“Be Your Own Story”: 8 Life Lessons from Literary Commencement Speeches

By Jessica Monk and Amanda Festa
By Jessica Monk and Amanda Festa

Brevity isn’t exactly the soul of most graduation ceremonies, and if a commencement speaker can hold you in your seat with rapt attention on a hot May or June day, their message is most likely worth taking away with you.

In today’s world of viral videos, the Graduation Speech is a public art form of sorts — a friendly monument to collective aspiration. And we may be biased, but a literary commencement speech seems like the best of all worlds, combining storytelling with the usual rhetoric of meeting your destiny head-on.

In any case, who better to address a jittery class of young adults than a writer, whose career trajectory is the equivalent of running an ultra-marathon over burning coals? At the very least, literary graduation speeches can make you breathe a sigh of relief that you’re not a writer. And if you are, they give you hope that others have climbed the mountain before you – that you’ve traded an out-of-the-box profession for the greater rewards of following your own path.

The speeches we have selected vary in tone from hopeful to realistic, but each share the common thread of perseverance in the face of obstacles (often financial) and the importance of finding the silver lining in the mistakes that are sure to line any creative path to success. Whether you are part of the Class of 2014 or your cap and gown are collecting dust in a box somewhere, it is often said that learning is a lifelong journey, and so here are 8 lessons it’s never too late to learn.

1. “Be your own story.”

 Toni Morrison at Wellesley College, 2004

Toni Morrison uses her fierce intellect to dodge every bullet of didacticism there is, insisting that you tell your own story and shape your own reality. Not only the future, but the past can be shaped by today’s generation, she suggests.

Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.

2. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

 David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, 2005

David Foster Wallace humorously explicates the obvious truths about the benefits of a liberal arts education, explaining that they might not be so obvious after all. Education represents the freedom to choose our own thoughts, to embrace a viewpoint no longer blocked by selfish concerns.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about…

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’

3. “Make glorious and fantastic mistakes.”

Neil Gaiman at University of the Arts, 2012

Neil GaimanNeil Gaiman’s soul-satisfying pep talk urges aspiring creative types to make mistakes, find inspiration in those mistakes, and turn those mistakes into art. After all, some of his mistakes have paid off huge — What would Coraline be today if he hadn’t accidentally misspelled ‘Caroline’ in the process of creation?

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art. Make it on the good days too…

The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules. Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped. So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would. And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

4. “Make a little trouble out there.”

Nora Ephron at Wellesley College, 1996

One of the most popular quotes from Ephron’s now-classic 1996 oration at the 1996 commencement of the all-female institution is to “be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” She reflects back on her own Wellesley experience, juxtaposing the expectations of women in each generation — certainly an eye-opening comparison given that her graduating class of 1962 was being primed for marriage. And yet, with the recent feminist discussion catapulted in recent weeks by the #YesAllWomen hashtag, her words have a startling relevance.

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you…

Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands. And this is something else I want to tell you, one of the hundreds of things I didn’t know when I was sitting here so many years ago: you are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever.

5. “The world is in the hands of us all.”

Vaclav Havel at Harvard University, 1995

The Czech president, dissident, and playwright offers that by developing the common code of ethics inherent in all our belief systems, we have a responsibility to ensure that our global conscience catches up with technology to use it for the best ends possible.

We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being, where it is judged.

A better alternative of the future of humanity, therefore, clearly lies in imbuing our civilization with a spiritual dimension. It’s not just a matter of understanding its multi-cultural nature and finding inspiration for the creation of a new world order in the common roots of all cultures. It is also essential that the Euro-American cultural sphere – the one which created this civilization and taught humanity its destructive pride – now return to its own spiritual roots and become an example to the rest of the world in the search for a new humility.

6. “Don’t just be yourself, be all of your selves.”

Joss Whedon at Wesleyan College, 2013

joss whedonJoss Whedon is a screenwriter, director, and cult figure to those of us who grew up on a steady diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His smart dialogue and dry humor are trademarks in his work and contribute to the power of his thoughtful and resonant 2013 speech. He urges graduates to be open-minded, not just towards others but towards themselves. Identity is multifaceted and often at odds, and we should accept this and not try to quell any parts of ourselves. He also makes a witty reference to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which in itself is a reason to read the full text.

You have, which is a rare thing, the ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself. To at least give it the floor. Because it is the key, not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity, and identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just “who you are,” it is a process that you must be active in…

If you think happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. They will always be in conflict and if you accept that, everything gets a lot better…

So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been.

7. “We do not need magic to change the world.”

JK Rowling at Harvard University, 2008

JK RowlingFor JK Rowling, failure and the imagination help to develop a capacity for empathy and true understanding of your purpose. Being “stripped back to essentials” helps you realize that the schedule of achievement is different for everyone, that failure can often precede great success. This is a rags to riches story without easy morals – there’s nothing romantic about poverty, Rowling suggests, and her success wasn’t predestined by extraordinary effort. It’s a well-known fact that Rowling was able to continue writing because of a welfare safety net, that she was “as close to homeless” as you can get. Grit and empathy together – a genuinely exemplary combination.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life…

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places. Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise. And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

8. “Find out just who in the hell you are.”

Ray Bradbury at Caltech, 2000

It is only fitting that science fiction/fantasy author extraordinaire Ray Bradbury spoke at Caltech in the year 2000 — a year looked to as the ultimate manifestation of the future — Y2K, the new millenium! And like his classic works, Bradbury did not disappoint. His speech was tinged with references to space, like the endearing story of his marriage proposal, during which he told his future wife, “I’m going to the moon, and I’m going to Mars. Do you want to come along?”  While romantic, his speech does not sugarcoat the challenges he faced as a writer. He was poor and he struggled, but his enthusiasm, curiosity, and sheer appreciation of life (both terrestrial and extraterrestrial) is a surefire cure for cynicism.

Now a question that has often entered all of your minds-and everyone who lives in the world — at one time or another, is, “Why are we here?” We don’t believe in God — we pretend not to believe in God. Well, you’ve got to believe in the universe, don’t you? You have to believe in the universe.

Now, why are you here? I’ll tell you why you’re here. You’ve been put here because the universe exists. There’s no use in the universe existing, if there isn’t someone there to see it. Your job is to see it. Your job is to witness. To witness; to understand; to comprehend and to celebrate! To celebrate with your lives. At the end of your life, if you don’t come to that end and look back and realize that you did not celebrate, then you wasted it…

When I was 11 years old, I looked at the back of my hand one day. And I turned my hands over. And I looked at the little hairs on the back of my hand, and I said, “My, God, I’m alive! Why didn’t someone tell me? Why didn’t someone tell me?” You’ve all had that moment. Today is one of those moments. You are especially alive. So that you look at yourself, and you say, “I’m in here. I’m looking out. I’m perceiving. And I’m willing to celebrate.” Wonderful thing . . . wonderful thing, indeed. And I put that in one of my books. The moment of discovery that you’re inside this incredible being, and you’re looking out.

Bonus: “Wear Sunscreen.”

Perhaps one of the best known “Commencement Speeches” in recent history is a rhythmic one, often incorrectly attributed to writer/director Baz Luhrmann, who once mistakenly attributed it to Kurt Vonnegut. Where did it actually originate? Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote it as a hypothetical exercise on what advice she would impart to graduates given the opportunity. And her words of wisdom were clearly heeded. Luhrmann used the essay verbatim in his hit single and 90s staple “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).”

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday. Do one thing every day that scares you. Sing. Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours. Floss. Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

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