We have entered into graduation season, and many of us (if not graduating ourselves) will be attending the graduation ceremonies of others. Just as the Royal Wedding this past weekend prompted many to reflect on and share memories of their own weddings, I suppose it is natural that this season of academic achievement would also prompt moments of nostalgia and remembrance of wisdom shared in the past.
Thanks to technology, you can watch on YouTube various commencement speeches by various celebrities, politicians, etc. at various places of higher education. Some of them are actually quite good. My own college commencement speaker, Tony Early, was phenomenal. A bestselling author and alum of our college, he knew his way around words and also knew the humor and sensibilities of the students he was speaking to. Even eight years later, I still get inspired when I watch the videos from that day.
But few speeches, in any context, have had such an impact on me as the one Neil Gaiman gave at the University of the Arts in 2012. (Seriously, watch it. It’s only 20 minutes.)
2012 was an important transitional year for me. It was two years after I had graduated from college and moved back home, it was a year after some questionable friendships and relationship choices, and it was the year that I officially joined the Catholic Church. I was just starting to put back together who I was and who I wanted to be. I was just beginning to write and think again after a long period of post-academic burnout. And when I discovered that my favorite author had given a speech to other artists who were just setting out for the first time, it was like he was speaking to my own soul.
That speech is generally known as Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech, and it was so popular and poignant that they actually published a book version of the transcript (it’s wonderful).
In that speech, it was as if Gaiman gave me permission to be who I was and to live the life I wanted to live. And it’s difficult now to say how much of the speech I identified with at the time and how much of it I have simply taken on since then, but nearly all of it feels like the fundamental truth of my own being now. The lack of an actual “career plan”, the desire to make things up and write them down, the fear of the “fraud police”, the importance of making mistakes, the need to write things because you want to and not just for the money, and so many other pieces of wisdom that I have found are now integrated into my own life philosophy.
Gaiman also talked about the important reality that the rules of how art is distributed are changing rapidly. With the Internet, there are now so many channels and different ways to distribute almost any form of art that you are only limited by your own imagination. You no longer have to send things out blindly and wait for “permission” to be considered a real artist. You can reach out to real people and build your community of followers, people who want your specific art. I don’t have the temperament or the patience required for traditional book publishing and there is a good chance that my writing career would have stalled out years ago if I had to go that route. And who knows what I would have done with myself then. But the realization that I could self-publish, that I could write what I wanted to write and no one could tell me no, that is what saved me and kept me writing new things. I could write something and instantly share it with people who already wanted to support me, without having to wait months or years for a big publisher to decide it was “worthy”. It allowed me to take control of my own life, which is what I desperately needed to do.
That same year, my mother made me this wall hanging. It’s currently hanging on one of my bedroom walls, and it’s one of the most important reminders in my life. It’s a reminder of what to do in the good times and in the bad. It’s a reminder that I have a purpose, that I have something that I can give back to the world. Even the wall hanging itself is a reminder that I am loved and supported in my work and in my passions.
Spring is a time of renewal in nature, but we also see that same spirit in the commencements and weddings that take place throughout this season. Many people are beginning new stages of their lives. But even if you don’t have such a concrete occasion in your own life, that doesn’t mean that this can’t also be a time of renewal for you as well. Perhaps it’s time to revisit some old goals or review the priorities you want to have for your life. Perhaps it’s time to give yourself permission to just be who you are.
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