Joyce Carol Oates to Grads: Be Stubborn and Optimistic

Joyce Carol Oates gave this commencement speech at Niagara County Community College

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Greetings and congratulations to the Class of 2015 of NCCC on this festive commencement morning, and to President Klyczek, trustees, administrators and faculty of the college; and to the parents, families, and friends of the graduates. This is a luminous occasion which you will long remember with that bittersweet tinge of emotion that is called “nostalgia”—the recollection of something memorable and poignant that happened to you, usually in the company of persons whom you love and revere.

It is particularly memorable and poignant to me to be honored here today since I was born in (nearby) Lockport, and grew up on a small farm in (nearby) Millersport; I attended John E. Pound Elementary School and North Park Junior High School, in Lockport; and I have, from the start of my life as a writer, set most of my novels and short stories in places virtually identical to the places of my childhood. Indeed, there is usually a signature canal or “creek” in work of fiction of mine. (Our farmhouse was close by the Tonawanda Creek, and we lived not far from the Erie Barge Canal.)
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When I was invited back to Lockport in November 2009—(some fifty years after having left!)—I gave a talk titled “My Kind of Town: Lockport, NY” (subsequently published in Smithsonian Magazine, and in my essay collection In Rough Country: Essays & Reviews, 2010). I could not resist telling the audience—in the Palace Theatre—that I hoped that this would become a custom, and I will be invited back again to Lockport in another fifty years.

In any case, at the conclusion of my presentation there were questions from the audience—most of them quite reasonable and answerable—but two questions stopped me in my tracks. The first question was “Do you think that there is a teleological purpose to the Universe, and do you think that there is an afterlife?” (Given that these are the most profound questions in the history of philosophy, it did not seem to me likely that they would be answered that evening in the Palace Theatre in Lockport, N.Y.) The second question was “Do you think that you would be the writer you are today if you had had a middle-class or wealthy background and without Lockport and Millersport in your life?”

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This profound question left me groping for words. For the answer is—of course—I would not be the writer I am, the person I am, without my background—it is not an exaggeration to say that “I owe everything to this specific background and cannot think of an alternative life”– as rich with material—as warmly supportive and stimulating—family, teachers, friends—community; and especially, for it is very close to my heart, the Lockport Public Library that was a place of refuge, an oasis of civility, a treasure trove presided over by friendly librarians, for a girl who grew up in a rural household in which there were virtually no books. As I was to be the first person in my family to attend school beyond eighth grade—(let alone graduate from high school!)—the role of the beautiful, welcoming library on Main Street, Lockport cannot be overstated.

For this reason I urge you, the Class of 2015, to consider the unique cultural heritage that has helped shape you. As graduates of NCCC, you might revisit the college when you can—check in with former instructors—perhaps take courses here—those exciting courses (in the arts?) you could not fit into your schedule when you were a student. And if you can, contribute to the college—no matter how modestly, it will be appreciated. You are not isolated, singular individuals but members of a community united by common goals. Your instructors, like your parents and families, are the wellsprings of your career. Don’t hesitate to express gratitude!

On this celebratory occasion it is also well to consider that you, the Class of 2015, share with your contemporaries across the country who are graduating this spring a common experience of coming of age in a morally schizoid time. By “schizoid” I mean that there is a profound break between the “public” and the “private” life for most of us. A good number of us no longer feel that we exercise much power in our “democracy.” Those of us who are teachers expect our students to be unfailingly honest in their work, never to plagiarize or cheat, yet, virtually every day, we learn that many of our fellow Americans, our presumed “leaders” in the political and corporate worlds, are exposed as dishonest, guilty of fraud, embezzlement, bribe-taking, plundering of entire companies, debasing the environment, callous indifference to vulnerable fellow citizens, exploitation of young persons… Yet: there is the hope that a younger generation has the opportunity to redeem the short-sightedness and criminal behavior of their elders, and will have the strength and the idealism to do so.

It was a Princeton student of mine who said “this is a schizoid time”—a senior English and Philosophy major—“We’re signing up for job interviews, writing letters, applying for jobs and graduate school… With the ‘war on terror,’ global warming, political crises, a precarious economy, it seems so trivial and yet—this is our lives.”

This seemed to me eloquently and aptly stated: “This is our lives.” For this is the great adventure before you: establishing the personal, moral, intellectual, spiritual life in a morally “schizoid” time. Seeking a place in the world, in the “job market” or in graduate and professional schools is one of the great adventures. Placing yourself—being, in one way or another ‘chosen’—requires stoical qualities. A sense of humor is definitely a good idea. Writers quickly learn that the most wretched experiences in life can make the most entertaining anecdotes and, as memoirists have discovered, can be spun to epic lengths. A sense of proportion is recommended: we can’t all be “first.” (Conversely, it is an optimistic observation to realize: we can’t all be “last.”) Graduating classes contain numerous individuals who, for one reason or another, did not fulfill their promise and potential, if not to others, to themselves. There is a small, quirky category of individual who, though rewarded, still don’t feel that they have really worked hard enough, that their potential has been realized. Few writers of distinction, in fact, were outstanding as undergraduates: William Faulkner received a D in freshman English, at the University of Mississippi; Cormac McCarthy was asked to leave the University of Tennessee because his grades were so poor; John Cheever was expelled from the Thayer Academy, and spent years in poverty writing fiction before he began to be published in the New Yorker. We need to know that others have had as difficult a time as we are having—if not a worse time. America is a wonderful country in which to live but its media focus upon winners—stars—celebrities—champions—is unrealistic and does not prepare us for living in the actual world.

Several years ago I learned that a writer-friend of mine (who has since won the Pulitzer prize and other distinctions) had been severely disheartened by a famous New York editor’s rejection of a novel he had worked on for years: “You’re wasting your life,” he was told. But Richard kept working, revising and submitting the novel elsewhere, until at last it found a sympathetic editor and was published—and turned out to be the novel that won him his first acclaim. (His next novel would win the Pulitzer prize.)

Is much of success simply luck? Granted some talent, some motivation, and a willingness to keep trying beyond the point where others give up.

Stephen King, our American prodigy, whom you have all read, is now one of the great bestsellers in history, perhaps in the history of the Universe. You might be surprised to know that in his early twenties Stephen King was a struggling high school teacher in Maine who was humiliated because he didn’t make enough money to support his family and had to supplement his income by working at menial, disagreeable jobs—a slaughterhouse, for instance—(luckily, being Stephen King, the young writer found such occupations fruitful as material). He had written more than sixty stories which made the rounds of magazines and were rejected. He’d written four novels, all of which were rejected. The fourth, Carrie, he tossed out in the trash in a fit of despair but—(here is the fairy tale reversal)—his wife Tabitha King, who, when the two were undergraduates at the University of Maine and were taking writing workshops together, was considered THE writer of the two—retrieved the manuscript from the trash, and sent it out herself to another publisher; this time, it was accepted, and published rather inauspiciously; but made its way at once with the reading public, and became a surprise bestseller; eventually, a very successful movie. What if, like a reasonable person, Stephen King had given up writing after the rejection of sixty stories and four novels?

Similarly, my friend Eleanor Bergstein who’d written a film script titled Dirty Dancing was rejected for years by virtually everyone in male-dominated Hollywood; yet Eleanor persevered, with the stubborn intensity borne out of a conviction that her autobiographical story would have value for others, until finally a “low budget” film was made of the script; given little support by the (male) producers until the first audiences began to react with much enthusiasm—and the rest is history. (Dirty Dancing has become one of those very few cult films with an enormous popular following. There are allegedly persons who have seen the film dozens—even hundreds—of times.)

I have taught creative writing and literature at Princeton University since 1978. As a teacher, I am often asked: Did you recognize your “talented” students immediately? What was it like to work with—(here they name the several students who did senior theses with me, who’ve gone on to publish books and become, in some quarters at least, “acclaimed).

The answer I give is unexpected, I think—it’s that I don’t focus my teacherly attention upon my ‘talented’ students particularly—I work with all my students equally. As a teacher, I think that part of my role is to try to provide for the student possibly “less talented” a way in which he or she might actually be revealed as “talented.” By this I mean that I rarely try to “strengthen” a writing student’s “weakness”—(we all have “weaknesses,” we all have areas in which we can’t begin to compete–and this includes great writers like Hemingway, Jane Austen, James Joyce); we don’t have time to “improve” our weaknesses, we have time only to concentrate upon our strengths. What you do well—you must learn to do better. And when you do this better—you must learn to do it even better. That is the way—that is the only way—to excel at anything.

Individuals who are writers and artists are confronted with the question: should I continue, if I am rejected? How long should I continue? Should I give up—ever? Teachers will acknowledge how often it happens that a student who hasn’t perhaps been the most brilliant, or the most forceful, or the most prominent in a class, will turn out, years later, to be the “best known”—the “most successful.” Too often it has happened, in my experience, that quite talented students just—faded from sight; they tried, they were (presumably) rejected, they gave up. Why did they give up, and why did others seemingly very like them not give up? This is the perennial mystery!

Energy—industry—refusal to be discouraged—a prevailing sense of humor: these are essential in our lives. An attitude that goes beyond ambition into the realm of the spiritual, the uncharitable; what in boxing, as perhaps in other sports, is called “heart”—the indefinable core of an individual that declares I WILL NOT GIVE UP; I WILL PERSEVERE. Without “heart” an athlete might have a professional career but he/she cannot be a great champion. The writing students of mine who have gone on to be truly successful, in several cases quite impressive careers, were individuals who worked—worked—worked—and did not allow rejections to dissuade them of their inner worth.

This stubborn optimism, this predilection for trying one more time, I bequeath to the graduates of the Class of 2015—in fact, to us all.

Read more 2015 commencement speeches:

Alan Alda to Grads: Everything in Life Takes Time

Bernard Harris to Grads: You Are an Infinite Being With Infinite Possibilities

Bill Nye to Grads: Change the World

Colin Powell to Grads: Learn to Lead

Ed Helms to Grads: Define Yourselves

Eric Schmidt to Grads: You Can Write the Code for All of Us

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel to Grads: ‘This Is the World We Were Born Into, and We Are Responsible for It’

Gwen Ifill to Grads: If You See Something, Do Something

GE CEO Jeff Immelt to Grads: Become a Force for Change

Jon Bon Jovi to Grads: Lead By Example

Jorge Ramos’ Message for Journalists: Take a Stand

Katie Couric to Grads: Get Yourself Noticed

Ken Burns to Grads: Set Things Right Again

Kenneth Cole to Grads: Find Your Voice

Madeleine Albright to Grads: The World Needs You

Mark Ruffalo to Grads: Buck the System

Matthew McConaughey to Grads: Always Play Like an Underdog

Maya Rudolph to Grads: Create Your Own Destiny

Mellody Hobson to Grads: Set Your Sights High

Meredith Vieira to Grads: Be the Left Shark

Mitt Romney to Grads: America Needs You to Serve

President Obama to Grads: We Should Invest in People Like You

President Obama to Cadets: Lead the Way on Fighting Climate Change

Salman Rushdie to Grads: Try to Be Larger Than Life

Samantha Power to Grads: Start Changing the World By ‘Acting As If’

Stephen Colbert to Grads: You Are Your Own Professor Now

Tim Cook to Grads: Tune Out the Cynics

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