The secret life of an anonymous speechwriter to the stars

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At work, I’m a ghost: always heard, never seen. But mastering the voices of celebrities and politicians helped me learn to speak for myself

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 probably hearing something written “in the style of” by a very talented mimic.

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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 probably hearing something written “in the style of” by a very talented mimic.

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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 making him seem 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 in Oregon. Dave* 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, Dave 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 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 Dave saying my words to a group of powerful, wealthy strangers shook something loose in me.

There were two caveats: the toast had to include a quote from Churchill that had never been used before, in the hundred-year history of the club; and it had to be short. I labored over this speech, getting stuck on all of the things I would say if I were the one in the spotlight. I could only hear myself and my own opinions. A speech like that would never make it into Dave’s shirt pocket, much less be read at this gala. I needed to alter my voice. I spent eight hours a day listening to Dave on the phone, as he bragged about the pitchers of sangria the waitress used to bring them from the VQ Cafe, back when Dave was a big deal, when he was young, before this dot-com bullshit. I knew exactly what he sounded like and how he wanted to be heard.

Photograph: Genevieve Ashley/Narratively

I imagined him, drunk and puffy in his Churchill costume, one hand on the tablecloth next to a plus-size martini and a half-eaten slab of roast beef smeared across a china plate, listing to port as he read the remarks I’d written for him. I heard his voice, the money-basted sound of arrogant privilege. I looked at the toast again, picked up my pen, and started over. I was a good listener. I nailed it.

The speech I wrote for Dave was the first of many, and it worked because I stopped trying to write a speech and started imitating the best version of Dave. I wrote a script for the character he wanted to play that night, and it worked. For the duration of my job with him, I wrote his emails, fundraising letters and other speeches. I mocked him to my friends, pitch-perfect lines that could have come right out of his mouth. I said the things he hadn’t thought of yet.

For the next six years, I wrote more speeches, lectures and manuscripts, mostly for people who didn’t know who I was, aside from “the writer”. I didn’t identify my gender when I did this work. I was just a voice on the phone, transcribing our conversations into ideas and paragraphs that would move an audience to the desired result. Want a million dollars in donations? I can write a speech that will achieve that. Want to pass lifesaving legislation? I can write one for that too. Want to change the way your audience feels about love, survival, health, politics, literature, community or hope? That’s my bread and butter. Sometimes, I wrote for people whose beliefs were diametrically opposed to my own. They were not difficult to mimic. In fact, those pieces were the easiest, because I could never confuse their voices for my own.

Then I started my physical transition. Within a couple of months on testosterone, I developed the usual hoarseness as the hormones affected my vocal fold structure, tissue integrity and thickness. My voice started to drop, a second adolescence. Yet my expressions did not change. When I spoke, my cadence and word choices were still “female”. I wandered around my subjects and avoided direct answers or simple statements. I preferred to agree without saying yes, refuse without saying no. I wrote in my clients’ voices, transcribing their desires. I went to meetings and barked about the unmanageable problems in my life: cravings, friends who caught a bad batch and didn’t wake up, my disintegrating relationship with my immediate family, my fear of the painkillers that came with top surgery. It was a hard time. I was grateful for any ear, any place where I could go off script.

As I became audibly and physically queer, those spaces disappeared entirely. I’d been socialized as “female” and already knew not to be abrasive in mixed company or share my opinions; before my transition, I’d had the distinct experiences of being ignored and talked over by men. However, after a while, cis women stopped hearing me too. Or – they heard me but didn’t listen. My voice was husky from the early months of HRT. It was weak and airy, as though I had a throat cold; it vaporized in group conversations. I coughed out an idea and watched it disappear. More than once, I shared an opinion in a group and was ignored, but I noticed that when someone else parroted what I’d said, they were acknowledged. I was afraid to speak up and challenge others’ conditional acceptance of me. I had so few places to go where I felt safe, giving up some airtime felt like a fair trade.

I stopped making declarative statements, stopped asserting myself. I kept quiet and listened. I reasoned that my actions spoke louder than my words, and that I didn’t need my opinions or feelings acknowledged in order for them to be valid. There was no point in debating with people who didn’t hear me when I spoke. I could let most ideas float by, unchallenged and unexplored. They were just noise. They didn’t matter.

Then, I was hired to write a piece of testimony for a client, woven together with his personal experience with recovery from addiction. I wrote the first draft straight, drawing from his notes, but I barely had to glance at them to know what I needed to say. I was listening to my own story. Like me, my client had lost friends to preventable overdoses. He, too, struggled to make his voice heard outside of the recovery community. Unlike me, he had found a way and was using his story to create real change. He had access to lawmakers: he was meeting with Congress members, pushing policy to make sure naloxone was available in every sober living home in his state. His story was powerful and it burned in my ears as I wrote it down. I believed what I was writing; I felt the message. Although I wrote in my client’s distinctive voice, I knew I was also speaking for myself.

Photograph: Genevieve Ashley/Narratively

I read the speech out loud in my studio to a hanging photo of my father. I recited it in the park to a smattering of pigeons. I heard the speech’s music and the deep, implacable rage underneath it. Although I’d written it for my client, I heard my own voice in it. What would I say if I wasn’t afraid? I wished I could stand on a stage in front of hundreds of sign-clutching protestors and demand justice, as this client would, jabbing his finger toward the sky. Our time is now. What would I say if people actually listened? I went over the speech again, fine-tuning its message. I imagined my client, one of the bravest people I knew. I wanted to give him words that would speak for him, for me, for everyone who was listening. Every syllable had to move his audience. Lives hung in the balance: If the speech failed, that was one step back. The legislation tied to it might not pass. More people would die.

When I was done, I felt like I’d handed over a piece of my heart. I’d never cared so much before or put all of myself on the page that way. I’d given the best of myself, the self I wished others perceived.

My client delivered the speech. His legislation passed. The news wire picked up the story, amplifying his words. The ripples spread. Later that week, I watched a video of my client on the day he read his story and had the jarring experience of hearing my voice come out of someone else’s mouth. From his inflections to his gestures, we could have been mirror images. The crowd roared in all the right places. They resonated with the same passion I’d felt when my client first hired me to write for him: his courage, transmittable, went from him to me to the massive audience that hung on his every word.

Although I’d set out to be the channel for my client’s voice, I had received so much more. I felt his confidence as he spoke. Writing for him awakened my own voice. The next time I heard an acquaintance sneer about “dirty addicts” who were a “waste of resources”, I cleared my throat. The person turned to me, eyes narrowed.

“Fewer than 10% of people with substance use disorder ever get help of any kind because of stigmatizing language like ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’,” I said. The speech I’d written trickled out of my mouth. “Even people with substantial periods of recovery need support for their mental health. Addiction isn’t a moral failing, and it’s not fair to frame it that way.”

To my surprise, they nodded, leaned closer. They heard me. They listened.

* Dave’s name has been changed.

This story originally appeared on the digital storytelling platform Narratively. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions:


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