On November 10, 2015, I was the guest speaker for the Induction Ceremony of the Golden Key Honors Society at Lehman College, CUNY. Here’s what I said:
Congratulations! Thank you so much or having me here and for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of my esteemed honorees.
I could go on forever about what a momentous occasion this is (some of my students are here and they’re like, “yeah that’s true, she can talk”). But we’re short on time so let’s begin with a brief writing assignment. Please take out a pen and paper or a laptop. If you’re without these things, it’s okay. In a minute I’ll pass out a blue book so you can answer questions about the meaning of today’s ceremony.
Just kidding. I really don’t have a writing assignment for you. But I bet if I did have a writing assignment, you could do it.
No, I know you could do it. Because you’ve already done this. Countless times in your college careers you’ve marked occasions by writing them into existence. When you wrote that History paper, or the lab report, or the short story, or the political argument you probably did not call these tasks “momentous occasions.” But that’s what they were: the occasion of deciding that you cared enough about your thinking to put yourself and your mind out there.
Of course we care in all kinds of ways.
But for the next three minutes I want to argue that one of the most profound ways to care about anything is to find a way to write about it using language—the common fabric of our humanity.
Now you might think that the only reason I’m celebrating writing is because I’m an English Professor. And because I’m an English professor I just love writing. I mean, what could be more pleasurable than spending Sunday nights alone at my desk, staring at a blank screen, waiting for sentences to come for an essay due weeks ago, while the rest of New York City settles in for a good, long evening of Netflix binge-watching? And what could be more gratifying than finally finding those sentences at 2am, then waking up at 6am to realize that these are, by far, the very worst sentences I’ve ever written and therefore I need to: make coffee, clean my closets, bicker with my children, and, finally, start the whole thing over again.
No. I don’t love writing. Like everyone else, I kind of hate it. And I hate it because it’s so hard. It’s mentally and physically exhausting and takes up too much time. And yet I continue to write. I always will. And I think you will do. All of us in higher education write. We need to write. Because putting observations and ideas and issues and problems and positions into words are ways to counter both epistemological and existential loneliness. We compose to recognize ourselves so that we can reach out to others.
Just for a second, let’s think about the steps you’d have to take if I actually did give out these blue books, and if you actually did have to do an on-the-spot essay. The first thing you’d do is get pretty pissed off. Fair enough. But then you’d do something amazing: you would attempt to read my mind by getting out of yours. That is, you’d try and figure out what on earth I wanted from you. Then you’d start writing with that perspective in mind. Soon, you’d find yourself getting a little bit into this assignment. And once you did, you’d forget all about my question and my needs, and you’d start writing for someone or something else. And just like that, in under a minute, you’d be time traveling and shape shifting. This is writing: a superhuman, supernatural activity.
Because we live in an age of instant communication, we may forget just what a miracle the technology of writing is. But it is a miracle: of persistence and perseverance and caring and connecting.
When I teach writing, whether freshman composition or advanced literature courses, I always begin class with the essay “The Death of the Author” by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes argues that when we read we shouldn’t worry about an author’s intended meaning. Instead, we should connect to great works by writing back to them: by participating in the life of that work. In Barthes’s words, a text’s purpose “lies not in its origin but in its destination.”
He means that writing not only says, it does something.
But literary theorists and English professors aren’t the ones claiming that writing prepares us for surprising paths. Just a few months ago, the President of the United States said much the same thing. Perhaps you’ve read the conversation between President Obama and the Pulitzer Prize novelist Marilynne Robinson published in The New York Review of Books. In this discussion, President Obama reflects that reading and writing were his greatest teachers. They teach us to “be comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found…that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you. “
It is gratifying to know that all of us here, and those who will be here next year and the years after, are different but connected, alone in our thoughts but together in thinking, and that our divergent destinations have found productive, caring ground at college, in this room, on this momentous occasion which will no doubt take you very far. Congratulations.