Former White House Speechwriter Speaks to Students about Writing and Leadership
Former White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz, who wrote speeches for former President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke to students on both the Beren and Wilf Campuses May 3.
The discussions were moderated by Erica Brown, YU’s vice provost of values and leadership and director of the Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership, which hosted the events.
While downtown, Hurwitz met with Beren students and described the anxiety she felt while in law school, and how she overcame imposter syndrome over time.
On the Wilf campus, she provided students and faculty with an overview of her experiences in the legal, political and writing fields, offering career advice and writing and editing tips, emphasizing the importance of fact checking and cohesion.
Hurwitz began her career in politics as an undergraduate student in Harvard, and landed an internship at the White House. After early experiences with speech writing, she felt her talents lay elsewhere, but when her law firm let her take on a pro-bono speech writing project several years after finishing law school, she realized it was something she excelled at and enjoyed.
Before coming to the White House, Hurwitz first worked as chief speechwriter on then-Sen. Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 primary campaign for the presidency. She became a member of Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama’s staff two days after Clinton conceded.
Working at the White House, while fulfilling, was no easy task, Hurwitz said, describing the initial difficulties around channeling the Obamas' voices. However, she was able to overcome that hurdle after spending several hours around them, eventually reaching the point where she felt she could hear their voices in her head.
“I always had her voice inside my head,” she admitted of Michelle Obama.
After years of working with the Obamas, it took a while for Hurwitz to reacclimate to her own voice.
This is partly what sparked Hurwitz to write her own book, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life—in Judaism,” which describes her process of rediscovering Judaism in adulthood.
As she discovered Judaism and her passions for it, a friend of hers encouraged her to write a book about what she found.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to use my own voice,” she told students. “I felt sick of not having a voice. I felt like maybe I had something I wanted to say.”
Hurwitz noted the vast differences between speech and other forms of writing, something that affected her transition to writing her book. It was difficult at first, but something she was eventually able to overcome by compiling her findings in a cohesive and structured manner.
“There’s writing to be spoken and writing to be read,” said Hurwitz. The former allows for run-on sentences and un-grammatical structures, but the latter requires a rigid organization.
However, the transition was made easier by knowing that “the responsibility is less severe,” since when writing her book, she didn’t need to worry about how the words she chose might affect the entire nation.
Hurwitz also gave numerous writing tips to students, and took additional writing-related questions from the audience.
Students told The Commentator that they found the event meaningful and helpful.
“As someone who struggles with writing,” said Yitzhak Graff (YC ‘24), “I found it comforting to learn that writers at the highest professional levels regularly encounter difficulty in drafting their pieces.”
Hurwitz was similarly impressed by YU students.
“It has been a total joy to be here today,” she told The Commentator shortly after the event. “Students here are so smart, thoughtful, and insightful, asking such great questions and providing thought-provoking comments. It’s been a total pleasure.”
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Photo Caption: Sarah Hurwitz Interviewed by Norwegian Actor Hans Olav Brenner in 2017
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons