The 2020 COVID-19 Commencement Address
One of the real tragedies of this COVID-19 pandemic is the recent cancellation of my scheduled commencement address at a prestigious university. I was asked to speak at the graduation ceremonies of The School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at (insert prestigious university here), Class of 2020, and truly feel that these bright-eyed young men and women, hungry for such wisdom, really lost out on the chance to listen to my advice in person. I will provide a transcript here, but honestly there is no way of capturing the raw magnetism of a Lance Manion presentation.
Let’s start by thinking about writing a story like filling an empty suitcase. An awkward metaphor I’ll admit, but if awkward metaphors make you uncomfortable you’ll end up with nothing but carry-on.
Did you just do that thing where you put your two hands next to your head and then open them suddenly to indicate that something just blew your mind? I’m guessing you did. I saw a lot of you do it.
Keep listening, it gets even more where you put your two hands next to your head and then open them suddenly.
It’s my personal belief that what you put into the suitcase isn’t as interesting as where you get the stuff you’re putting into it. When you’re packing one thing you’re always unpacking another.
Boom. Another one. You’re welcome. (please picture me shooting off a quick wink at the hottest teacher on the stage)
Where are you getting what you’re putting into your story from? It’s rarely one place. Typically you’re rummaging through the whole house, looking in closets and opening a dozen drawers. Sometimes looking in places that you don’t expect to find anything, but better safe than sorry, am I right?
I’m going to give you a few seconds to catch up. Just the house metaphor should have your head spinning a bit… ironic when you consider that the house I’m talking about is your head.
And the ‘safe but sorry’ throwaway line could be the title of a four hundred page book unto itself. A book loaded with charts and graphs and peppered with scholarly quotes and references. A book you don’t want to write.
I’ve actually made my own two hands jump up next to my head and then open suddenly.
Safe but sorry. Safe or sorry. Safe and sorry.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Did you know that the number one thing your brain is hardwired to do is keep you safe? It’s a primitive nonconscious part of the brain and it’s the reason that 95% of fiction you see on the bookshelves is safe.
It’s the reason that most best-selling suitcases don’t include anything from the attic or basement. Just shirts. Underwear. Toiletries. The occasional hat.
Nothing to stress you out.
“But Lance, I just want to write a little story about a squirrel that gets injured by a passing car and has to find the courage to drag itself home.”
Fuck you and fuck your squirrel.
We both know what that squirrel represents. And the car? Why not just call the car what it is.
Courage? Can anyone even define courage these days? Now they call crazy people ‘brave’. Am I brave? Are you?
Home? Are you fucking kidding me?
I don’t even know where squirrels live. I see them jumping around in trees but I have no idea where they actually sleep. Nests? Burrows? I don’t want to know. The more I know about squirrels the fewer places I can picture them living. I like my squirrels everywhere and nowhere, holding a martini in their paw after a long day of hiding nuts.
There’s nowhere like home. Home is where the heart is. Home sweet home.
And you want pack all of this into a squirrel? Why not a fish Hemingway? Then you could introduce the whole big fish, small pond stuff.
Doesn’t SpongeBob have a friend who lives underwater but is also a squirrel? Of course, I believe that she lives in the ocean… small mammal, big ocean doesn’t work as well.
There. There it is. Can you feel your brain moving away from safety? The desire to go down into the basement and root around a bit? Only when you have no idea what the next word will be should you ever start to write.
“But Lance, I can actually get paid to write a story about a squirrel that gets injured by a passing car and has to find the courage to drag itself home.”
You whore! You disgust me. You and your overbearing parents and fake friends and your New Yorker magazine aspirations.
William S. Burroughs said the following… “The boy looks into Mugwump eyes blank as obsidian mirrors, pools of black blood, glory holes in a toilet wall closing on the Last Erection.”
So why wouldn’t I use this opportunity to shoot another quick wink at that ravishing example of womanhood to my left (the aforementioned hot teacher)? Because I don’t need to. That’s what language is for.
So, in closing, let me leave you with this. After you’re done here and you get your piece of paper saying you can write, giving you permission, you’re going to go home. You’re going to sit down and figure out what you want to say to this fucked-up world. Travel will be involved and drawers and dark corners will have to be explored. Do it boldly. Look everywhere. Make all your squirrels into Mugwumps.
Thank you… and fuck most of you.