Sometime back in October, my friend, sometimes guitar player, and all-around good guy who also happens to be a pretty serious journalist, Stephen Losey, mentioned to me that we was asked to give a commencement address at his alma mater. I’ve always wanted — and still want — to give a commencement address, but in the meantime, helping someone else out is good too. So, I offered to help him put together a 15 minute speech to the graduating English department at East Carolina University.
Most importantly, you can read the final version here and it is well worth your time. Steve has broken some important stories regarding our nation’s military and is generally everything you want a good journalist to be: hardworking, patient, fair, invested in getting things right, and humble even though he is helping uphold the First Amendment everyday, in a time when that is harder than it has been in decades.
I’m thankful for the chance to get to work with him on something that contains actual perspective and wisdom. Here is a run down of how it went:
Up front, I told him to start with his three best stories. Start with your three best stories: what they mean to you and to others who may want to be like you in the future. Each one of them should have all the elements of good storytelling: characters, plot, choices, and ultimately lessons, even if in the span of only 2 minutes. Stories are the guts of good speeches, and in commencement speeches, the social proof of lessons learned and wisdom earned.
His initial draft came with this commentary:
This is very messy. The way I write is, as you can see at the bottom, I started just jotting down some potential anecdote subjects (cool stuff I’ve done) and possible points to make. The speech draft here is longer and less refined, but fundamentally not all that different from what I delivered. I experimented with some alternate phrasings in parentheses…I tend to write non-linearly, jumping from bit to bit as inspiration strikes (like, “Oh! This would be a good end!) and stitching things together later.
This is absolutely the way you should write. Expecting that you can shape a complex, interweaving set of thoughts, stories, lessons, and reflection in a linear fashion is a ridiculous standard to set. No one does that because that’s not how the mind works. Write from the inside out. The most important things you have to say will come to you quickly, but should be spread across your time.
I suggested dividing the 2500 word speech (about 15 mins worth of text) into 4 parts, to help compartmentalize your thinking about how it’s structured and put together. (I added those section headers to the final version just so you can see what I mean).
I gave him a bunch of comment about language, or turns of phrase, but only as ideas that he gets to choose from. Working with a writer is great because, if you have that kind of understanding with them, everything is exploration; none of it is judgmental. Every alternate idea I offered was in service to helping him find the what and how of his overall message. As an example, I suggested this passage near the end:
“Throughout your life, as an English major, you will always be looking for people who see the world the way you do. Who have the insight you have into writing, speaking, art, politics, society, life in general. We’re a particularly breed of mind. There aren’t that many of us. You have to push your way through the MBAs, the medical students, the tech folks, to find each other. It’s hard. It can take a while. But it’s worth it.”
He didn’t use it, and that’s OK. Instead, he used this:
“It is both a calling, and a privilege, to be able to tell other people’s stories — to have them open up parts of their lives, even some of the worst and most painful parts, and trust that you’ll tell them honestly. Whatever I do, whenever I write, I hope it has a positive effect on the world in some way.”
While I like what I wrote, his is better because it’s more personal, less ambitious. You don’t always need to go for the big, sweeping ending. In the context of my his speech, my version is a bit off-key or distracting. Sometimes, it’s much better to speak directly and more concisely.
It’s worth mentioning that we sometimes think our stories aren’t good enough. Steve has the benefit of some pretty unique encounters. But, it’s important to remember that stories serve solely as a form of expression of experience and wisdom. And story that has “the moment”, a small piece of time when perspective changes, is a story worth telling.