That would be an enticing dinner-party guest list. As it turns out, it’s also an intriguing source of writing insight published last month in Esquire.
Former Obama speechwriter Cody Keenan penned “How Barack Obama’s Love of Jazz Changed My Life,” which details how direction from the president, accompanied by references to a pair of improvisational luminaries, helped snap Keenan’s writing into greater focus.
Obama has been noted as a particularly literary-minded president. His reading lists are voluminously covered; journalists have meditated on his writing, with GQ’s Robert Draper observing: “… writing is anything but a small part of Obama’s life. It’s basic to who he is.”
That leaning seemed to emerge most vividly in two instances during Keenan’s tenure. As Keenan recalls in the Esquire piece, Obama twice gave him writing advice that initially seemed oblique — but came to guide how he viewed his craft.
After Keenan was named chief speechwriter, he was handed a tough task: Write Obama’s speech to be delivered at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s towering “I Have a Dream” speech. It was an intimidating assignment, and Obama’s less-than-direct advice at first seemed, as Keenan drily notes, “(like) throwing a drowning man a sandwich.”
That advice: “Read James Baldwin when you’re stuck. Listen to John Coltrane when you’re not.”
While Keenan appreciated both the former — a keenly insightful writer in several genres — and latter — the improvisational genius whose masterworks included “A Love Supreme” — it took him time to reflect on the advice’s value. He writes:
I had to admit—it kind of worked. There was an effortless cool to Coltrane’s free jazz that lent me the sense that I knew what I was doing, a secret language coming from his saxophone that entered my ears and exited my fingers, that made me type faster, that fueled a sense of flow.
Baldwin was harder. His writing was something you had to commit to. But his moral clarity and righteous anger cut through bullshit like a laser through butter. Baldwin was an inspiration to write what was true.
It’s not unusual for writers to recommend plying their trade to music. A Storyboard post by freelancer Jessica Wapner praised the practice, citing research that show background music improves concentration. Another piece by Lisa Grace Lednicer, an editor at the Washington Post, claimed listening to “Hamilton” improved her composition of headlines, writing: “I had so internalized the rhythms of the musical that headline possibilities were coming unbidden.”
With journalism professionals so fond of the practice, it’s nice to know a president agrees.
But that wasn’t the last lesson Keenan absorbed. Later in his tenure, as he labored over a lengthy address for the 2015 State of the Union, he found himself summoned to Obama’s lunch table. After praising the 7,000-word effort as a good start, Obama fired off an unexpected question: “Do you listen to Miles Davis?”
When Keenan said he didn’t, Obama responded with a description of the protean trumpeter’s attack:
“It’s the notes you don’t play,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “It’s the silences. That’s what made him so good. Silences can say more than noise can. I need a speech with some pauses, and some quiet moments, because they say something too. You feel me?”
He did. Keenan revised an overflowing speech into one that had moments of pauses and places to contemplate. He carried the lesson forward into a life philosophy:
Finding the silences became more than a writing hack—it became a life hack. Whenever I was writing a speech so stressful that I don’t think I could meet the moment, I worked to find the silence snot only in the text, but in the cacophony of my own life. Taking a walk with my wife. Going to the gym even though I hated it. Reading a story I’d had open in my browser tabs for weeks. Silly as it may sound, except for those who devoured The Bear this summer, a favorite stress reliever became perfecting my mise en place before cooking a meal.
It’s a philosophy that can guide a president mulling a speech, a journalist with an ominously looming deadline or a parent spinning a bedtime story as improvisational as a jazz solo. All three examples, and many more, can bid the words to sing.
Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.