When you are young and you go to a restaurant with a group of people and you look at the menu and don’t see anything good, you panic and silently scream, “There’s nothing here for me!” When you are old and the same thing happens, you grunt to whoever’s in hearing range, “There’s nothing here for me.”
When you are young and you say somebody’s name wrong, the person corrects you. “I actually go by Raymond.” When you are old and you do the same thing, Raymond shrugs: “Yeah, Mr. Murray calls me Ray.”
I’m trying to be as young as I can for as long as I can. (See Writing Boots, yesterday.) And the events of the last year and a half have actually done a lot to keep me feeling young—less sure of myself, humbled, aware of how much I have to learn, open and eager for real change. (Even if I don’t come off that way at all.)
The world, all shaken up, seems new to me now—and I, to it.
At the same time, I am in my sixth decade on this earth, I’ve seen a lot of places and met a lot of people and read a lot of books and there are some things I do know at this point, that others do not. And I want to start simply saying those things—and plainly.
Maybe even more enticing: There are some things I do not know that I want to stop pretending I do.
I remember passing on an emailed question to speechwriting guru emeritus Jerry Tarver some years ago—somebody’s question about the science of why the “rule of three” seemed to work so well, in rhetoric. The consummate southern gentleman drew on a whole life of university rhetoric scholarship to tell me that anyone who would ask such a question would fall for any fool pop-psychological answer that came down the pike. (Which seemed uncomfortably like it also applied to someone who would pass on such a question.)
I’m starting to feel like Jerry Tarver, just a little bit. I get asked a lot of questions I’m supposed to have agreeable answers to.
I founded the Professional Speechwriters Association less than a decade ago, and as the head of a fledgling group of lonely people, you want to be helpful and supportive and positive.
Also, though: It’s been almost a decade since I founded the Professional Speechwriters Association—and three decades since I started hanging around speechwriters—and if people want to talk to me, they’re going to hear the truth.
“How do I break into corporate speechwriting, at age 26?” I don’t know, how do I break into professional football, at 52? Also, why are you in such a hurry to give your precious young voice away to put words in the mouth of some old gaffer? If you can give me a compelling answer to that question, you’ll probably have your answer to your own question.
That sort of thing.
“Why am I not getting ahead in my job?” I don’t know, but I bet you do. For instance, if I called you out of the blue and asked, “Why aren’t you getting ahead in your job?” I bet you’d have answers, and I bet they’d be right.
“How can I write compelling speeches for a leader who won’t tell me what they want to say?” You can’t, Ray! Content yourself to write pleasant blather for ribbon cuttings, or find a new job, writing for someone who actually does give a shit. Next!
“The speaker I work for has no arms and no legs, but insists upon using a lectern. What should I do?”
I don’t want to be a jerk. I don’t want to come off like Fran Lebowitz. And of course I never will, in person, or on the phone with a living, breathing human being.
And I want to keep an open mind to possibility—maybe I can help this person square the circle, if I just think hard enough!
But I also want to take full advantage of my experience to get down to brass tacks faster so we can get more done. I want to waste less time now that I have less time to waste.
And tell the truth, clear as I know it, until I no longer like the sound.
No longer liking the sound—that eventually happened to Jerry Tarver, as a matter of fact.
He quit teaching speechwriting because, he told me, he was tired of hearing his own voice. He retired to his farm in rural Virginia, where he read books, watched baseball on TV and made venison chili for his poker buddies (I was once invited to join them, which was almost as good as actually making the trip). And he drove around his property on his own bulldozer. Still does, as far as I know.
“David, can I tell you something?” Jerry once told me. “When you own a bulldozer, every problem looks like something that can simply be pushed over.”
But while Jerry Tarver is pushing things over on his farm, he leaves it to David Murray is going to be advising young writers, gently but with increasing frankness. One of my favorite essays in my own book, An Effort to Understand, laments that older men and women fear being seen as domineering, and “potential teaching situations … turn into bitten tongues concealed by kindly smiles.” And it worries: “What if the elders in a society—the elders in our families, our parents’ friends, the old lady at the end of the bar who can see you’re holding the pool stick wrong—don’t dare to share their experience at all?”
The essay’s title: Elder, respect thyself.