The Right Words at the Right Time

by Marlo Thomas and Friends

Published by Atria Books

381 pages, 2002

Buy it online




Run Your Own Race

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


Marlo Thomas has put together an almost unthinkably rich volume of inspiration in The Right Words at the Right Time. It is a book hinged on the concept that "each of us carries our own unique slogan, a custom-made catchphrase that resonates throughout our lives."

In the book's foreword, Thomas reports that her own special phrase was given to her by her father, the actor Danny Thomas. Marlo writes that early in her career she was constantly compared to her father. "Would I be as good as my father? Was I as gifted, as funny? Would I be as popular. I was devastated."

Thomas was, she says, upset enough about the matter that she told her father she was thinking about changing her name.

I tried not to cry during the long silence. And then he said, "I raised you to be a thoroughbred. When thoroughbreds run they wear blinders to keep their eyes focused straight ahead with no distractions, no other horses. They hear the crowd but they don't listen. They just run their own race. That's what you have to do. Don't listen to anyone comparing you to me or anyone else. You just run your own race."

Thomas writes that, throughout her life, she's been able to "cut to the chase by asking myself, 'Am I running my race or somebody else's?'" It made her wonder, also, if everyone had some little phrase that carries them through their life.

Reading The Right Words made me wonder, as well. I've searched my own memory banks and can pull out no such phrase from my personal store: no short chain of words that give me strength and clarity. I may be in the minority, however, because The Right Words is not a slender book, yet it is filled with stories about the personal right words of about 112 prominent people. A delightful cross-section of celebrities are represented, from the world of sports (Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, Billie Jean King, Shaquille O'Neal), journalism (Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric, Walter Cronkite, Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters), the literary world (Stephen Ambrose, David Mamet, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe), politics (Laura Bush, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Betty Ford, Rudolph Giuliani) the music industry (Quincy Jones, Dave Matthews, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana) and film and television (Mel Brooks, Cameron Crowe, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Phil Donahue, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Chris Rock) and on and on and on, including -- most impressively -- a brief note from the Dalai Llama.

Each personal essay becomes a brief bio of the person writing: a fast window into something personal and precious, generously shared. Broadcasting mogul Ted Turner writes:

I went to school for fourteen years before a teacher actually said, out loud, that he was going to "put a premium on thinking for yourself." I couldn't believe my ears.

Entrepreneur and home styling diva Martha Stewart tells of growing up in Nutley, New Jersey, "the second oldest of six children in a family that had absolutely no money for 'extras' -- no expendable income for 'luxuries,' only day-to-day basics."

Stewart credits a conversation with her father when she was 15 as providing the seed that would become her personal creed:

"Martha," he said, "you can do anything. If you put your mind to it. Anything."

Something in that fleeting moment crystallized for me. Because I trusted my parents without exception -- and because my dad was an educator, after all -- I accepted his words as as gospel and sat down to write my paper. My father had revealed the key to accomplishing difficult tasks: Setting your mind to something could make it happen.

Nor are the all-important words always spoken. For Ang Lee it was reading the title of a film he was preparing to direct. While trying to get a handle on the theme of his work to that point, producer Lindsay Doran gave him a copy of a book Doran was planning to make into a film that would be starred in by Emma Thompson:

But suddenly, just reading the title Sense and Sensibility, I realized what I had been doing. I was sorting out the difference between the way we act because we are told to by society and the way we act because we want to. I realized that my work was about the tug-of-war between personal desires and cultural obligations. So that was quite enlightening to me, and it clarified the essence of my struggle.

The Right Words at the Right Time is a rich and enriching collection and it's hard to imagine anyone pulling this off with as much panache as Thomas has here.

It's worth noting that all royalties from The Right Words at the Right Time will be contributed to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, an institution founded by Danny Thomas in 1962. | July 2002


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.