by Eileen M. Cunniffe
followed by Q&A
Spontaneous applause rippled through the hotel ballroom in waves, a new one breaking even before the last had receded. The audience had already been primed as they made their way through the breakfast buffet. The anticipation had been palpable as the thousand or so swarmed into the ballroom after breakfast and made their way noisily into tiers of banquet seats arrayed along collapsible metal bleachers. The bleachers surrounded an impressive but temporary stage that had been erected overnight by a production crew using simple risers, aluminum piping, black drapes and lighting. All part of the magic, appropriately taking place just a few miles from Disney World.
The sales representatives—even the hundred or so novices attending their first product launch meeting—knew that the serious training had ended yesterday and that this morning’s closing session was mostly for show: a pep rally before the big game, a director’s final words before the curtain rose on opening night, a general preparing his troops to take the next hill. All week they’d been listening to clinical, regulatory, and marketing presentations. They’d had to pass written tests and they’d been graded on role-playing exercises designed to simulate sales calls. Tomorrow, one by one, they would begin promoting the new product in doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals across the country. Today, they were together for one last time to celebrate the wondrous little blue pills that had taken years to discover, develop, and test, and that the FDA had recently approved for the treatment of chronic asthma.
As closing sessions go, this one was proving to be especially lively. The hierarchical progression of speakers—product manager, marketing director, national sales manager, president—was intended to build to a crescendo, even as it underscored the unbreakable chain of command. With the president at last on stage, the audience knew the meeting was nearly over, so they rose to their feet at frequent intervals, simultaneously disrupting and enhancing the proceedings. The red-faced, thin-haired man on the stage—not usually one for spontaneity—didn’t seem to mind these interruptions in the least. His blue eyes sparkled. His black shoes shone under the bright lights. The collar of his new golf shirt draped neatly over the lapels of his dark sports jacket. His voice sounded clear and confident as he addressed “the best sales force in the industry.”
I watched this scene unfold from my seat near the middle of the room. I knew that within the hour I’d be on my way to the airport, heading for the quiet of my own apartment, where I wouldn’t have to share my bedroom with a steadily blinking laptop, answer to a beeper or don a name badge and wait in line to eat breakfast. I was weary from the effort the past week had cost me. I felt old compared with the fresh-faced sales representatives who made up so much of the audience. I had always been more comfortable with research scientists, clinicians, even regulatory managers than with those who “carry the bag” for a living, in sales lingo.
I glanced at my watch and calculated how many more minutes the speech would last. I tried to focus on keeping my head up and my shoulders back. I smiled along with the man on the stage and clapped my hands in all the right places, which I already knew by heart, even better than he did. I listened as he hit the right lines with emphasis, nailed the punch points and whipped his willing audience into a frenzy, one sentence at a time. By this point, I had written so many speeches for this man that I knew how he spoke, he knew how I wrote, and we rarely disappointed each other when he stepped on a stage.
If I could tell myself the story of how I got from that ballroom to where I am now without going back through this scene, I would. I have avoided the return trip for more than fifteen years. I know what lurks inside the memory, and I’d rather not see myself as I was then, a tired woman in her late thirties with a clipboard in her lap, coaxing herself to sit through one more well-rehearsed speech at one more tightly scripted sales meeting.
The new product represented a significant milestone for many in the room. Its essential molecule had been discovered in the U.S. laboratories of the European-based pharmaceutical company where I had worked for about ten years. It was the first such discovery to reach the market—a triumph for the smattering of scientists seated among hundreds of salespeople. The product’s origins had imbued the meeting with an almost-patriotic overtone. Even the marketing materials and meeting decor were done up in red, white, and blue.
After what had been a long draught, this was the latest in an impressive string of recent or pending new product launches and the first product in a new therapy area for the company, which was always a cause for celebration. All week, people had been saying the company was on the brink of something big, a breakthrough to the future. Despite a gnawing sense of personal dissatisfaction, which I mostly attributed to sleep deprivation, I felt a twinge of pride knowing that my carefully chosen words had helped to frame this important moment for so many people. Also, I could not deny a certain level of pleasure in hearing this final speech delivered from the stage precisely as I had heard it in my head while writing it.
Still, I listened in disbelief as co-workers roared at lines I had labored over, polished, and served up to the executive suite on a floppy disk. I had written good speeches before—probably better ones than this—but never had I witnessed such an enthusiastic response. The louder the audience cheered, the more I squirmed in my seat. Even as I sat there, somehow I already knew that this particular speech at this particular meeting would come to represent both the high point and the low point in my long career as a ghostwriter.
For more than 15 years, I had been editing articles and textbooks as a medical writer, producing anonymous company publications and announcements as a communications manager and—most recently and most ghostly of all—putting words into other people’s mouths as an executive speechwriter.
I slouched in my seat and briefly closed my eyes. I allowed the words to become no more than a blur in my ears. I thought back to my first job after college, in a children’s hospital, where I had helped physicians write and publish papers in academic journals and textbooks and prepare speeches for conferences. I had been so proud to carry a business card that proclaimed me to be a writer (a “medical writer,” to be precise) that for a long time I hadn’t cared that my work only ever appeared under other people’s names. Just once had a doctor acknowledged, in writing, my supporting role in his success as an author. I had rationalized away the anonymity, at the hospital and later in a medical publishing house, as valuable years of apprenticeship, years in which I had honed my writing craft, albeit within the structural confines of the scientific method and the language, mostly, of orthopedics.
When I took a public relations job at the pharmaceutical company, I was certain I was on my way to becoming a “real” writer, not the invisible partner who shaped or tweaked other people’s words. The path seemed clear at the time: after two or three years of solid business experience, I’d be ready to hang out my shingle as a freelance writer and editor, earning enough to carve out time, at last, for my own writing, whatever that meant. I would parlay my behind-the-scenes success into the literary life I’d always imagined, at least in the abstract. Now, all these years later, I found myself at a loss to explain how I’d come to be in this empty place that was full of my words, each one of which silently betrayed me as it entered the noisy ballroom.
My business card no longer identified me as a writer, but as an employee communications manager. The men at the top of the organizational chart didn’t seem to care what my business card did or didn’t say, as long as I fed them a steady stream of well-crafted speeches, written announcements and company publications. Above all else, they valued me as a writer, an irony that did not escape my notice in the rare moments when I allowed such thoughts to intrude, or when they came unbidden, like now.
Even though I had stopped listening, I knew immediately when the scene in the ballroom took a sudden turn toward the surreal. The speaker’s normally steady voice briefly wavered with emotion, and I snapped back to attention. Just for a moment—a moment I had perhaps precipitated, but most definitely had not anticipated—the man’s voice had cracked. I felt my cheeks burn as I reluctantly accepted high fives from the men sitting on either side of me, friends who were in on my secret. “Did you just get him to cry? Wow, that’s good,” one of them whispered, perhaps a bit too loudly.
Unsuspecting colleagues shot puzzled looks in our direction. The man on the stage had quickly regained his composure and was now happily playing air guitar to the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” a not-so-subtle special effect that had been inserted into the speech during the previous night’s rehearsal. But for just an instant, the man had gone off-script and the audience had loved it, although most of them seemed oblivious to the fact that there even was a script. From the bleachers, it was hard to tell that the rim of the stage was littered with Teleprompter monitors, making it possible for an experienced reader to address every corner of the room without dropping a line, missing a beat, or otherwise giving away the source of his unfaltering stream of sentences.
In the moment I felt invisible, but from my current vantage point I see myself clearly in that crowd on that day when the level of deception involved in bringing a speech to life finally seemed too great a burden to bear. Perhaps the speaker’s emotion—prompted by a few lines of reflection on his first launch meeting as a young sales representative—struck a nerve. There he stood, the mighty president of the U.S. division of a major pharmaceutical company, an achievement he could hardly have foreseen at the beginning of his career. And there I sat, handmaiden to the corporate machinery that cranked out one new product after another, quite possibly the last place in the world I would have expected to find myself at the beginning of my career.
The words themselves rang true—but then, they usually did. I liked writing speeches for this man because his style, like mine, was direct and because he would only say words that he meant, even if he hadn’t thought of them on his own. Still, as he strutted back and forth and confidently released my words into the room, I felt disillusioned with the speaker, the speech, the audience and, most of all, the role I had carved out for myself in this charade.
I longed for someone to pull back the curtain, like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, and reveal the magic that allowed the speech to be delivered so smoothly: a young man in a headset and the plain black clothes of a stagehand, lit only by the faint blue glow of a computer screen, feeding bite-sized nuggets of text into monitors for the man to read to his mostly unsuspecting audience. I even allowed myself the momentary pleasure of following this thread of thought to a place where the powerful man on the stage gestured nervously to a murmuring audience, bidding them “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” But even as I daydreamed, I knew I could not fool myself into thinking that what was upsetting me was the artifice playing itself out on (and behind) the stage, the sleight of tongue that allowed the speaker to sound so sure of himself.
I didn’t begrudge the man on the stage the words he spoke—after all, I had given them to him freely (or more precisely, swapped them for my ample salary). I didn’t envy him for being the one on the stage. It wasn’t about recognition, or the lack of it, anymore. The problem, I realized, had nothing to do with the speech, the speaker or anyone else in that vast ballroom but myself. Well, not myself exactly, but the faint outline of an earlier draft of myself, a draft I had inadvertently stuffed into a drawer or a box on my way to—what? A sales meeting? That couldn’t be right.
It was a chilling discovery, to see the ghost of myself so clearly in the eerie light of a dim ballroom. As the words coming from the stage arched toward a climax, I recalled a recent conversation with a sales manager. “This sounds so much like me I would swear I wrote it myself, if I didn’t know better. How do you do that?” My response made him laugh: “Don’t you know you’re all just fictional characters who live in my head? I conjure up your voices as I need them.” I left his office thinking I’d hit a new low in my long-running game of self-sabotage. If there were any literary stripes to be earned as a speechwriter, they probably did relate to the ability to write for other people in voices that were true for them. Somehow, though, what I did for these men felt more like a clever party trick than a writerly skill.
The audience rose for one last burst of applause, and for a fleeting instant I was grateful to be flanked by friends who knew my role in this highly orchestrated affair. Then one of the men cheered softly, “Author! Author!” and I suddenly wished I could vanish into thin air. Mercifully, his chant was swallowed up by the din, although it haunted my waking thoughts for months to come. Then the other man leaned toward me and said, “His lips are moving, but I can hear your voice.” I knew he was wrong, though, because no one—not even me—had heard my voice, my own authentic voice, in all the years I’d made a living by giving my words away.
The final, long ovation faded into a swell of upbeat walk-out music, and the crowd scrambled down the wide steps and toward the exits. I took my time reaching under the chair to retrieve my purse and the heavy laptop case that would remain tethered to my right shoulder until I settled into a window seat for the flight home. I watched the man on the stage bask in the glow of his well-received oration, surrounded by a clutch of vice presidents and a dozen other well-wishers. By tacit arrangement, I did not join in this post-speech, locker-room-like celebration, sparing everyone involved a small measure of potential awkwardness. The proud president did not need to be reminded that the flattery being directed toward him could just as easily be deflected to a mid-level manager with a clipboard under her arm. And I didn’t dare draw too close to the blinding lights that still illuminated the stage, for fear of being mistaken again for a mere ventriloquist.
I knew that in a week or so, I would be summoned to a conference room, along with the others who worked so hard to make this meeting successful. I dreaded the small ceremony that would unfold as each of us was presented with a token of appreciation from the management team: an elegant pen—a Waterman or Mont Blanc, no doubt—which I would add to the collection I had stashed at the back of a desk drawer. “Insult to injury” is how it felt each time I accepted another pen, even though I knew the gesture was well-intentioned and that it was no one’s fault but my own if I allowed the pens to remain unused for so long that the ink in some of the cartridges dried up.
I couldn’t have known it then, but many years and many more speeches would come and go before I finally removed one of those pretty pens from its silk-lined box, unscrewed the cap, inserted the cartridge and began to write words in a voice I knew to be my own. The man on the stage had long since retired, the product we launched that day had proven to be a commercial disappointment, and the company as we knew it then had ceased to exist in the wake of a merger. Eventually I wriggled out of the speechwriting role, and later still I made my escape from the corporate world.
My thoughts have drifted through that ballroom many times in the intervening years, although until now I haven’t dared to let them linger there for long. It’s possible, I suppose, that what I thought I saw that morning didn’t really appear until later, until after I’d left that life behind me for good.
I stepped slowly down through the tiers of banquet chairs, which were already being collected and stacked toward one side of the room. I lingered briefly near the exit, willing myself to memorize the scene, to memorize the feeling of being already gone from a room that was still alive with the echo of my words. I knew I had written myself into this unhappy corner. I had to believe there was still a ghost of a chance that I would write my way back out of it.
In 2005, Eileen Cunniffe finally made her escape from the corporate world and began to write her own, true stories. Her essays have appeared (or soon will) in Wild River Review, Philadelphia Stories, ShortMemoir.com, SNReview, Ascent, Superstition Review and Hippocampus, and in the anthologies, A Woman’s World Again and Prompted. Her prose poems have appeared in The Prose-Poem Project and 5x5. She is a program director at the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: I worked in the corporate world for a ridiculously long time, although I probably never belonged there. In part, I stayed because I was valued as a writer. Once I left, I began writing about my work experiences as a way of making sense of where I’d been and what I wanted to do next. This “moment” in that ballroom had always stayed with me, and it was one I had to explore.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I write nonfiction, so I’m always aware of how difficult it is to remember just what happened, and how easy it is for two people to remember the same experience in completely different ways. At the first nonfiction writing conference I attended, one of the speakers offered a great piece of advice: you can’t always be 100 percent sure you are remembering an event exactly as it happened, but misremembering isn’t the same as making things up. You know when you’re making something up. So you need to be as truthful as you can, and let your reader know when you are uncertain. I work hard at following this advice every time I write an essay.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: I almost always start with a pen and a pad of paper on the biggest clear writing surface I can find. I make notes to myself, jot down as many ideas as I can, scribble in the margins, draw arrows, generally make a mess. Then I move to the computer and start typing.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: If you just looked at the books in the glass-fronted shelves in my living room, you’d probably think I have organized my library—American literature, Irish literature, English literature, some French literature, poems, plays, travel books. But if you made it to the second floor of my house, you’d see the disorganization—shelves with no method to the madness, stacks of books and journals in almost every room. I try, but I have a book problem.