Once a Writer…

microphoneI haven’t written anything particularly good or creative in a long time.  Between work and life, there just hasn’t been a way to focus the time or energy on my writing.  This has led me to even question whether or not I can say, even in passing, that I am a writer.  I mean, to be a writer, you have to write, don’t you?

I was faced with a challenge these past weeks.  I was the best man at a wedding and therefore had to give a speech during the reception to an audience I largely didn’t know (there were about 10 people I had met  prior to the day before the wedding).  With all the emotions of the wedding, combined with some extra complexities given the nature of our family dynamic, I felt a lot of pressure on this one.  How do I put together a speech that is heartfelt and funny and interesting and exactly the right tone, temperament and style for that environment when I had no idea of the audience’s sense of humor, educational or social background or the level of alcohol that would be consumed by that point in time?

Clearly, I’m not the first best man at a wedding or even the first person who has had to write a speech. But this task seemed pretty tough to me at the time. I thought about it for a long time, always coming up blank with how I wanted to proceed.  I found myself in the emergency room one day, and since the ER is run like a prison and I couldn’t do anything while I waited for them to decide which needles to stick into me, I pulled out my phone and did some research on the history of the role of the best man in weddings, the history of weddings, the history of speeches…anything I could think of.  That led to nothing of substance at the time, seeing as I was constantly interrupted for testing and questioning.

A week or so after I was sprung from the ER, about a week before I needed to give my speech, I still had nothing. S0, I headed to a Starbucks early one morning with a pen and paper, leaving the laptop, the phone and all of their distractions at home.  As I sat there staring at the blank page, trying to keep myself from panicking, I thought to myself, “Okay, Rob, what have you done when you’ve had a creative deadline for a story?”

The answer?

I just started writing.  I wrote for an hour and a half, just scribbling every word I thought of onto the page as fast as I could make my hand scrawl it out.   At that point in time,  quality didn’t matter at all,  it was all about quantity. The more words and ideas, the better.  When I finished, I headed home to type it into my computer and edit it. Which of course meant that I had to figure out how to read it (there’s a reason I type for a living).  What I found was that when I fell back to what I’ve always relied on for creative works, I could actually still put together a story.  And that’s what it was. I used the research I did in the emergency room to pick a starting point (believe it or not, it was swords and shields).  I then wove that together with themes of family and friends, love and happiness and some self-deprecating humor. And finally I pulled the family bits together with the swords and shields to present a toast in which the bride and groom had an army of supporters surrounding them.

The point I’m trying to convey here is that I’m sure we all have stretches where we question whether or not we are “a writer”.   I certainly have been questioning that about myself for quite some time. This speech showed me, though, that if you trust your creative instincts, you can fall back on them when you need to do so.  Sure, I needed to do some major editing on what I scribbled down on the pages at Starbucks, both for content and for time, but when I finally just trusted myself to write it, the words were there.  I gave the speech (without notes!) and afterwards I had people coming up to compliment it. The people who worked in the reception hall came up to me as well and said that they hear three or four of these speeches a week and had never heard a better one than mine.  Was my speech really that great?  I suspect not.  But I think it was not what was expected and that is what made it work.  What I did different from the prototypical best man speech is I wove a single story thread throughout and didn’t just go for cheap one-liners and random, embarrassing stories about the groom.  That was really the key for me to get the speech written in the first place – I needed to not force myself to write a 4 minute standup comedy routine.  They say you have to know your audience, and that’s true, but I’ll add to that concept that it is just as important to know when you don’t know the audience, too. Jokes fall flat if told to the wrong crowd. Personal stories fail if not enough people know the tale. But a well-balanced story can be funny and heartfelt and engaging to a wide variety of people. Having written for so much of my life, I just needed to remember that.

This event helped me see that while I may not have written much in the recent past, I’m still a writer.  So I want to know – have you had any experiences that helped you to see that the phrase, “once a writer, always a writer” is a Truth?  I’d love to hear your experiences here in the comments!