My college graduation speaker really did begin—and end—his speech with “Today is the first day of the rest of your lives.” Did he also tell us to be ourselves and follow our dreams? It’s possible, I don’t remember.
Our speaker was boring, and he was also not famous. Naturally we felt cheated: What was the point of graduating with six-figure debt from a top-20 university unless we could at least land Bono? Or Conan O’Brien? Or Kurt Vonnegut? (Oh, wait—the other Kurt Vonnegut.) Or David Foster Wallace?
Before college development departments realized that a celebrity speaker could get new alumni to write checks, the graduation business was more inspirational than aspirational. And the speakers reflected that: They tended to be scholars, philanthropists, public servants—not necessarily the kind of people you wanted to be, but the kind of people you wanted to want to be. My graduation speaker had been a university president for almost 25 years. Not that you can’t have a rich and fulfilling career as a university administrator, but who dreams about doing that?
Twenty years before I graduated, the commencement address at my college was given by William Gass. Nobody talks like that anymore—to 22-year-olds or anyone else. He discussed philosophers and breasts and his son pretending to be a professional racecar driver. He spoke in paragraphs. He used semicolons. And the advice contained therein was difficult and complex:
To think for yourself—not narrowly, but rather as a mind—you must be able to talk to yourself: well, openly, and at length. You must come in from the rain of requests and responses. You must take and employ your time as if it were your life. And that side of you which speaks must be prepared to say anything so long as it is so—is seen so, felt so, thought so—and that side of you which listens must be ready to hear horrors, for much of what is so is horrible—horrible to see, horrible to feel, horrible to consider. But at length, and honestly—that is not enough. To speak well to oneself… to speak well we must go down as far as the bucket can be lowered. Every thought must be thought through from its ultimate cost back to its cheap beginnings; every perception, however profound and distant, must be as clear and easy as the moon; every desire must be recognized as a relative and named as fearlessly as Satan named his angels; finally, every feeling must be felt to its bottom where the bucket rests in the silt and water rises like a tower around it. To talk to ourselves well requires, then, endless rehearsals—rehearsals in which we revise, and the revision of the inner life strikes many people as hypocritical; but to think how to express some passion properly is the only way to be possessed by it, for unformed feelings lack impact, just as unfelt ideas lose weight. So walk around unrewritten, if you like. Live on broken phrases and syllable gristle, telegraphese and film reviews. No one will suspect… until you speak.
I don’t know what question I might have had at age 22 that this possibly could have answered, but if I’d heard that speech at my graduation, my college would probably have gotten a check from me by now.