judy Gitenstein

When I was growing up, I liked to figure out people’s names backward. Mine was Yduj Nietsnetig, and sounded like “E-dudge Ni-etz-netig.” Other kids played with their food; I played with words. Go figure. As an editor I’m in the right business.

So, thank you, Eniale, for offering this guest slot on your blog.

I started in publishing before anyone was called a writing coach and now I find I am one. It’s what I’ve always done, just with a new title. Writing coaches nowadays freely share their process by which you can—pick one—write/deliver your essay/book/memoir/speech. By following 3/5/10 steps during a weekend/week-long workshop/boot camp or six/eight/ten webinars, you can finish your essay/book/memoir/speech in record time.

There’s only one problem.

You’re learning someone else’s process. Workshop and boot camp leaders are teaching you what works for them. It may work for you while you’re taking the course because you’re being helped through the process. Their process. But it won’t work when you’re on your own.

Find your process

So, the very most important thing I can tell you, Elaine’s readers, is to find what works for you. Figure out, try out, and refine your process, whatever it is, no matter how weird it may seem. It’s the quirkiness, the “you-ness” that distinguishes you from other writers. This is what I tell my clients all the time.

Yes, take the course. Learn someone else’s process. Then create your own.

The next time you have to write something, do what you normally do and simply notice your inclinations. Do you think first or write first? Do you write a little every day or write it all in one sitting? Do you spill out a draft or craft each sentence as you go? Do you work in the morning or in the middle of the night?

There is no right answer. There is only the answer that works for you.

My process

I write best under deadline, real or self-imposed, and I pretty much write best in crisis mode, with fear as my motivator.

There are those who get a certain amount done every day. If something’s on their calendar, they do it and check it off. I’m not one of those people and I realized only recently that I’ll never be one of those people. In fact, I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to follow my natural pattern. I kind of like immersing myself in what I’m doing so that I can take walks, ponder, fiddle, nap, and get down to work, often in the middle of the night. I isolate myself so I can focus. I love the feeling of swimming upstream while I’m working and I love the feeling of joining the world again when I’m done.

I have on my wall a New Yorker cartoon of a king looking out over a parapet in the middle of the night. The caption is: “It’s nice when it’s quiet.”

What a relief it’s been to allow myself to be even more who I am, and in the process be even more productive and effective.

This method is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for anyone but me. As for you, figure out what you do, embrace it, refine it, and most of all remember it so that you don’t reinvent it every time you write.

What starts as the hardest, most insurmountable task can in a flash become the most wonderful, satisfying experience—so much so that you’ll quickly forget the excruciating part when you sit down to write again. Find something for your wall that reminds you of that while you’re struggling with the tough part of your process.

What’s your process?

What’s the thing you do that seems the most useful but that might also be counterintuitive, simple or just downright funny? Share it with us in the comments.

And please visit judygitenstein.com. I’m working on all ten of my commandments of writing and publishing (each one in the middle of the night, of course) and am eager to share them with you. Join my mailing list to read them all. And please note: by making this promise to you I’m creating a crisis whereby I now have to write them. My crisis, my process. My way.


Write better when you write daily. My next 5-day writing challenge kicks off on September 18th.

Why do I have to do it if it’s hard? — Frequent Questions

Q: Why do I have to do it if it’s hard?
A: You don’t. It’s a choice you make.

I call this feature “Frequent Questions” rather than Frequently Asked Questions. But I don’t see this question all that often. And I’ll be honest, I’m glad about that.

creating can be hardCreating is hard. You bare your soul and sometimes all you get in return is a yawn. You spend months preparing—whether you’re sweating over your computer while everyone you know is off partying, or scraping the dried paint off your skin after a day of Jackson Pollock-ing in your studio, or rehearsing your cabaret show until you can sing it in your sleep. Then the big reveal and…

[crickets]

No one reads your book. No gallery even hangs your painting. People stay away from your lovingly crafted cabaret show in droves. I’ve got lots of personal experience with that last one.

Yeah, it’s hard. So?

Of course it hurts. When you’ve got six people in a room that seats 100 and three of them talk through the whole show—not fun. Once I was in a musical at a tiny, non-air-conditioned theatre during a heatwave. One night, two-thirds of the audience left at intermission; we played the second act to one person. Got a standing ovation, though. Or maybe he was just trying to beat the rush to the taxis (in New York City, you never know.)

The musical thing didn’t really bother me (except for the heat). It wasn’t my show; it wasn’t my story. My cabaret shows, on the other hand, each new show was better than the one before. I won awards, I got a review in The New York Times. And I was still scrounging for audiences.

But I had something to say, so I said it. I chose to say it. I made the decision to put myself out there, whether or not an audience came along for the ride.

You write (or paint, or sing) because you have to on some level. But creating is also a choice. If you make that choice, embrace it. Do the thing you love because you love it. If the hard part feels too hard, then by all means stop doing it. What you don’t get to do is complain.

Next question?


Write better when you write more often. My next 5-day writing challenge starts September 18th: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.