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Michael Cooney (r) and Don Watson (c) mull the ins and outs of political speechwriting with session chair Jeni Caffin (l). Photo: Kalem Horn.

Putting words in their mouth: The art of speechwriting

Speechwriting is a tough profession. Crafting another’s ideas and words into an eloquent package involves a lot of people who, as Don Watson told his audience at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival, “really they never thought about words.”

Rather amusing for the man who was speechwriter to Paul Keating when he was prime minister, and who went on to lead the charge for quality and integrity in public language.

No easy task as you can imagine, and I think to be successful you must have some measure of passion for the person you’re writing about and what they stand for.

Certainly for Watson and Michael Cooney, who was speechwriter to Julia Gillard, there is no shortage of passion for the prime ministers they served.

This showed in their discussion and Jeni Caffin, their session chair at the festival, who described their books as “love letters” to the prime minsters they served.

So what makes a great speech?

Watson, who authored Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, is matter-of-fact: speeches should be direct, concrete, and never in the passive voice. He describes speechwriting an endless and often draining task, and admits to finding a certain measure of respectability in being considered a “bleeding heart”.

The most famous of Keating’s speeches, the Redfern Speech, is an intensely gritty acknowledgment of the crimes committed against Australia’s indigenous population. Watson had a heavy hand in writing the speech, however it’s interesting to note that Keating himself has claimed sole authorship, insisting that it is inherently his.

Who then do the words of the speech belong to?

There’s a lot of anonymity in being a speechwriter. While it’s generally known that speeches are written by a person hired to do so, there’s so much give and take between the writer and the speaker that there exists a sort of co-authorship that cannot be ignored.

The responsibility for the work is perhaps a little less clear. If the work is good, the praise will fall to the person you wrote the speech for. If you fail, you’ve given them bad advice. In the case of Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech, this symbiotic relationship between speaker and writer is quite relevant to me after hearing Watson speak.

The dawn of the digital age has made Cooney’s experience quite different Watson’s. Watson talks about coming from the age of newspaper transcripts, when speeches spread slowly and were much less far-reaching. Online communication has made the world considerably “smaller”.

Gone are the days of waiting for print media to write about the events. The same day Julia Gillard made her famous self-written misogyny speech, it spread as far as to where I lived in Massachusetts, US. An incredible feat, far removed from the experience of Watson’s time.

Cooney praises the internet and social media and the effect it has had on speechwriting. The increased visibility of famous speeches means that they can now be spread globally in a matter of minutes.

Cooney suggests that a great speech must form a well-thought out and impressive whole; the digital age and expansion of global media means that your 20-minute speech is going to be broken up, often delivered in 7 second clips. If the entire speech is lacking, that 7-second clip will be as well.

He suggests that the easiest way to fix a lacklustre speech is to format sentences into subject-verb-object structure, to deliver lines that are direct. In speeches such as the one Gillard delivered in Brisbane on Australian mining, the carbon tax, and the economy as compared to the rest of the globe, his short, cutting lines punctuating longer thoughts proved that this this strategy really works.

The impressive speech came just before the G20 Conference, and was one of the defining moments of Gillard’s political career.

After hearing these incredible men discuss their careers, I can’t help but wonder after the title of the conversation. Can anyone really say that speechwriting is putting words into someone’s mouths?

It’s so much more complex than that. Caffin suggests that unlike a movie script, you aren’t creating thoughts for a person. You’re voicing what they already think and feel. It’s a tremendously difficult exercise in empathy; there’s art in being able to anticipate and construct a piece that reflects what another person wants to say.

The responsibility of writing for another person is a heavy cross to bear, but if Cooney and Watson’s passion and fervour for the work they’ve done is anything to go by, it’s well worth the struggle to succeed.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 


Sheng Keyi with translator Martin Merz, at Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015.

New Asia Now: Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, and Sheng Keyi

According to New Asia Now contributor Sheng Keyi, there is a saying in China: “If a Chinese person wants to learn about China, they have to learn English.” And the author of speculative novel Death Fugue points to the heavy censorship in the Chinese media and publishing industry.

Keyi should know, Death Fugue has been banned in mainland China.

Many Asian writers have difficulty expressing themselves as a result of either oppression or corruption in their countries.

A common atrocity among the nations of Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, and Sheng Keyi was the levels of corruption in their societies. They each chose to write openly about the dark, and rarely scrutinized, aspects of particular Asian countries.

They are all part of New Asia Now, a Griffith Review collection of work from young Asian writers, all born after 1970. It is the journal’s most ambitious edition, according to the Griffith Review editor and session chair, Julianne Schultz.

The session began with the three authors reading excerpts of their work, and then they leapt into discussing the socio-political climates of their respective countries.

Filipino author of Illustrado, Syjuco, believes that it is his responsibility, as an artist from the Phillipines, to tell the world about the corruption evident in his country.

When a writer sits down to write they often ask why they are writing, said Syjuco, particularly when they are politically engaged. He hopes his writing will reach out to the next generation so they can take on some of his ideas.

Annie Zaido and Miguel Syjuco, with

Annie Zaidi and Miguel Syjuco, with Griffith Review editor and session chair, Julianne Schultz.

Syjuco’s essay in New Asia Now, Beating Dickheads, shows the parallels and contrasts between Australian and Filipino politics. He talks about how Australians will sit down at breakfast, read the newspaper, and become disillusioned with the state of parliament.

“What a dickhead!” is the usual response to the daily political disgrace, writes Syjuco.

This is, he says, a “defence mechanism” responding to a feeling of helplessness among the electorate. You can elect parliamentarians, but yet not feel any positive shift in society, or that parliamentarians provide an accurate representation of the needs of citizens.

Similarly, in The Phillipines, people feel this way about their governments. The difference, Syjuco said, is that you can go to jail for expressing such beliefs. He believes it would be unlikely that his essay would be published in his country, as it would be considered defamatory.

India presents a similar situation, according to Zaidi, author of Gulab and Love Stories #1 to 14.

In her essay, Embodying Venus, Zaidi writes about the rape of schoolgirls in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The perpetrator took so-called ‘compromising photographs’ and used them to blackmail the victims and their supporters into remaining silent.

Zaidi, who lived a sheltered youth, was taught to be ashamed of nudity, and the rape case galvanized the belief that “this is what happens to girls who go out to meet boys”.

A woman’s body is incessantly commodified, scrutinised, and ultimately shamed, Zaidi said.

She writes that the media gives “fresh reminders of the power cameras have over a woman’s body”.

This was another similarity between India and the Phillipines, Syjuco noted, although he pointed out that one in three women worldwide have been victims of abuse – so this is not only an issue evident in third world countries.

Keyi said, through translator Martin Merz, that while Syjuco and Zaidi were debating which of their nations were more corrupt, she was looking at which of the three – Philippines, India and China – is more rotten.

She said that instances of sexual abuse in China aren’t particularly notable, but there are cases of officials abusing their positions of power to enact violence on women and children.

“The situation for women in China is terrible,” said Keyi.

She read an excerpt from A Little Life, a story based on one of her relatives. It revolves her relative, who despite being unmarried falls pregnant, a fineable offense in China. Keyi said that an impoverished single mother cannot hope to survive in China.

Although A Little Life ends positively, such an outcome could never occur in reality in China, said Keyi.

The authors were asked if the rise of social media has allowed for a democratisation of their messages in the midst of oppression.

“Social media is one of the best tools we have to force freedom of speech and challenge the dogma,” said Syjuco.

Zaidi partly agreed with Syjuco, but pointed out that access to social media is restricted in India, with less that 10 percent of the population having access to the internet.

In China, Keyi believes there is no plurality in her country’s news media as it is dominated by a handful of state-run organisations. Money is frequently used to silence people and journalists are pressured to present a purely positive story.

“Some of what goes on in China can only be reported on when sourced outside of China,” Keyi said.

New Asia Now is clearly providing such a platform for writers and activists to do just that.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.


Narrative Frontiers: The future of storytelling

As we move through the 21st Century, and technology evolves, inevitably so does the way we tell stories.

It is important to consider how to tell our stories in this fast-paced era, as well as the way they are distributed.

The panel jumped into a passionate, but friendly debate about the direction of these narrative frontiers.

Mike Jones, head of story development at Portal Entertainment and author of The Transgression Cycle series, is a self-proclaimed ‘platform agnostic’.

He believes the current state of storytelling, including video games and interactive narratives, have come about naturally as new ‘platforms’ have evolved along with society.

His ‘platform agnosticism’ comes from a desire to break from sticking to a particular storytelling tradition, such as solely writing print, novels, plays, and so on. Instead, he says, you should consider the merit of working on platforms popular with current audiences.

Jones said that he didn’t believe in the writer as the embodiment of self-expression; they must be audience-centric.

Nury Vittachi, author of The Curious Diary of Mr Jam, also contributes to Hong Kong Free Press. He crosses narrative platforms and teaches narrative writing to game developers.

But Vittachi doesn’t buy Jones’ audience-centric argument.

Vittachi said that the personal expression of creativity and story is what is most important in writing.

“Narratives are to do with magic, you can’t industrialize magic,” he said.

Vittachi believes that writing a story with the intention of franchising it kills something in the process.

Marc Fennell, ABC RN’s Download this Show presenter and co-host of The Feed on SBS, interjected in good humour: “I think you’re both wrong!”

To Fennell, self-expression is not a bad thing, but he recognised that working within different platforms does require a degree of mindfulness of the audience. Without this, there is the potential that no one will hear your story.

However, if we are to focus primarily on statistics and data on what is ‘popular’ among audiences, Fennell believed that ultimately we miss something important in the process of storytelling.

I tend to align with Fennell’s approach to this topic. The process of writing does not occur in a vacuum. We must always be considerate of our context. With this said, writers need not compromise their integrity (and creativity) to appease the status quo.

It’s important to acknowledge the progression of new storytelling mediums and writing alongside, rather than against, them. Certain people may never get to experience a great story as a result of the chosen medium of the author.

If writers, and indeed all artists, wish to make a career out of their craft, they will inevitably need to work with an industry.

Although, perhaps I’m optimistic in hoping that good narratives will spread their ‘magic’ to audiences without the author having to fall into an addiction to analytics and a profit-driven mindset.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

Books by Abdi Aden, Eben Venter, Russell Eldridge. Credit: Kalem Horn

Out of Africa: The Meaning of Place

There is something very personal about the concept of “place.”

People ascribe meaning to places they visit during their lives, and those places become significant through the time they spent there and by the memories that are made. And through shared language and background, people can find a collective meaning or a disjointed one about place.

Friday afternoon’s conversation Out of Africa brought together Abdi Aden, Russell Eldridge, and Eben Venter to share their diverse experiences about their African birthplaces.

The three men, two of whom are white South Africans, have lives both familiar and different from one another. Aden, whose aptly titled Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man details his life as a Somalian refugee, speaks of a Somalia that thrived, teeming with life and commerce and, above all, happiness.

Aden‘s memories of place are largely tied to language; his book was written in English because, he says, no one in Somalia will want to read about the bad parts of his life there.

English gives Aden a platform to speak his story where otherwise he could not. In this way, his sense of place and more specifically his idea of ‘home’ is just as tied to Australia, where he has built a life for himself, as it is to Somalia where his early years were spent.

These memories were so vivid and bright, and he spoke with such passion. I could almost visualise Somalia as he sees it as he delved into the details of his flight as a refugee to Melbourne. I wonder how a place, which offered so much heartache could still seem beautiful to him.

But that’s the way it is, I think.

‘Place’ is not just experience; we keep close the memories we wish to, and the rest becomes a footnote in a larger piece about our personal life.

The love with which all these men spoke of their home country was evident; each had good memories of their lives in Africa, as well as having experienced a sobering reality that even the most meaningful of places can have a dark side.

Eldridge talks how his novel Harry Mac helped him work through the psychological trauma of having lived in a society that perpetuated institutionalized racism. Set in the 1960s, the book is a coming-of-age story set during South Africa’s tumultuous apartheid era. The story’s background reflects the political turmoil of South Africa as a young boy, Tom, discovers the terrible secrets hidden by the titular character’s father.

South Africa’s apartheid regime also shaped Eldridge’s early life in ways he wouldn’t fully realize until he became removed from it. The government, essentially running a police state, and all of the people around him were practically screaming that everything was normal even while the country committed huge injustices against people of colour.

Eben Venter deals with a more modern South Africa, as he paints a picture of a remote farm in a desert landscape in Wolf, Wolf. Here he reflects a sort of tension between old and new through a relationship between an old-world patriarch and his gay son.

Wolf, Wolf’s story deals largely with fear, particularly the fear of not becoming a man, and Venter uses the suffocatingly close relationship between this ailing father and his caretaker son to illustrate this tension.

Venter wrote it in Afrikaans because, as he said, that was the way he felt it should be. The language is his mother tongue, and it felt right to him to write it that way, working closely with an English translator to create an entirely new English work.

Perhaps in a way, the story Venter created reveals a layer of anxiety. This is the sort of thing that Eldridge discusses as well — how is anyone meant to contend with the contrast between the happiness of their early life and the slavery that their government imposed on black and coloured South Africans?

How can you reconcile memory and fact?

Experience changes the way that we perceive things that have happened to us, and as time goes on these men all have had something about their homeland to come to terms with.

I’ve left this conversation with a picture of three men for whom place has special significance; like most people they have faced challenges along life’s path, but it is incredible how different their experiences have been when they lived and grew in such similar places.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.