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WHAT OUR US PRESIDENTS TAUGHT ME ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING

by | Jun 19, 2024 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

I recently attended a talk by presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy at the Nixon Library. Although I’ve heard many political speeches on TV, I’d never been to a campaign event in person. As the audience sat, buffered between security and press, Kennedy spoke about the common goals and values that his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon shared. Then, he talked about what he stood for and what he hoped to accomplish if he were to be elected president.

Sitting in that event venue, a reproduction of the White House East Room, beneath crystal chandeliers and facing paintings of George and Martha Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt, I couldn’t help but think of the words of former presidents who had inspired me. I began to picture these former presidents not just as politicians and leaders but also as writers. I wondered which presidents had truly shared my love of writing and what I might learn from their works and writing choices.

When I returned home from the library, I opened my laptop and did some research. I figured that most presidents wrote about their experiences in office. The internet told me that this assumption was correct. More than sixteen presidents have published books about their presidential terms, and some eighteenth-century presidents have published diaries. I discovered that up until Warren Harding’s presidency, most presidents wrote their own speeches, and even after speech writers became the norm, some of them, specifically Ronald Reagan and Barrack Obama, tweaked their speech writers’ speeches.

More googling ensued, and I learned that President Theodore Roosevelt, having lost his cattle ranching income in 1886, had actually supported his family by writing professionally and that he published thirty-seven books on a wide variety of topics, one being a novel for teen readers. When I dug deeper, I found out that Roosevelt wasn’t the only author president who delved into the fiction arena. Jimmy Carter wrote a novel and a picture book, and Barack Obama wrote a picture book. And how can we forget all the important documents that presidents have penned? Jefferson, who was considered the best writer of the Founding Fathers, wrote the Declaration of Independence, James Madison drafted the Constitution, and Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address.

So, what did doing all this research on presidential writing tell me? Why should what presidents write about matter to me, someone who writes mystery/thrillers, or you, my fellow fiction writers?

Because the presidents can teach us a few things about writing and the publishing industry. Below are my takeaways.

  • History and tradition matter. The written word in book form has always been and will likely always be an important way to tell your truth and share your knowledge and experiences. So don’t sell books short by hopping onto the newest communication trend.  True, there are countless vehicles for conveying a story or message—podcasts, Netflix series, TikTok videos, etc., but presidents, many of whom were authors, clearly
  • Writing is definitely subjective. Modern presidents have great speechwriters. Theodore Chaikin Sorensen wrote compelling speeches for President Kennedy, and Jon Favreau was Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter. Yet, presidents still edit and revise their speechwriters’ words.  It’s your writing, your message. When it comes to writing and communicating, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s all about creative choices. You don’t have to take every suggestion your beta readers give you. You can stand your ground. The next time an assertive critique group member tries to rewrite your plot, think President Barrack Obama.
  • If you are passionate about writing, you will find time to write. Most people are super busy. Between working nine-to-five jobs, raising children, and running errands and a household, there never seem to be enough hours in the day. Clearly, being stressed and having responsibilities make being creative a challenge. Yet, many presidents carved out time to write in journals and diaries in between meetings with world leaders, speeches, and flights on Air Force One. Sure, there are times when writing isn’t possible … during an illness or cross-country move or when you have a newborn. But writers find a way to write even in situations that aren’t ideal. The presidents did and still do.
  • Writing something that readers don’t expect from you and that you love has real benefits. As I mentioned previously, I figured the presidents would write serious autobiographies, memoirs, and nonfiction historical works. But I was surprised to learn that Theodore Roosevelt wrote books about summer birds and bears, Herbert Hoover wrote a mining textbook, John Adams wrote poetry, and Jimmy Carter wrote about his religious faith. Clearly, these are all subjects that were personally interesting to these presidents. If you have a passion and haven’t yet written about it, consider doing just that. Your excitement will come through, and you’ll likely reach a new audience just like our former presidents.
  • Asking for help or collaborating can be a winning decision. In 1987, Donald Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” reached #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List. It stayed there for thirteen weeks and remained on the list for forty-eight weeks. This is a great achievement, but Donald Trump didn’t reach his goal alone. He co-wrote this book with author Tony Schwartz.  Trump’s huge platform helped his sales tremendously, but this doesn’t detract from his choice to get help from an expert. If you’re struggling to tell a particular story, enlisting help is okay. Like in former President Trump’s case, the team approach might be the key to your success.

I hope you enjoyed this post. I welcome your thoughts on our presidents as writers. As always, keep writing!

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