Advice to graduates: Commencement speeches that have become books

As Syracuse University's 2015 commencement speaker, Mary Karr faced a tough crowd.

First, there was the matter of speaking at your home school. Karr ("The Liars' Club") is a best-selling, award-winning writer, but at Syracuse she's just that lit professor down the hall. "Nobody's a hero to his valet," she quips. And then there was the Jimmy Fallon issue; a rumor had swept the campus that the wildly popular talk show host would be speaking at commencement, a rumor that was not, in fact, true.

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"There was kind of a dust-up online and around the university — outrage that I'd been invited to speak at all," Karr recalls. "Like, why don't they invite somebody good?"

Turns out that Syracuse did OK. Karr drew laughter and applause with her very first line: "My goal in high school was to stay out of the penitentiary, so if I can go from there to standing up here, y'all can all get yourselves gainful employment of some kind."

She paused: "Yes, those are your parents clapping."

Students swarmed her after her very compressed, personal and funny speech about overcoming a nervous breakdown, an anxiety disorder and a really creepy college lab partner, and the lessons she learned along the way. The Twitterverse carried forth lines such as "Being smart and rich are lucky, but being curious and compassionate will save your ass."

Karr's "Now Go Out There (and Get Curious)" is joining the small group of commencement speakers whose heartfelt and — to use Karr's word — non-heroic graduation speeches are being published as stand-alone books, well-suited for last-minute graduation gift-giving.

The books include David Foster Wallace's "This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life," delivered to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College, and published a year after his death in 2008; "Tenth of December" author George Saunders' "Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness," his 2013 Syracuse graduation speech; and Neil Gaiman's 2012 speech at the University of the Arts, titled "Make Good Art."

Each of these speeches was buoyed by a strong Internet response; some were viral hits. Saunders' speech was posted on the New York Times website where it was shared more than a million times, according to his publisher. The speech by Gaiman, author of "Coraline," has 213,000 views on YouTube, where recent comments include, "This is brilliant. Make this go viral for the sake of god and art.ÿ" Wallace's speech has more than 2 million YouTube views.

But these speeches share more than views and tweets. All eschew fancy language, intellectual posturing and the conventional high-minded quotes in favor of a confiding, colloquial tone, and a back-to-basics message. Saunders really does urge kindness, of the simplest and most elemental type. He's lived a big life that's included becoming violently ill after skinny dipping in Sumatra, scoring a hockey goal against himself in front of a big crowd, being poor, working at a slaughterhouse. He doesn't regret any of that, he tells us.

And what does he regret looking back at his youth? A small failure of kindness I won't give away here, but I will say that in any other context it wouldn't matter. You might even think Saunders was the good guy. But he's right; he wasn't. And the regret is so real you can taste it.

Gaiman won the hearts of the crowd of young artists at the University of the Arts commencement with his uncensored honesty; you can see him break down the barriers as you watch the speech on YouTube. The graduates loved the part where he admitted lying to get his first writing jobs: "People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. In my case I did something which these days would be easy to check, and would get me into trouble, and when I started out, in those pre-internet days, seemed like a sensible career strategy: when I was asked by editors who I'd worked for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident, and I got jobs."

He shared practical advice: "People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today's world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine."

Wallace's speech begins with irony. After introducing two young fish flummoxed by an older fish's seemingly simple question, Wallace notes: "This is a standard requirement of U.S. commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories." He goes on to tackle the not-so-promising topic, the Meaning of Your Liberal Arts Education. But by the end, he, too, has taken on the difficult work of saying something true and deep and useful to the young and starry-eyed.

Again, surprise is an element of the delight here, and I don't want to give too much away, but here's a taste of Wallace when he really gets going: "An outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive."

Karr's speech is the most personal of the bunch, and by most measures, the funniest.

"I wanted to be funny because I think being funny disarms people in that environment. Everyone's always trying to sound deep," she said. "I did want to say something of substance, and of significance, and something I genuinely thought was true and useful. And all I could think of was how afraid I was, so I thought, well, start with that. Start with how afraid you are. They're afraid, too."

Rather than quoting, say, Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the topic of honor, Karr quoted an old pal named Doonie, on the topic of her honorary doctorate: "Being a doctor who can't write prescriptions is like being a general in the Salvation Army." That line, she told the crowd, "made me a few notches less terrified about today, which is how poetry works — you start in a scared place and get zip-lined somewhere truer."

Karr's message is very similar to Saunders', and not so different from Wallace's. Her life, as she describes it, has been hard, but the difficulties have opened doors and yielded great rewards, and she's learned from the compassion others have shown her.

"Don't make the mistake of comparing your twisted-up insides to other people's blow-dried outsides," she told the crowd. "Even the most privileged person in this stadium suffers the torments of the damned just going about the business of being fully human."

nschoenberg@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @nschoenberg

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