Commencement speeches to make you tingle
The best commencement speeches are reminders to us all about maintaining creativity, resistance and integrity.
Here are a few of my favourites:
David Foster Wallace
2005 Kenyon College
But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true.
The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”
1975 University of California
Full transcript unavailable
I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package,” she said.
“I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it.
To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children.
And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
1991 Wellesley College
I hope that you have encountered teachers who understand the importance of imagination, that part of the brain which goes beyond cognition to intuition. A recent article in the New York Times dealt with the discovery that there is far more to the brain than the conscious part which is concerned with facts and proof, and that many, if not most major discoveries have been made with the intuitive part of the brain when the scientist is thinking, but has relaxed, so that the whole brain can work, and not just the conscious, controllable area.
Of course this is a masculine discovery, new to the male of the species but not to the female. Women have been allowed by society to be far more whole than men; we have not been forced to repress our inner selves, our intuitive, imaginative, numinous side. We have been allowed to go down into the darkness of unexpectedness, whereas men have been forced by society to limit themselves to the reasonable, the rational, the provable.”
1993 The University of Toronto
Nor did anyone have the foresight to inform me that the best thing I could do for myself as a writer would be back and wrist exercises. No one has yet done a study of this, but they will, and when they start excavating and measuring the spines and arm bones of the skeletons of famous writers of the past I am sure they will find that those who wrote the longest novels, such as Dickens and Melville, also had the thickest wrists.
The real reason that Emily Dickinson stuck to lyric poems with relatively few stanzas is that she had spindly fingers. You may scoff, but future research will prove me right.”
2014 NYC Tisch School of Arts
You may be shy. You may be tentative. And even, at times, you may be fragile. But you have to protect your own voice, your creative spirit, no matter what it costs.
That takes tenacity, confidence, and resilience.”
2012 Goucher College
And the good news is that you can will things into existence. Like, I was not a very good writer, and I just willed it to happen by trying and trying and trying.
You leave this school as well-armed for battle as anyone is. You’re doing as well as anybody. And, in my case, you just have to make up what you’re going to be. I would just work and work and work and make up little series that I’ll produce on Morning Edition, and … I just assumed that ideas would be sprinkled on me like fairy dust: You wake up, and you have a good idea.
I had to learn that ideas, if you were going to make creative work, you have to find an idea to make the work about. That is a job in itself.
And where do ideas come from?
They come from other ideas, and you have to surround yourself with things that are interesting to you and notice what is exciting to you and what you want to dive into, and finding what you’re going to make your short story or film or song or art project or movie about is a job. Finding what you want to do next is a job. It’s a task: You have to set aside hours in the day, and you have to be a soldier, and you have to fight for what you’re going to make in yourself.”
2013 The University of Western Australia
By the way, while I have science and arts grads in front of me: please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea.
You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things.
If you need proof: Twain, Adams, Vonnegut, McEwen, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens. For a start.”
Ursula Le Guin
1983 Mills College
(my personal very favourite)
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.”