May 4, 2009

The Magic Is In The Editing

I gave a presentation on church-state separation Sunday. It's gotten rave reviews. A few people close to me, I trust, would have told me that I had bombed if I really had. So I guess I can be proud of myself -- I provided a decent survey of 475 years of separation of church and state in the Anglo-American legal tradition, and kept the attention of a room full of non-lawyers for longer than most feature films while I was doing it.

After a burst of writing for about three hours, producing sixty PowerPoint slides, I realized I had more material than I could possibly cover in a one-hour presentation. I spent the better part of the next two weeks trimming it down. My first practice run-through was still two hours of me talking nonstop. Knowing that I'd be giving it to a lively crowd of mostly laypeople, most of whom would be perfectly willing to interrupt me and ask questions, it was starting to look like a three-and-a-half to four hours to actually finish the material.

A show targeted for one hour does not allow time for nuance, only the very, very big picture. An example of how I had to simplify in order to work through the material:
Henry VIII wanted to dump his wife and marry his girlfriend instead. The Pope wouldn't give him permission to do that. So after nine years of asking the Pope, Henry proclaimed himself head of the church and then he gave himself permission to get a divorce. Boom, problem solved, but by doing it that way, Henry unified the church and the state.
There just wasn't any more time to get into any more detail than that. That's forty-five valuable seconds used up right there. Why didn't the Pope grant Henry permission to divorce? No time to explain. Isn't it interesting that Henry divorced Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn so that he could have a son, but Anne only gave him a daughter, and she lasted a third of the time as Henry's wife that she had as his consort before he had her head lopped of? Sure it is. But it isn't directly relevant to the subject matter, so we'll just have to get back to that some other day.

Every cut like that felt like sawing off another one of my fingers. A deeply-summarized report just cannot do justice to its subject matter. It felt like, when I was cutting it, I was shooting for something like this:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Russian nobility thought it sucked to be worried about money and prestige all the time. Then, France and Russia went to war, and that sucked a whole lot worse. The Russian nobles fell in love and tried to be morally good in an imperfect world. Mostly, that was pretty cool, but sometimes, it sucked. Then they all died, one by one. The painful conflicts that dominate our dismal lives are caused by forces more powerful than any of us can possibly control or comprehend. The end.
See, it's not enough to know the material, it also has to be presented in a way that engages the audience and doesn't lose them in minutiae of competing theories of Constitutional interpretation. At the end of the day, I was still up there for two hours of a one-hour presentation. But nearly a third of the talking was done by the audience, and there was some jumping back to stuff that the audience wanted to see more of.

I still want to go back and do more, in greater detail. I could build a college class around this stuff. I'd like to present it again to other groups. And I've still got a lot of more formal writing to do on my book project. I may have to eventually find the resources to buy a projector if I do take this show on the road very much.


zzi said...

Did you point out where that certain reference is made in the constitution?

Burt Likko said...

Yes. It's right next to where it enumerates the "pocket veto," "federalism," and the "individual right to keep and bear arms."