So, it turns out that crafting a speech is a whole lot harder than writing an essay. At least, it’s harder than writing the type of essay we all wrote in high school. It’s not an ‘oh shit, I have to turn this in tomorrow and it’s midnight!’ affair, it’s a ‘wow, this borders on obsession’ affair. I haven’t passed a day in the past week without sitting down to tinker with its contents. As I write this, it’s Friday, and I’ve just done my bit for the day. Yesterday, I spent twenty minutes tinkering with a sentence I’d put to song – a song that echoes the excitement of first going to New York as a boy.

Yeah, I’m obsessed.

When Mary Oliver died a few months ago, I was bereft. I’d learned of her quite by accident, and she’d quickly become my muse of grief and wonder. She accompanied me on the Appalachian Trail, through the devastating death of my friend, and on to the healing power of friends and friendship, fields and forests, mountains and lakes. As muses go, she’s in my top five. So when she died, I drove my sorry self to my local bookstore and looked for anything bearing her name. What I discovered was a slender volume dubbed ‘A Poetry Handbook’ – not exactly a consumer’s first choice. I was undeterred – it was a tie to a friend I’d never met, one taken, perhaps, too soon. I bought it.  

I picked up six or seven other books that day, and I turned my attention to an eighth – I read my friends’ books first. But in time, I looped back to this one, in hopes that it would help me craft a better speech. This speech. It did not disappoint. 

In her introduction, she discusses the importance of a steady practice in engaging the ephemeral element out of which mystery is born. This is what elevates a poem to memorable heights. I believe it’s what makes prose truly memorable too – I think Steinbeck, McCarthy,  Hugo – they strike chords in the soul that resonate across time. Such writing is a disciplined and solitary act, and its yield sparkles like gold in the sun. 

Speeches are no different. 

She cautions that, without a steady practice, the cautiously creative element of our interior may never surface; so unengaged, it can hide a lifetime. Consistency is key to its engagement. I’ve attended to my speech almost every day for four months. I worked with a mentor last weekend, overhauled the whole thing, then worked it every day since then. It’s now properly polished, at least to her satisfaction. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully satisfied, but it feels good enough – we are our own worst critics, after all.  And it sounds good – Mary Oliver’s latest gift to me was an essay on sound. Dress rehearsal’s Monday; this speech sings.

That same practice is required of this simple blog, albeit with marginally lesser intensity. 

When my parents visited last week, my mother insisted that I read Educated, then went out and bought a copy to ensure that I’d do it. I was reading Jurassic Park at the time – a nod to my husband – and I told her it’d have to wait until after I’d finished it. Of course, I can’t refuse a beautiful book, especially one that touches at my roots and aspirations. My resolve quickly cracked; I read the prologue and was hooked. I put down Jurassic Park. I consumed Educated. Mornings for my writing, evenings for hers. I found my evenings slipping past my bedtime, my book in hand, my brain alert. Shutting down to sleep itself was an act of discipline. Daylight Savings Time really didn’t help. 

But my speech.

I’ve been listening Clear & Vivid by Alan Alda lately, and one episode in particular has stuck with me. It’s Sarah Vowell on Writing and Clarity – her motto is ‘start strange, end sad.’ It’s quirky, and it works for her. She also contrasts the difference of spoken media and written media. The difference is stark – in spoken media, the speaker is competing with traffic and the din of daily life, so points must be brief, deliberate, reiterated. There is, generally, no time to languish on tangential branches. 

Working on my speech has been an obsessively disciplined act of reduction – only deliberate tangents, and quick. How can I convey the meaning I seek to convey in the shortest but most impactful sentence possible? When you’re trying to stuff as much as I am into a 7-minute presentation, that’s essential. It’s also been a 3D puzzle. Where do I stand and when do I move there? What body language do I use to accentuate my message? How do I ensure that I come across deliberately but not mechanically? And tone, volume, pitch – how would you speak this next question?

Have you ever been totally transformed by an external event?

That’s the opener. It sets the tenor for everything that follows. It’s not an insubstantial consideration. Frankly, my friends, I want to win – I can reasonably see myself at the top of the Toastmasters heap someday.

Let’s address these several tangents:

Mary Oliver’s message, beyond one of a gentle discipline, is sonorous: a rock is not a stone. I took her message and massaged my entire speech with its precepts – aspirants, elisions, and plosive stops… I owe her a great debt of gratitude.

Tara Westover was a child when the ATF laid siege to the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge; her book, Educated, opens hauntingly with a childhood fantasy of that scene, instilled by her bipolar father. My speech picks up with the Murrah building, and could just have easily touched on Waco and Dave Koresh – all three of these events are steps along the rise of white nationalism in America. Ruby Ridge and Waco both inspired Timothy McVeigh; he was piqued by the first and hardened by the second. His truck bomb detonated two years to the day after the fiery conclusion of the ATF’s botched siege on the Branch Davidians. Alas, there’s no room for these stories in this particular speech. 

And Sarah Vowell reads everything she writes aloud. Starting weird and ending sad is an entertaining proposition too, and I am rather fond of the written tangent. All have merit for writer and speaker alike.

I’m in a reader’s rut now. Have you ever read a book so good that when you finally put it down, closing it slowly, reverently, its wonder washes over you, and you suffer for want of an equally good book for what seems like forever? Educated is one of those books. Jurassic Park is still at my bedside. I’m not ready for that one yet. I have Nabokov’s Laughing in the Dark; Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; and Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun on my short list. I think I’ve settled on the last of these – it’s a bedtime book. I don’t think that Nelson Mandela is a bedtime author. My speech closes with him. He too loved Invictus, and to great and inspiring effect.

When I post my blog next week, I will know the outcome of my competition. Whatever the result, the project itself has transformed the way I think about writing, and that alone is worth the effort undertook: it’s changed my relationship with myself. 

I think that’s pretty cool.

Happy Sunday!


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