If there were ever a place for dreamers, it would be a college commencement speech.
After four or more (never less) years, a college student is ready to bound out into the world, armed with knowledge, pep, and a quickly deteriorating set of skills. But probably the best dreamers among all college students aren’t engineers or the English majors. No, that title in particular would belong to the art students.
Robert De Niro gave a commencement speech to the graduates of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. It will go down as a classic commencement speech because of the way it begins:
Walden Two is a novel about an intentional society, or what we’d call a commune, based on scientific principles.
Its writer, B.F. Skinner, supposed that people could thrive while living communally. He wrote this book in an attempt to rewrite all our current social rules about work, love, and play.
I was at the dinner table last night discussing itwith my folks and my fiancee. It was a good discussion.
What surprised me was that my folks knew about Walden Two. Though the book was written in the fifties, it really found its footing in the late sixties and early seventies, when they were growing up. There was a lot of talk about experimental ways of living during that time. People knew there was something wrong with society and sought new ways of living. They experimented. They asked the question “How is it that we should live?”
Something stuck in my craw during that conversation.
A good book on writing needs to do a couple of things.
First, and most books get this right, is to instruct. It should teach you something about the craft of writing. It should tell you things you didn’t know before, or make the invisible visible.
Elements of Style is a great old stand-by of this type, and probably one of the first writing books you read. ‘Omit needless words’ still rings in my head every time I try to edit something.
The second, and this is harder, is inspire, to actually make you want to write.
I always looked at Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury as a shining example of inspiration. It’s really, really hard to read it and not want to write with gusto. It’s less successful in instruction, but that’s not what he’s going for, really. Ray Bradbury let all his subconscious do the work; we mortals need to know how to build houses before we burn them down.
The book Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life by Nick Mamatas is one of the few that does a good job of both. It’s an excellent book, well worth the time of any writer interested in writing things so other people will read them. Continue reading →
Walk out of the subway on to 42nd. It’s only a block to you destination, of course; you couldn’t come to New York and not see the library. You can see the lions from down the street.
Past the arches you walk, and the place opens up. It’s beautiful. The walls are painted with murals, the ceilings painted with clouds. There’s marble everywhere. Woodwork is everywhere. In the reading rooms, up the stairs worn smooth by centuries, they’ve got pieces like Toledo enamel suspended so high above you it might as well be in the sky.
The true heart of the collection is beneath your feet. It’s dug in many stories beneath the surface. That’s where the beating heart of the collection is housed. 15 million items.
It’s as fine a temple as ever has been built, and it’s built to awe.
How does somebody build something so incredible? It’s hard to even wrap your head around that question. Where does one even begin?
Now, with that in mind, I want you to look a little more closely at something.
Every November, for the past few years, tens of thousands of people have signed up, gone to writer groups, and made a pact to write 50,000 words in one month.
Since it began, it has also been easy to find people criticizing NaNoWriMo in all sorts of ways, and for all sorts of reasons, most of which focus on how smug such writers can be. I cannot speak to all the criticisms here, but I can say that writers are not just insufferable in November; they’re insufferable the other 11 months of the year too.