Writers’ Commencement Speeches by Kara Melinda
The question of “OK, what are you REALLY doing with your life?” haunts everybody at some point—especially if you’re a college graduate over the age of 22. Soul searching and looking for purpose are part of the human condition. Questioning yourself is a sign that the lights are on upstairs. Whenever I find myself struggling with these thoughts, or just looking for inspiration, I read a commencement speech.
Some of the best speeches distill meaning from the crazy “real world”, reflecting on what matters, and condensing it into ten-minutes full of parables and life lessons. I’m especially fond of writers’ commencement speeches as they often help to shape ideas in my head that I didn’t even know I had and are living proof that following your passion has its reward.
Here are some of my favorites:
1) David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005
Full disclosure: I’m a rabid fan of DFW. I personally like this speech not only because of his insights into freedom and consciousness, but also because of the glimpses it offers us into his mental processes. I can read this speech and fast forward to the horrible conclusion of his life story and realize that it makes sense in retrospect. OK, I realize that my intro is not making his speech sound hopeful and uplifting, but take my word for it- his singular view of the world never fails to inspire me, and is a reminder that we have the freedom to choose our own attitude.
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
2) Bill Watterson, Kenyon College, 1990
I realize that Watterson is a cartoonist and not a traditional writer, but since he has 19 books listed under his name I figure that counts. I loved reading Calvin and Hobbes growing up, and I still do.
Watterson’s speech encourages us to invent our own lives’ meaning and to maintain a sense of play.
“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.“
3) Robert Krulwich, Berkeley School of Journalism, 2011
Krulwich’s speech is directed specifically to young journalists looking to enter the field. He advises the graduating class to figure out what they love and just do it. He tells us not to wait for the job offer from The New Yorker, and to build a community with our friends and jump in. Journalism is different than it was 20 years ago. This speech reminds all of us, regardless of profession, that half the battle is just having the courage to start. He suggests starting small, within our community.
“ Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.”
4) Barbara Kingsolver, Duke University, 2008
Kingsolver explores the familiar theme of defining your own success and reminds us that money does not necessarily equal success or happiness. She urges us to remember community. This quote hit home for me. Since graduating college I have noticed the growing isolation that Kingsolver mentions, and I miss the camaraderie and constant community of college..
“As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. Not Orgo 2, I’m guessing, or the crazed squirrels or even the bulk cereal in the Freshman Marketplace. I mean the way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient human social construct that once was common in this land. We called it a community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Bubaneshwar. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches or on front porches. We danced. We participated. Even when there was no money in it. Community is our native state. You play hardest for a hometown crowd. You become your best self. You know joy. This is not a guess, there is evidence. The scholars who study social well-being can put it on charts and graphs. In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, as you might guess, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.”
At some point everybody faces the choice of “love or money” in their careers, and these writers are testaments to choosing something that they’re passionate about and sticking to it. Writing or any creative career is a risky business, and they have made the courageous decision to stay dedicated to their work in the face of rejection letters, inauspicious beginnings, and temptations to sell out. Whether they were successful in their pursuit depends on how you choose to measure it.
Kara Melinda is always on the lookout for inspiration. Give her some ideas @Karambutan.
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