The only Latin my writer dad ever spoke around the house translated to, “We are all the same.”
My first professional mentor Larry Ragan used to say that when any writer begins to differentiate his interests and feelings from those of his readers, “He’s in more trouble than he knows.”
Studs Terkel taught me that regular people are as wise as writers—and, with a little encouragement, as poetic, too.
The closest thing I’ve ever had to a spiritual guide is Muhammad Ali. He didn’t know Latin, and because he had dyslexia, he had a hard time reading English.
But he understood communication as well as anyone—and more succinctly, as George Plimpton tells the story in the magnificent documentary, “When We Were Kings” (now, finally, available on demand). In 1975, Ali spoke to the graduating class at Harvard University:
He gave this wonderful speech … It was moving, it was funny at the same time, and there was a great roar of appreciation at the end of it. And then, someone shouted out, Give us a poem! Now the shortest poem in the English language, according to Bartlett’s Quotations, is called “On the Antiquity of Microbes.” And the poem is “Adam / Had ’em.” It’s pretty short. But Muhammad Ali’s poem was, “Me? / We!!” Two words. I wrote Bartlett’s Quotations and I said, Look here, that’s shorter than “Adam / Had ’em.” You wanna put it in? It stands for something more than the poem itself: Me, we.
Close Writing Boots readers with good memories will recognize the above as an encore presentation from a few years ago—re-presented, on account of I just realized that “Me, We,” is also the thrust of every effective speech ever delivered by a leader of people.
Just for the most obvious example: “I Have a Dream” speech builds with Me, and ends with We. “I have a dream … I have a dream … I have a dream … I have a dream … I have a dream.”
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
“Me, We” isn’t always that explicit in a speech—but it is always implied.
Advice to a speechwriter struggling to get off the blocks: Write down: “Me, We.”
That’s your first draft.
Add details as needed. Make the connection credible. Make the bond unbreakable.
And tip your cap to Muhammad Ali.