Sunday, July 21, 2013

My Convocation Speech to Florida State University Freshman

[I've been asked to speak at FSU graduation in the coming weeks. This made me go back through my files to look for the Convocation Speech I gave a few years ago. Here it is, for what it's worth. It's got a welcoming feel to it, whereas the graduation speech will have a much rougher welcome-to-the-world feel to it. 
Note: I was asked to tie in the freshman-wide read NEVER LET ME GO by
Kazuo Ishiguro, hence the reference.

When I was asked to speak to you all today, I decided that I didn’t want to give a speechy speech – one with bullet-points of chicken soupy advice or stern warnings or ebullient optimism. I didn’t want to have bullet points at all, in fact. But, still, while jotting notes, I found myself coming up with speechy kinds of things that I wanted to say to you. And so I feel it’s only fair to warn you that this speech does contain speechy moments – in fact, I’ve shoved five “Tips” into this speech. And I apologize, in advance, for the moments of  speechiness. It turns out that speechiness is hard to avoid in speeches. Blame it on the genre. Speeches are speechy no matter how you try to disguise them. (And, no, speechy is not really a word. But as a professor at Florida State University’s Top-Ranked Creative Writing Program, I’m actually allowed to invent words as I see fit. It’s one of the perks.)

And now I’ll begin with a little story:

When I was a freshman, I had a professor who strode into the classroom the first day and, without any introduction, said to the class, “Raise your hand if you think your life has plot.”

I raised my hand. I was, in fact, the only person to raise a hand. Well, a lacrosse player in the back raised his but then looked around the room saw that it was only the two of us and lowered it.

I kept my hand in the air.

The professor turned to me then and said, in a very grave voice, “You’re wrong. Literature has plot. Your life doesn’t.”

In this moment, I started a lifelong argument with this professor. He doesn’t know that we’ve been arguing for almost two decades, of course, because the argument has been going on inside the confines of my own head. (Which brings me to Tip #1: At FSU, you’re going to disagree with people – on ideas, ethics, theories, ways of seeing the world. These arguments are gifts. They will transform you and others. Sometimes you have to define who you are and how you see the world in contrast to how other people see the world. Be open to how other people see the world. But hope, too that these arguments take root inside of you and last a lifetime.)

This professor may have had a grand sweeping point to make about the art of crafting great literature. And, on some level, we might agree on this. Writing in a diary, for example, doesn’t constitute creating plot. It’s a series of anecdotes. But I believe that if you look closely at your life – especially if you’re reflecting back on pivotal moments – you will start to see patterns, the accumulation of small decisions that lead to bigger decisions, you’ll start to see the larger narrative arc of your life. (Tip #2: Reflect on your life. It’s the best way to learn from your mistakes. If you don’t, you risk living a life of little circles – like a hamster stuck on an exercise wheel in a habitrail.)

One of the most interesting things about this very moment of your life – this very moment -- is that over course of the next few days and weeks, you’ll find yourself talking to a lot of people you’ve never met before. They’ll ask questions and you’ll answer them. And, for most of you, it will be the very first time that you’ve been able to tell your own version of the story of your life. The first time you’ve been able to tell it the way you’ve really seen it – without being interrupted by a brother or a sister who want to give their version of things, without your mother saying You can’t possibly remember that!, without having to spin the story this way or that way for the sake of an audience who’s known you for a very long time.

And, while you’re answering questions, you’ll see the story of your own life emerge in a way that it never has before. Talking to people who’ve never been to your hometown, who didn’t know you in high school, who’ve never met your parents – for better or for worse -- you’ll find yourself saying things that you never realized before. A new kind of truth will rise up, and, over the course of your life, it will be edited and embellished, there will be public versions and private versions – the ones you only share with those you really trust. And there will likely be a version that you alone know – one that’s barely expressible, that exists only when you’re truly alone. (Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to be truly alone. In this techno-crazed world, I worry that being alone might become extinct – as students can be in touch with so many people at all times. Some of your best thoughts will come to you when you’re alone, mulling. Work on the art of solitary mulling.)

The creation of the story of your own life is important. It’s essential, in fact. But it’s not the point of my speech today.

I want to talk about how, as your own story is taking shape, you have to also look outward.

This brings me to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, which was on all of your summer reading lists … and which all of you have read? (This is the way I gaze upon a group of students with a professorial eyebrow arched.)

Ishiguro’s work often orbits around issues of class and hierarchy. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy and Tommy realize that, as clones, the greater world sees them as less than human. In fact, they deny the existence of their souls. Why? Because it’s easier to see them as clones than as human beings.

This is true, in a way, for all of us. We have learned to look past people – the person who works at the bookstore or the hot dog hut; our fellow students who rush by us in great herds; administrators bustling by with briefcases; even those athletes we adore, but often see as players on the field instead of people.

To get through our days – efficiently – we’ve learned to deny the full humanity of those around us, their souls, as Ishiguro puts it. Instead we see people as clichés, nearly as cardboard cutouts. We pay for our hot dogs, get our change, and bolt, never looking the person on the other side of the counter in the eye. It’s easier this way.

But my hope is that during the course of your education here at FSU, as you see the story of your own life take shape, you become more aware of the lives taking shape around you. My hope is that as you come to terms with your own humanity, you begin to see the humanity in others.

I’m well aware that when my writing students create a character, they are learning empathy. When they plot a story, they are learning strategic thought. When they invent what might happen next, they are developing their imaginations. When they are putting one word in front of the next, they are beginning to understand, deeply, their language and are finding their own voices. When they are looking closely at the world so that they can fully describe it, they are learning observation. Empathy. Strategic thought. Imagination. Language. Voice. Observation. Regardless of a student’s path in life -- into the sciences or business, the arts or the art of politics -- these elements will go into every worthwhile endeavor they undertake in their lives.

And these lessons can be found – again and again – throughout all of our academic departments. (Tip #4 Don’t cordon off lessons taught in one area from other areas. Apply your lessons in mathematics to music. Your lesson in the chemistry of chain reactions to history. Your lessons in a foreign language to the nuances and oddities of the English language. Your lessons in biology on dissection to dissecting the arguments of great philosophers. Apply architecture to the construction of poetry.)

But the most important lesson is this. When I’m training writers, I teach them the importance of not treating people as clichés. “If you think of people as clichés,” I tell my students, “then your characters will be clichés.” If, instead, you practice the art of seeing the full humanity of the people you have been passing by every day – if you acknowledge, even for a brief moment, that that person has a life as complicated as yours – with their own set of wishes and lies and dreams and denials and quirks and fears and desires -- you will write fuller deeper richer and more realistic characters.

This lesson doesn’t only apply to writers. Humanity is at the heart of everything we study here at FSU.

To get the most out of this lesson, you first have to find the work you love to do. And this is the time in your life when you should be listening to yourself – really listening – to find the thing that you are most passionate about. (Tip #5: If you’re studying something – if you’re fully immersed in research or creating something, and you are no longer aware of the passage of time, if the world loses its edges and you glide along – fully invested – for hours, this may very well be the field of study that’s calling to you. Pay attention. Watch for that.)

Because when you immerse yourself in a field of study – and that immersion for you is fueled by your desire to help the greater good, your desire to serve humanity – great things will happen. Even if this desire to serve humanity seems vague right now and unknown – have faith that when these two things – a love of what you do and a desire to serve humanity – come together that is when the greatest leaps are made – personally, historically, professionally, artistically, scientifically …

And so this is where things begin, for each of you, in a completely new way with a new level of intensity.

And now, twenty years after my freshman year, I still believe that my life has plot.

And I’m thankful for the argument that I’ve been having with that one professor all of these years. It’s shaped not only my view of my own life, but it’s forced me to consider the humanity of the people around me every day.

Because it seems to me that the greatest most ordinary sin is the act of passing people by. Last week, I was walking around downtown, a little lost, and it started to rain. I watched people dipping from awning to awning, and noticed how we scurry around each other. There was a woman rummaging through her purse at a parking meter, there was an old man talking to himself on a street corner, there was a kid running by in an apron, late for work. I looked into their faces, each one. And I felt – for a moment – more tethered to this frenetic, beautifully ugly, messy, stunning, mysterious world. Every once in a while stop and remind yourself of this community at FSU that you’re a part of, this greater world that you’re tethered too, the humanity of those around you. Because even that fleeting moment made me a better writer, a better teacher, a better person.