I hadn’t read a ton of Zora Neale Hurston – just the magnificent novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Haven’t read it? Do it now.) And at some point in the foggy past I might have read her not entirely accurate autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.
Anyway, I hadn’t read a ton of Hurston’s work, but when I got the assignment to write a speech to be delivered at a college in Florida, she was the first thing I thought of. Maybe because the speaker was an African American man. Maybe because I often try to give male speakers women to quote (if the quotes are on point). I’d even once been audacious enough to hook a speech for a financial industry exec on a quotation by pioneering French feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir. Back then, the financial industry was even more macho than it is today, but the quotation was absolutely on point – and the executive’s wife had an important job herself, so I figured he’d be cool with it.
But I digress: As surprising as that experience was, it pales in comparison to the Zora Neale Hurston Incident. So back to our story:
I had a little lead time before writing this speech, so I went to the bookstore and bought Of Mules and Men, Hurston’s compilation of Black folktales from the south. Interesting, but it didn’t provide the hook I was looking for.
I pounded out a couple of drafts, but I still hadn’t found the right hook. Then something stopped me cold. This college was in Florida. Wait – didn’t Hurston have some association with Florida? This was back in the days before Wikipedia, so I had to invest some effort in researching my hunch. She was born in Florida. But that wasn’t it. Yes! She also taught in Florida. At a college. The same college my exec was speaking at. After that, the speech practically wrote itself.
This was the first time in my career I’d ever experienced something like that – an idea welling up from my subconscious that turned out to be exactly the right idea, even though I didn’t recognize it initially. Each time it happens I’m amazed. But it’s true what they say: You never forget your first time.