This is true today; it's true of all the political speeches we're listening to. So who is in that audience? Are they New York industry analysts? Partners? Consumers? Employees? And of course, there were the product launches where everything was top secret and everything had an element of surprise. That was a very different strategy from Apple's competitors who announced versions of products years in advance. But I think all those elements … those are all things I learned, practiced there, and took away with me.
Lam: Is there one really memorable speech you wrote?
Benjulian: I have, somewhere in my boxes, a speech and scrawled across the speech is: “This is incredibly good, Bill Campbell.” That was “Apple in the Office of the Future.” He was a very interesting man to write for, because he is someone who has his own ideas. So my job working with Bill, in large part, was to listen to him, tape him, and then to find ways to shape his ideas into an oral presentation. It's always delightful to work for someone with a vision.
Lam: Is taping someone talking part of the speechwriting process?
Benjulian: Almost always. I would arrive ultra-prepared after hours and hours of research—much like journalists, which is why I think journalists can be trained to be great speechwriters. I would come with a tape recorder and a notebook, and I would ask questions, take notes, and tape. Then I would listen to the tape over and over again, because I wanted to understand the patterns of speech, the funny moments, what was important, what was stressed, what the ideas were.
In my mind, a speech shouldn't sound like anybody could deliver it. It's oral authenticity, but it's also authenticity of feeling. And it's hard! Not everybody can do it, truthfully. Speeches have to be fairly simple in some ways.
Lam: And now, you're a poet and you're involved with a theater company?
Benjulian: Silicon Valley was all about Apple for me. When I left Apple, I left California and went to study theater in Seattle. I wanted to understand the way actors worked, and I wanted to develop my own creative voice.
I ended up working as the director of play development at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. I wanted to write in my own voice. I wrote in the voice of middle-aged white men for a long time, since there was only one woman on that executive staff. And then, I helped playwrights realize their vision on the stage. It wasn't long before I realized: “What is it I want to say?” I wrote poetry in my 20s, but I stopped for more than two decades. I went back to get an MFA in poetry, and my first collection comes out in June.
Lam: Are there any parts of your career at Apple that relate to your current job as a poet?
Benjulian: For example, an affinity for risk. You have to risk being downwardly mobile—almost nobody makes money at poetry. If you're driven by a creative challenge, and to do the work regardless of what the payoff is, that's something that's critical for a poet or you can't keep going. And I think that was true at Apple too. The money was fantastic, I will never deny that, but that wasn't really what the work was about. It was about doing something creatively that no one had ever done before. The critical key to lyric poetry is allowing yourself to discover something in the moment of the writing, and that discovery becomes really what the poem is about.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a travel agent, an event planner, and a research librarian.