An Open Letter to Jim Lehrer
You took quite a bit of heat for your performance as moderator of the first 2012 presidential debate. And I didn't like it one bit.
I had the privilege of not only meeting you, but chatting with you at length last May when you spoke at Shepherd University after your novel No Certain Rest was selected as the official book for the 250th anniversary celebration of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. We did not discuss politics or the possibility of funding cuts to PBS, but rather something much more near and dear to my heart: Writing.
(Although having grown up on Sesame Street, the fate of Big Bird is of some concern to me at the moment.)
"Bottoms in the chair!" you told me when I asked you what one's key to success in writing might be. "You have to make the time to write. It's what keeps the fever burning."
It seems hopelessly cliche and even a little patronizing to say you were right. But… well, you were. For even when I'm not feeling altogether inspired, sitting down at my writing desk to flesh out a concept, if only through notes and images, is enough to fuel the flame of ingenuity that I believe must burn inside every writer. And in the process, a spark of creativity will generally ignite and set the writing process ablaze.
(By contrast, a walk will do wonders for writer's block… but you probably already knew that.)
Later, you would go on to state in your lecture how important curiosity and imagination are to the writing process. It was the former - namely your interest in the circumstances surrounding the battle of Antietam as it pertained to the individuals involved - that led you to write No Certain Rest, you said. And as you re-read the book in preparation for your visit to Shepherdstown, you admitted to being truly stunned by the detail and emotion you had expressed through your main character, Don Spaniel, borne out of the latter.
This acknowledgement reminded me of something fellow blogger Alexandra Rosas once said of good writingthat has always stuck with me: "If [what you write] doesn't make you laugh out loud, then it won't make anyone else laugh out loud. If it doesn't bring tears to your eyes, then it won't bring them to someone else's eyes, either."
You corroborated this sentiment, Jim. And in doing so, reinforced two more key elements to successful writing: The importance of invoking emotion in one's work, as well as taking pride in it.
But back to our chat. During its course, you suggested that I create a physical writing portfolio of my favorite pieces. Not necessarily those I believe are the most professional or editor-friendly or that have been lauded by others as my best work, but my favorites. Whether written personally or professionally, you said, they should be pieces that I truly cherish for the story they tell. And with this bit of practical advice, you made an otherwise daunting project seem downright fun.
But ultimately it was your guidance surrounding two creative self-discoveries I had already made, aided by time and experience, that struck me the most and validated my sense of being as a writer.
"Find your voice," you encouraged. "If you try to emulate Hemingway, for instance, you won't succeed. But you will find your voice along the way." You then added that it also helps to write to someone… or at least with someone in mind. "It will help keep you focused," you said.
When I first began blogging I fancied myself a humorist with heart, attempting to imitate the likes of Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck. I failed miserably, of course. But over time my writing has evolved into that irreverent style I both admire and covet, albeit with a unique voice in which I take great pride.
And as for whom I write, it is and always has been my daughter, that she she may one day experience my life, her life, and perhaps a few life lessons through my words. For she is the inspiration behind them, always.
So, thank you, Jim, for endorsing - however unwittingly - the sense that maybe I do have a knack for this writing thing.
Beyond my delight at the opportunity to engage one-on-one with a successful novelist and journalist, however, I simply enjoyed the address that brought you to Shepherdstown in the first place - an event that my office helped coordinate.
As a public speaker, you are humble, humorous, and thoroughly engaging, as I first discovered during your sound and lighting check when you quite literally shunned the spotlight in favor of personally connecting with your audience. "I like to see the color of their eyes," you explained.
Another standout moment was your demonstration of the "bus call" you learned while working an early job in the 1950's at Trailways/Continental, where you announced buses as they were arriving, loading, and departing. You then admitted to incorporating one wherever you speak before launching into the schtick, complete with a hilariously nasal ALL ABOARD! to the surprised delight of your audience.
"It's shameless, absolutely shameless," you laughed. "But I always find a way to do a bus call simply because I like doing it." Your point, you said, was to prove that if you learn something young enough, it will always stick with you - no matter how irrelevant it may be. And also that everyone starts somewhere.
Speaking candidly about your experience as moderator of 11 nationally televised debates during the last six presidential elections, you told of a time in 1988 when you interrupted former president George H.W. Bush to tell him he was out of time. Except he wasn't. But when told to proceed, you shared ruefully, Bush merely glared at you and snapped, "I forgot what I was going to say!"
And so it is with this same endearing sense of humility and self-effacing humor that I believe you will ultimately speak to admiring audiences about your most recent debate experience and the rather harsh feedback it provoked. After all, as former president George H.W. Bush once stated, thus inspiring the title of your latest tome, presidential debates are notoriously "tension city."
And if, in the end, moderating is no longer an option and Romney elects to can both you and Big Bird, rest assured you always have a talent for bus calling.
You may have inspired criticism for your latest debate performance, Jim. But to me, you are simply inspiring.
P.S. I laughed at this. I'm so sorry.