March 10, 2014
Writing Speeches, Saying Nothing


Henry Miller wrote 10,000 pages before a single word of his was ever published. Richard Bach had to endure Jonathan Livingston Seagull being rejected 18 times before it went on to sell 60 million copies. Salman Rushdie, after the publication of his Satanic Verses, spent a lot of time wearing disguises so he wouldn't be executed by a pissed off Ayotallah Khomeini and an entire nation of Fatwa-obsessed Muslims.


Me? My writer's come-uppance came in the form of a 24-hour ATM at Laguardia Airport.

But first, the back story...

When I was pounding the streets of Denver, Colorado, as an aspiring free lance writer, I once wrote a feature article for the American Humane Magazine. The story was well-received and inspired the Executive Editor, Eric Brettschneider, to send me a glowing letter of acknowledgment.

I kept his glowing letter of acknowledgment along with a few others I received, but since I couldn't eat them, decided to move to New York City in an attempt to reignite my stalled writing career.

The first call I made upon arriving in the Big Apple was to my one and only local fan, Eric Brettschneider.

Eric was not in. In fact, Eric was never going to be in, explained the woman who answered his phone. Eric, she went on to say, was no longer with the American Humane Society. He had "moved on". Precisely where she wasn't at liberty to say, but she could give me a forwarding number, which she proceeded to do.

Eric, answering his own phone, remembered me fondly and explained that he was now the Executive Assistant to the Borough President of Queens, the Honorable Donald R. Manes.


"Shit," I thought to myself. "Another dead end."

Eric, however, saw it very differently.

"Our speech writer is leaving next month," he explained. "Why don't you take a shot at writing Donald's State of the Union address? The pay is good and it'll give me a chance to see if you've got the right stuff to be our next speechwriter."

Yes, indeed, the pay was good. And so was the feedback. The Honorable Donald R. Manes was pleased with my work and so were the good people of Queens, happy to know that their not-yet-indicted Borough President had an excellent grasp of all the major local issues.

Months passed. I did some brochure writing for Citibank (boring), wrote an article for New York Magazine (rejected), and ate a lot of beans (kidney).

And then, like an unexpected tax refund from the Great State of New York, the new Executive Assistant to the Borough President of Queens called.

"Good news!" he exclaimed. "Our speechwriter just quit. Come in tomorrow for an interview with Donald if you want the job."

"This," I thought to myself, "is going to be one very short job interview," knowing how pathetically apolitical I was.

Yes, I knew that each state had two senators and that jaywalking was illegal, but after that my knowledge of the inner workings of government had some major holes in it.

My job interview was, indeed, short. But not in the way I expected.

Here's how it went:

1. Eric escorted me to the well-appointed, corner office of the Borough President of Queens.

2. I knocked and the door opened, revealing several American flags and a nicely framed photo of Mario Cuomo.

3. Donald Manes spoke: "Eric tells me you have a good sense of humor. True?"

4. "Yes," I replied.

5. Donald Manes smiled, "Good! You're hired."

That was it -- my initiation into the halls of power. I was not grilled about the Federalist Papers, not asked about my position on gun control, not invited into a dialogue about New York City's budget. One question. That's all I was asked -- probably the only question I could have answered at the time: Did I have a sense of humor?

Thus began my two-year career as a political speechwriter.

While many soul-sucking experiences happened to me during that particularly surreal time in my life, none of them came close to the existential meltdown I had when I was asked, one average spring day in Queens, to write about the opening of a 24-hour ATM machine at Laguardia Airport.

I mean, really, what is there to say about that?

"Good people of Queens, I am proud and privileged to be standing here with you today, just three feet away from Laguardia Airport's first- ever Automated Teller Machine."

"Only in this great, great borough of ours, could such a groundbreaking, historical event take place."

"As the elected representative of more than 2,000,000 technologically savvy citizens of Queens, I am honored to be the first elected official to withdraw $25 from this state-of-the-art ATM."

einstein aptent.jpg

OK. So a young Albert Einstein once worked in a patent office and an older Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance agent. Great. I got it. But... this... THIS... this speech writing for a man who, rolled up almost every speech I wrote and used it as a pointer while he spoke off the cuff?

Was it karma? Destiny? Was it God's wicked sense of humor? Had I taken a wrong turn on the Queens Expressway of Life? Was there something I was supposed to be learning beyond the fact that I could recite Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English?

Like the long gone speechwriter before me and the one before him and the one before him (or her) in a succession of 50 generations going all the way back to the first masters of hieroglyphics being asked to inscribe, on the inner chambers of the pyramid walls, how great the pharaohs were for reducing famines and plagues by 30%, the human drama I now found myself in was a seriously timeless one -- one that went way, way back.

The real question, though, wasn't how I got here. The real question had nothing to do with cause and effect. The real question was this: What story was I going to tell about the events that were taking place in my life? And what choices would I make in response to the story I was telling -- a story that would likely have been constructed very differently by someone else?

Did I need to hunker down and plumb the depths of the experience that was waiting for me in the Queens Borough President's office? Or did I, like the speechwriter before me and the ones before him, simply need to read the ATM on the wall and move on to higher ground?

Excerpted from this book written by yours truly

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at March 10, 2014 04:08 AM

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