The writer in chief

Photo by Beth Rankin on Flickr

With Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize (and all its criticism: “Peace?! How can someone who wages war win an award for peace?!), I thought it would be the perfect time to share this GQ article about the president’s writing background. Instead of arguing for or against this prize and whether Afghanistan is a just war, I’d rather talk about his speech, which, in all its six-page splendor on the NYT, is an excellent read. I found myself stopping at certain parts to admire passages or to absorb exactly what I’d just read.

We are all aware that the man knows how to deliver epic speeches. What this piece does is give a glimpse of the process. It touches on his background as a fledgling writer with aspirations for social change and community organizing. A friend even surmised from a conversation he had with Obama before he became senator that he yearned to write another book.

Fortunately for him, he gets to use his writing chops in office. He usually conveys his thoughts to his speechwriters, revises their drafts and finishes just in time to deliver it. Sometimes he doesn’t even run through it.

The most interesting part to me is how the author suggests Obama’s writer self is both a strength and a weakness:

As readers of “Dreams from My Father” are aware, Obama’s personal story is a good one. And as the writer of that story, Obama is more attuned to the power of narrative and is more in control of it than any president in recent memory. Yet this same attention to narrative can also seem the source of Obama’s psychological and political shortcomings; they are the writer’s classic failings. The story that obsesses him is his own story: He tells it over and over, stamping it into the larger American narrative and often conflating the two, a feat of authorial arrogance that’s simultaneously an outsider’s plaintive quest for belonging. In the telling, he shades and edits as a writer does, employing straw-man characters (those who would rather do nothing than fix the economy; the villainous Bush administration) to set a backdrop for his own heroic odyssey. Most perilously, Obama believes more strongly in the magic of words, especially his own, than perhaps any of his recent predecessors. His default option is to give a speech, and he’s maybe too prolific at doing so, since a disproportion of words to deeds is what ultimately undermines a politician.

But to the Obama White House, words are deeds. This belief that the president can swoop down and save the day with a game-changing speech has become a cornerstone of the administration’s political strategy.

When Obama delivered his speech today in Oslo, he was clearly responding to his critics. He addressed several points — universal human rights, the notion of a just war, fighting for something despite the odds — and prompted an emotional reaction from me.

I suppose that’s why people, liberal or not, are enamored with his speeches. Whether or not you agree with him, he speaks in a way that forces you to look at things a bit differently, even if for just a fleeting moment. Or at least until the speech is over.

Why must you write?

I think I came out of the womb writing. The first thing I ever sold was when I was 10 years old. A five-part serial to the Cleveland News young people’s column. And before that I was doing my own little newspaper in the neighborhood. I’ve always written. I never decided to be a writer, I was just… There’s a scene of a film called “The Red Shoes,” where Moira Shearer, who was a brilliant ballerina, is talking to the ballet entrepreneur. A Balanchine kind of figure. And he says to her, “Why must you dance?” She wants to join his company and she thinks about it a moment and then she says to him, “Why must you breathe?” And he says, “I must!” And she smiles and walks away. I didn’t choose to be a writer. Thats what I am — I’m a writer.”

— Harlan Ellison

I used to make my own newspapers, too. End geeky aside.

Becoming a writer

“Because, in truth, I didn’t become a writer the first time I put pen to paper or when I finished my first book (easy) or my second one (hard). You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. Wasn’t until that night when I was faced with all those lousy pages that I realized, really realized, what it was exactly that I am.”

– Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” featured in