|John Grisham’s 2010 Commencement Address, “Find a Voice”|
|Sunday, May 09, 2010|
John Grisham’s Commencement Address, “Find a Voice”
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
May 9, 2010
Thank you, Holden Thorp. Thanks to you, the University, and the Board of Trustees, the administration, the faculty, and the graduates for the invitation to be here. I am honored to address the Class of 2010.
To the graduates, congratulations upon this day. Your hard work and perseverance have brought you to this milestone, and you are to be commended. Your families and friends are here and they are very proud. Make this day last as long as possible. Take lots of pictures. Give lots of smiles and hugs. Savor it. It is truly unique.
I have been here before. Two years ago, I was sitting out there as a proud parent watching my daughter graduated from UNC. That day was not quite as pretty as today. The weather looked bad. The forecast was dreadful. The skies were dark and threatening. It looked bad. At the last moment, the decision was made to keep the festivities here and not move them indoors. Just as the graduates were preparing to march in, a tropical depression settled on Chapel Hill and the bottom fell out. The rain began, driving, howling, cold wind with no end in sight. James Moeser was the chancellor then. Most of the crowd scattered. We were soaked. It was awful. It was wonderful. James Moeser, who was also soaking wet, finally decided to just dispense with all formalities. With one wave of the hand, sort of like Moses, he conferred 5,000 degrees, and we got out of here. It was a very short commencement. There were no speeches. Maybe it wasn’t all bad, I don’t know.
With that day in mind, I am very grateful to see sunshine and a sky that is Carolina blue. I’ve been watching the weather for two months.
I am just as proud today because my wife, Renee, is a member of the Class of 2010. She is finishing her work for a degree in English, work I interrupted almost 30 years ago when I convinced her to marry me. I’m not sure she wanted to back then, but we did anyway. It’s a big day for our family.
Some of you are sad to be leaving, probably in shock that your time here has gone by so quickly. Others are, no doubt, thrilled to be getting out of here. Regardless of how you feel now, your emotional attachment to this place will only deepen as the years go by, and you will find yourself drawn back time and time again.
I have never met a Tar Heel who did not let it be known, usually within the first 30 seconds of a conversation, that he was in fact a Tar Heel, or that she loved her days in Chapel Hill. Let’s face it. It’s a great school. We all know it. There is so much to be proud of.
You are leaving today, but you will not be forgotten. Whether you are graduating with honors, or without; regardless of what you studied, or didn’t study, you will not be forgotten. There are people on this campus who work in what’s called development, that’s another word for fundraising, and they are watching you even as we speak. They will follow you. They are very friendly. They will send you letters, birthday cards, Christmas cards, and at first you may be flattered, but you will soon learn that these cards are very expensive. They will expect cards in return – pledge cards, commitment cards, they even take credit cards. They will follow you well into your old age. And when you die, they will expect a sizeable chunk of your estate. You will not be forgotten.
But don’t be irritated. They are good folks and they really, really want you to succeed.
The generosity of others has played a major role in building this great institution. Those who have walked here before you have enriched your learning experience. It’s important for you to give, as a way of saying thanks, but also to invest in future generations. Give, because others have given for you.
Now I have never written a long book, and I have never given a long speech. This one will last for 17 minutes, from top to bottom, so hang on, I’m almost finished.
Before I close, though, I’m expected to at least attempt to say something significant, something you might remember for more than 24 hours. Certain things are expected in commencement speeches, and I would hate for you to leave here feeling as though you didn’t get your money’s worth. Not that I’m getting paid, but that’s no big deal.
On campuses this spring across the country, commencement speakers are saying such things as: “The future is yours.” “Take control of your destiny.” “Set your goals high.” And so on and so forth. These platitudes are not worth much, so I don’t use them. You don’t really want to hear them. Of course, the future is yours. Who else would want it? Take it. You can have it. We’ve had our chance and made a royal mess of things. I’m sure you can do better. I expect you will.
Advice is common theme during these speeches. Someone who has been out there comes back here and shares a few nuggets of wisdom, a few tips on how to succeed. Advice is very easy to give and even easier not to follow, so I don’t fool with it. You don’t’ want to hear it. You don’t need the advice. You’ve got the brains, the talent and now the education to live your life the way you want. You’ll figure it out.
On a couple of occasions, I have given a speech entitled: “The Top Ten Reasons You Should Stay in College until you’re Thirty Years Old.” It got a few laughs, had a little wisdom to it, but I realized it really wasn’t being heard. You wouldn’t hear it now. Let’s face it – you’re done, you’re finished, you’re ready to get out of here, it’s time to move on. I stopped giving that speech because the hate mail from the parents was so vicious.
Actually, I do have one piece of advice. I guess sometimes we can’t just help ourselves. Call home at least once a week. It’s a proven fact that we call home less frequently the older we get. And that’s wrong. It should be the other way around. As we get older, our parents get older. E-mail, Facebook, text, that’s all good. Call home once a week so your parents can hear your voice, and you can hear theirs.
Okay, one more piece of advice. Read at least one book a month. That may not sound like much, but the big publishing companies in New York have spent a lot of money studying you and your reading habits. You have terrified them. They cannot figure you out. They don’t know how many of you, in five years, will be reading books on Kindles, iPads, Nooks, Kobo’s, and Sony E-Readers. About half the research suggests that you will read more because of these incredible devices. About half the research says you will read even less. They can’t figure you out. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if it’s a hardback, paperback, e-book or library book. Read. Reading stimulates the brain and the imagination. A video takes away your imagination.
Now, this is self-serving, obviously. It’s a proven fact that people who read buy more books than people who don’t read, so I’m always thinking about book sales. I can’t help it. Truthfully, I wish you’d read 10 books a month, or at least buy that many.
The most difficult part of writing a book is not devising a plot which will captivate the reader; it is not developing characters the reader will have strong feelings for or against; it is not finding a setting which will take the reader to a place he or she has never been; it is not the research, whether in fiction or non-fiction. The most difficult task facing a writer is to find a voice in which to tell the story.
A voice is pronunciation, diction, syntax, dialogue, plot, character, the ABC’s of writing. But a writer’s voice is much more. A writer’s voice is the tone, the mood, the point of view, the consciousness, the sense of credibility. I have never thought of writing as hard work, but I have worked hard to find a voice. All writers do. Sometimes we are successful, often we are not. But long before the first chapter is finished, and often before the first chapter is started, we search and search to find a voice.
Students of creative writing are constantly urged, find the voice, find the voice in which to tell the story, and to do so they are taught to try different techniques, different narrations, different points of view – all in an effort to find the voice.
When a writer finds the voice, the words flow freely, the sentences become paragraphs and pages and chapters and the story is told, the writer is heard and the reader is rewarded.
In this respect, writing is a lot like life itself. In life, a voice is much more than the sound we make when we talk. Infants and preschoolers have voices and can make a lot of noise, but a voice is more than sound.
The voice of change, the voice of compassion, the voice of the future, the voice of his generation, the voice of her people. We hear this all the time. Voices, not words.
There are over 5,600 of you in the Class of 2010, and I doubt seriously right now if anyone of you believes that you will leave here today, go out into the world, start your career, and not be heard. Isn’t that one of our greatest fears? We will not be heard? No one will listen to us when we are ready to lead, there’s no one to follow?
To be heard, you must find a voice. For your ideas to be accepted, for your arguments to be believed, for your work to be admired, you must find a voice.
A voice has three essential elements.
The first is clarity. When I was in high school, I discovered the novels of John Steinbeck. He was and is my favorite writer. The Grapes of Wrath is a book I’ve read more than all others. I admire his talent for telling a story, his compassion for the underdog, but what I really admire is his ability to write so clearly. His sentences are often rich in detail and complex, but they flow with a clarity that I still envy. His characters are flawed and tragic, often complicated, but you understand them because they have been so clearly presented.
In life, we tend to ignore those who talk in circles, saying much but saying nothing. We listen to and follow those whose words, and ideas and thoughts and intentions are clear.
The second element is authenticity. Few things I like better in life than getting lost in a good book written by an author who is in full command of his subject matter, either because he has lived the story, or so thoroughly researched it. I read a lot of books written by other lawyers – legal thrillers, as they are called – I read them because I enjoy them, also I have to keep an eye on the competition. I can usually tell by page 3 if the author has actually been in a fight in a courtroom, or whether he’s simply watched too much television.
In life, we tend to discredit those who claim to be what they are not. We respect those who know their subject matter. We long for, and respect credibility.
The third element is veracity. In the past few years, the publishing industry has been scandalized by a handful of writers who wrote very compelling stories of their real-life adventures. These were good stories, they were well written, the voices were clear and seemingly authentic. They sold for big money, they were marketed aggressively, they were reviewed favorably, and then they were exposed for being what they really were – frauds fabrications, lies. The real-life adventures never happened. The books were pulled from the shelves. The publishers were embarrassed. Lawsuits were filed to retrieve the advances. And the writers’ voices have been forever silenced.
In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth.
Each of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard. The size of your audience doesn’t matter. What’s important is that your audience is listening.
You are lucky to have studied here. Lucky, and deserving. Many, many applied, and only you were chosen. You have been superbly educated, but now your time is up. You have to go. You can’t stay here until you’re 30; and besides, on August 21, the freshmen will be here to replace you.
One final thought: right now, you want to be something. You have big dreams, big plans, big ideas, big ambitions. You want to be something. Don’t ever forget what you want to be right now.
The future has arrived.
It commences now.