I write speeches for people who can barely read their scripts because public speaking makes them nervous (statistically, public speaking is the number one fear, worse even than death). I write for people who are so compelling and beautiful that they could recite the alphabet and get a standing ovation. I write arguments that are recited in the House and Senate, in the seats of power. My words are on television and in stadiums that hold thousands of eager listeners. I'm not there at all. The speeches, toasts, and rallying cries I write go further than I ever will: I may not be seen, but I am heard. The words that do not matter when I speak for myself are amplified when I put them in the mouths of others. Because as anyone knows, it's not just the words that matter. It's who says them, and when, and how.
Before I started writing for reality TV stars, musicians, political leaders, and lecturers, I assumed that everyone wrote their own lines. Why wouldn't I think that? A well-written speech sounds like the person who's giving it. Or at least, it sounds like the person the speaker wants you to believe they are. Now I know that I was naive to assume that any public figure, even one who is a good writer, writes their own speeches and biographies and other ephemera. I've learned that you are likely reading something written "in the style of" by a very talented mimic.
I'm an excellent mimic. This makes me a good speechwriter, but when I came out as nonbinary trans, it also became a survival skill. My welfare often depends on whether the non-transgender people around me see me as fully human — and that means knowing exactly what to say, when, and in what tone. I needed to sound confident but not overbearing; friendly but not obsequious. My masculine presentation had to be balanced by kindness, consideration of others, and a willingness to cede the floor. I couldn't afford to blunder through any conversation, and I approached every interaction with more awareness and intention than ever before. Honestly, I spent a lot of time thinking about what Fred Rogers would say.
The only place where I didn't need to moderate my tone, where I could speak freely, was in my addiction recovery community. Through the first, dramatic stages of my transition, when my voice broke and when I was so afraid that my anger and panic was unwelcome in the world, the friends I knew there listened to me and encouraged me to keep sharing. They understood that, for people like us, honesty is lifesaving. People who swallowed their feelings relapsed, disappeared, and died. I lost many friends to overdoses and substance-related accidents and suicides, silent deaths that went unacknowledged outside of our community. I kept showing up, and I kept talking. Tears, bile, all of me was welcome.
Outside of meetings, I couldn't express myself with the same openness. Although the words I spoke didn't change, my voice and the way I sounded altered the way that others heard me. Short statements, in a deep, gruff voice, can be heard as controlling, dismissive, or rude, a sign of un-self-aware male privilege. The anger that commanded respect and interest when I presented as female became a liability as my voice lowered, acquiring the tones of patriarchy. Each word carried more weight, bigger consequences than before. I'd had practice writing speeches for other people. Now, I had to learn new lines that were right for my voice and the body that carried it. Once my voice hit a certain frequency, I became my own ghostwriting client: How did I want to be perceived? What character was I playing now?
I started ghostwriting at the end of Barack Obama's first term as president. His writer, Jon Favreau, wrote sonorous lines for Obama. Those wide, soft vowels became musical. Like Winston Churchill's, Obama's speeches were written in "psalm-form," blocks that mimic the way people speak when they are going off script. The euphony in Obama's campaign speeches, alternately fiery and soothing, changed to the melody of authority once he was in office. I listened to Obama lean on the linguistic patterns of pastors, visionaries, and teachers. His speeches used simple, two-syllable words, to avoid seeming too much like an arugula-eating liberal. They had a signature three-verse structure, with a bridge in the middle. Once I'd heard this music, I couldn't un-hear it.
The first time I wrote a speech for money, I was working as a research assistant for the manager of a hedge fund that specialized in green and tech stocks in Portland, Oregon. Bill was also a member of a secret society that met annually for a black-and-white gala dedicated to the brilliance of Winston Churchill. At this gala, he told me, everyone wore a real tuxedo, penguin-style, with tails and a top hat. They slugged gallons of Churchill's favorite drink — Beefeater martinis — and chomped cigars. The gala was a tense time, Bill explained, because of the elaborate system of speeches. Depending on his place in the hierarchy, any one of the guests would be expected to rise and disgorge a brief, bon mot–studded toast.
At that time, my voice was much higher, smoother, and sweeter. I had not yet started hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and I still sounded like a woman. People don't listen to women's voices; they hear women speaking, but not the words they say. Research shows that voices with higher pitches, vocal fry, "feminine" vocal characteristics like a lisp, and gendered vocal tics such as the repeated use of "like" are ignored. Over five decades, the "fundamental frequency" of a test group of women's voices dropped by 23 Hz, which correlates with women's entry into a previously male-dominated workplace. I did not have a high voice, but it was undeniably "female." I was used to being read as a woman, discounted, and ignored. The idea of Bill saying my words to a group of powerful, wealthy strangers shook something loose in me.