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Alumni Profile: Political Speechwriter Michael Moats, MFA ’10

He came to Emerson wanting to write about food. “I had been a chef’s apprentice in a resort, which led me to want to go back to school.” In September 2003, Michael Moats, MFA ’10, applied to Emerson’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program expecting to follow his dream. However, an unexpected and rather unusual source turned Moats’ interest in a different direction. “In my first semester at Emerson I got hooked on West Wing marathons. Then after I read in one of the grad reading sessions, someone told me I should pursue speechwriting.”

What followed was a life–changing revelation. Moats decided to enter the world of politics. He interned as a communications assistant with Deval Patrick during his campaign for governor in 2006. When Patrick won, Moats was hired as a speechwriter and worked for Patrick for close to two years. Since the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department program allowed a seven-year time limit for degree completion, Moats was able to take a leave of absence to follow his calling and write for politics.

“In my first semester at Emerson I got hooked on West Wing marathons. Then after I read in one of the grad reading sessions, someone told me I should pursue speechwriting.”

In 2008, Moats moved to Chicago where he wrote e-mails to constituents and supporters for Barack Obama’s campaign. When Obama was elected, Moats worked as the E-mail Director for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Finally, in 2010, he returned to Emerson. He completed his thesis on J.D. Salinger (not politics) and graduated from the WLP program.

Currently, Moats works as the Chief Speechwriter for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Despite the sharp U-turn from creative to speechwriting, Moats says he is incredibly fulfilled and happy with his career choice with the Environmental Protection Agency. For one thing, it allows him to do something he loves to do all day: write. The transition from creative to politics didn’t happen overnight.

“It took a long time to wrap my head around what makes a good speech,” Moats explained. “Speechwriting has more limitations because it’s all about audience. Unlike creative, where you can write what you like or tell a joke not everyone is going to get, speechwriting requires that you write for a very specific audience. If your writing doesn’t resonate with the audience, it doesn’t work and you can’t use it.”

Moats writes speeches for Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator of the EPA, for various events and press conferences. A typical day for him includes waking up early, looking at the next five assignments he has coming up, and writing. Each speech requires loads of research on topics and audience, and the fast-paced political arena usually finds him finishing a speech only a day before it’s scheduled to be delivered. He meets regularly with the Administrator of the EPA to go over drafts and make corrections.

Although speechwriting is highly structured, Moats has found that it still offers creative freedom in finding a way to communicate something that has clarity and resonance. Finding the creativity in speeches is the challenge he relishes.

“Even though it’s incredibly fast-paced and there’s always a time crunch, I like to find different ways to connect with different audiences. It’s challenging, especially with kids,” he said. “It’s hard to take complex ideas and topics, present them in a creative way, and make them clear for the audience to understand. With kids, it’s about making it clear, but also making it fun and interesting.”

Throughout his career, Moats has had the opportunity to do many things in the political arena, including accompanying Governor Patrick to a meeting with South Africa advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as witness Chicago firsthand on Obama’s election night. Moats hasn’t, however, completely abandoned his creative roots.

“I still try to wake up every morning at 5:30 to do my own writing,” he said. “I still practice creative writing to suit my own taste, and some day I may want to teach writing that is less constrained and structured and polite than political writing.”

As practice for his potential teaching career, Moats offered a bit of advice for those pursuing a career in writing.

“If you want it to be your job, treat it like it’s your job,” he explained. “If you set a schedule and write for a set time every day, you never know where your writing will take you. For me, it took me to an unexpected place.”


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