Friday, October 21, 2011

Speechwriting always needs editing

Perhaps the first line in that famous soliloquy from Hamlet really began like the parody of Sylvester Stallone once used by Robin Williams in a comedy routine. It’s not quite right.

In 1995 Anne Lamott wrote a wonderful book called Bird By Bird: some instructions on writing and life. One widely reproduced essay in it describes how great writing begins with terrible first drafts. She says the first draft is the down draft - where you just get the words out. The second draft is the up draft - where you fix it up. The third draft is the dental draft -where you check each tooth to see if it has cavities.

Back when he was a teenager Josh Ritter’s father taught him the importance of editing. Josh went on to a career as a singer-songwriter (and novelist). Last Saturday he wrote about that experience. He said that in a song:

“I had to know what I was trying to say and then, word after word, line after line, make sure the thing read right, sang right, and just felt right.”

Sometimes Josh’s editing continued even after a song was recorded. The second verse of Harrisburg (recorded in 2002) says that Romero:

“Could have stayed somewhere but the train tracks kept going
And it seems like they always left soon
And the wolves that he ran with they moaned low and painful
Sang sad misereres to the moon”

But, what is a miserere? It’s a type of lament. Josh revised the last line to the less obscure:

“sang their sad lullabies at the moon”

You can hear a longer live version from May 8, 2010. It also contains an interlude with a verse from Chris Isaak’s 1991 hit song Wicked Game, performed by bassist Zach Hickman. Another live version contains a verse from Bruce Springsteen’s song State Trooper.

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