Montana novelist Kevin Canty recently delivered the graduation speech for the English Department at the University of Montana. The graduating class included his son (go Turner!). Canty gave us a copy of the speech to reprint here.
OK, so I’ve never been asked to give a speech before and you’re about to find out why. But when I decided to panic about this, not quite at the last minute but pretty close, I did what any right-thinking English major would do and went on Google looking for something to steal. So here are a couple of commencement nuggets that I thought were worth borrowing.
(A) Twenty years from now, you’re not going to have the slightest memory of who gave the commencement speech. But you are going to remember your ideas, your work, the moments in the middle of a class or the middle of a book when the light bulb went on and the world looked a little different than it did before. That’s your work, your accomplishment, and it’s what we’re here to celebrate today.
And (B), nobody gets through this alone. Parents, family, friends, we’re all gathered to celebrate the graduates today. But we all know that those achievements would not be possible without the support and the love of those around us. So hooray for all of us, too!
And then—well, my main discovery after that was if you wanted the good stuff, you should hire Robin Williams to be your speaker. But he wasn’t available and I’m here so I thought I’d talk a little about stories, about what they are and what they mean and why they seem important. It’s what we do in the English department, stories. We write them and read them and think about them and think about what we thought of them. And if you think about it—and I’m sure some of you have, especially when you were writing tuition checks—it seems odd that there’s a whole department of the university dedicated to the study and production of lies.
But “lies” isn’t exactly right. There’s an element of industry and purpose about lies: you’re trying to get somebody to do something or you’re trying to impress them. Lies are sort of practical things. But fictions of the kind we make and love are more slippery things. I think it’s traditional to explain these fictions as lies in search of truth; stories can ignore the brute facts of a matter to get to the essential, underlying essence. This doesn’t seem exactly right, either. I’ve noticed that the people who find a single, underlying truth in a complicated story tend to find that underlying truth everywhere else, too. I was teaching the Kafka novel Metamorphosis a few years ago and went to the library to look up the critical responses to it and what I found was an almost perfect mirror: the Marxist critics saw a Marxist story, the Freudians a psychological one, and so on. It doesn’t seem to me that stories are just some way of telling the truth in code. What are they?
OK, when Jesus wanted you to think about something, he’d tell you a story, right? Let’s go back to the Prodigal son. He asks for his half of the inheritance, goes away and wastes it on fun; when the money’s so long gone that he’s living worse than his father’s servants, he decides to head home. Father sees him, rejoices, kills the fatted calf. The older brother who has stayed home resents this bitterly; the prodigal has spent his money on harlots, as the King James version has it, while he’s been tilling and mending and so on. The father continues to rejoice at the return of the prodigal, “for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Now the thing I love about this story is how much I identify with the older brother. This may be because I’m an older brother myself but I’m like totally, what’s up with the fatted calf? He spent that money on harlots, dad! The father’s joy, the older brother’s resentment, none of these things sum to an easy resolution. This little story —only 33 lines in the King James version—seems to have the depth and the complexity of life itself. The story isn’t telling us what to think but where to think, and what to think about. Its difficulty is its message.
This is the way great stories work: they’re never over when they’re over. A story will linger in the mind long after the last word is read, often in the form of a puzzle or quandary, a hard little knot of undecidability and complication. What should the older brother do? He ought to feel his father’s joy, ought to share it. But he doesn’t feel joy, he feels resentment, and to pretend otherwise is to falsify himself. It’s a puzzle, all right, and a good one, all the big ideas like justice and forgiveness and mercy and grace rolled up into a ball of words. We might not find the truth in it but we will, if we pay attention, find a truth of our own, one that belongs to us.
Maybe this is what stories can give us: not answers so much as really good questions. But I’m going to make one more completely ridiculous claim about stories and their importance that you can take or leave as you wish. It seems to me, though, that stories are how we make ourselves. Humans in general are better at self-deception than at self-perception. We all know this. And yet we all have a sense of ourselves, of what we’re like and who we are. I think this is storytelling. We start with a few facts, the people we know and the things we’ve done, what’s important to us and the way we wish that we would act, and weave together an identity out of these scraps and glitters. It’s a magpie’s nest but it’s what we’ve got. And maybe, just maybe, if we find places in stories where this creation is done with wit and verve and moral alertness and intelligence, we can find a way to use these things in our own lives, to write better life stories for ourselves.
Because this is the point, it seems to me —not to live forever but to be alive until you’re dead. And you don’t want to get stuck in somebody else’s boring story. Nobody wants to be a minor character. It’s what we wish for you as you set out into the wide world: that you all are the heroes of your own stories, and those stories are smart, original, complex and maybe brilliant. Goodbye, good luck. On behalf of all my colleagues I’ll say that it’s been a great pleasure having your company for the last few years and we expect, and hope for, great things from you.
Kevin Canty is the award-winning author of the novels Everything, Into the Great Wide Open (which was honored by the indie booksellers of the Northwest in 1997), Nine Below Zero and Winslow in Love, as well as the short story collections Honeymoon and Other Stories, A Stranger in This World and Where the Money Went. His work has been published in the The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Details, Story, the New York Times Magazine, Tin House and Glimmer Train. He teaches fiction writing at the University of Montana.