books, speeches and such

In Blog

Hello from a hot and gorgeous Sunday, where I am feeling somewhat proud of myself for parenting solo for much of the weekend. I won’t lie: I had some help from sitters and family, but during that time I was working on my revision. From 6am until one most days, though, and then dinner, bath and bedtime, it was just me and my highly energetic girl. WHEW! I’ve forgotten what it is like to take a shower alone. Or go to the bathroom alone. Or do, um, anything alone. And that was just part of the day! You single parents amaze me. I could not do what you do. I mean, I guess I could if I had to, but I would not do it very well. Or well at all.

Because my brain’s kind of shot—and I’m eagerly awaiting my husband’s return, so he can take over whine patrol for a little while—I don’t really have it in me to do a big entry. But there were two quick things I wanted to share before I forget them. Which means I have to do it right now, as my memory is so bad it’s embarrassing. Here we go!

First, last month at the beach, we shot two videos. One about Colby and Along for the Ride, and one about summer reading in general for the B&N website. I got to talk about a few of the YA books I’m loving right now, so if you’re looking for suggestions, check it out. It’s on the Along for the Ride page here. You have to scroll down a bit to see it: it’s on the right hand side.

Also, I’ve had a few people ask me to post the speech I gave at the School of Science and Math commencement a couple of weeks back. If I’d been thinking, I would have asked someone to get it on video, but I was too nervous to think. So instead, I’ll just post the text, and you can just imagine me reading it with my palms wet and hands shaking. Not so hard to do, right? Here it is:

Today is a day of great accomplishment, and you should be very, very proud of yourselves. This is a time to step back, look over the path you’ve forged behind you, and know that every step was yours alone. Congratulations.

Now, that we’ve done that, I’d like to talk to you a little bit about failure.

I know, I know. This is a school of highly intelligent students. You succeed. And while I don’t mean to tamper the joy and success of this occasion, I hope you’ll allow me to speak this subject that I, however, know quite a bit about.

I graduated from high school in 1988. Yes: 1988. That is, I recently found out, the year that most of my daughter’s babysitters were born. Whoa. But I digress. That June, I sat with the rest of my Chapel Hill High class in the Dean Smith Center, cap and gown on, and listened to speeches just as you are doing now. But unlike all of you, who I am sure are hanging on my every single word, my mind was wandering.

I kept looking around me at my classmates, many of whom were teary-eyed, clutching their ’88 keychains or tassles and other commemorative swag. I was not the greatest student in high school. Not a joiner, not an achiever, not much of anything. In fact, all I wanted to do was fly beneath the radar and then get the heck out of there, at which point I was sure my real life could finally begin. So as all around me, for weeks, my classmates had engaged in nostalgia—reminiscing, lots of group hugs, sudden friendships based solely on the fact that this shared experience was ending—I just didn’t get what the big deal was. All I could think was “Get me out of here.” I never intended to give high school another thought. Two months later, I packed up my fan and shower shoes and headed (slightly) West , to UNC-Greensboro, where I intended to be an advertising major. Life plan set, new beginning in progress.

I dropped out after two and half months.

Ouch. I know. I’m not proud, believe me. But I am honest. And the truth is, sometimes you can prepare for something, be sure it’s the right choice, and yet still wake up one day, look around you, and think, “I made a mistake.” It would be great you hadn’t, but you did. You embarked, like a ship, and you failed. Now what?

Well, at eighteen, I didn’t really know. As the child of two people with PHDs who built their lives around academia, there’s really not a lot worse than being a college dropout. I could have stayed at UNC-G, and finished anyway, sparing the shame but making myself even more miserable. Instead, I came home, embarrassed and confused and not sure what to do next. My parents, however, had an idea or two. They insisted that I enroll at UNC-Chapel Hill the next semester part-time and take some classes. I did. One was Anthropology, and the other was Creative Writing.

The first day I sat in my Intro to Fiction class, I felt completely out of place. All around me were these other freshmen, none of whom were already dropouts, that I could tell anyway. They chattered around dorms and roomates, recitations and intermurals. It had only been a handful of months since that day I’d sat at the Dean Dome and looked ahead to my future. Now, I’d gotten so off track I didn’t even know where I was.

This is failure. It’s that moment when you realize that a choice you made, or something you did, has fully changed the course of your life. But what matters even more than this truth is what you do choose to do once you know it. The tendency may be to curl up in the fetal position and wait for things to improve. But if you can somehow manage to take a breath and look around you, you might just spot another path you hadn’t seen before. It may not be easy to walk, especially the beginning. But all that really matters is that it’s there.

I’d always liked to write. I took classes in high school and loved losing myself in a story, making up a world better, or at least different, than my own. I never would have imagined doing it for a living, however, if I hadn’t ended up in that class that day. When Doris Betts, an amazing writer and incredible teacher, walked through that door, she took the seat next to mine and started talking about what it means to be a writer. Within fifteen minutes, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It was as clear as her face before me, more clear than anything had been in a long time.

Would I have ended up in a writing class at UNC-G? Maybe. It wasn’t in my plans, though, or even on my radar. It took failing, hitting bottom, and having to pick myself back up for me to find what I consider now to be my true calling. That semester, I sat down and wrote my first college short story. It was about high school. Turns out, I wasn’t quite ready to leave it all behind me after all. In fact, nine-almost-ten novels later, I find I still have a bit to say about the subject.

Just to reassure the parents and faculty here, I want to be clear that I am not encouraging anyone to drop out of school. But I will say that my experience at UNC, where I later enrolled full time and eventually graduated with Highest Honors in Creative Writing, was one of the best of my life. The beginning wasn’t perfect, by any means, and it took me a little longer than most. But when I graduated, I again sat in another row of chairs, with my classmates around me. This time, though, I got what the big deal was.

Now that you know this, I’m sure you understand why I was nervous when I was first asked to come speak here today. I felt—and feel, honestly—wholly unqualified, a fact I assumed would be glaringly obvious the moment I opened my mouth. What can I possibly tell you that you don’t already know? Not sure of the answer, I went to my friends and family and asked what they would tell you, if they had this chance. What I received in return is, like life itself, diverse, serious, practical and hilarious. Here they are.

1. If you’re in the midst of a breakup and the other person says, “It’s not you, it’s me,” don’t believe them. It’s you.

2. Some things you can skimp on. But if you buy cheap cars, electronics or shoes, you’ll regret it.

3. Don’t pull an all nighter before anything serious, whether it be a job interview or a major exam. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Everyone is stupid when they are exhausted.

4. Travel. You won’t regret it.

5. Pay more than the minimum payment on your credit card every month. In fact, if you can, pay cash and skip the plastic altogether.

6. Love your family despite your differences, conflicts, and quirks. More often than not, they are the only ones who will always do the same for you.

7. On a related note, spend as much time as you can with your grandparents. Nobody will ever again love you so much and so unconditionally.

8. If you want a tattoo, think about it for at least a year before you get it. And don’t get someone’s name, unless it’s one of your grandparents.

9. Keep your attention on the road when you’re driving. Let your eye be your brake. (That one’s from my dad. Thanks, Dad!)

10. If you’re planning to start a sentence with “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” or some variation of such, just don’t say anything. Really. Just don’t.

11. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. It’s been said before, but bears repeating: kindness begets kindness.

12. If you’re ever tempted to litter, do this: assume that whatever you throw down on the ground, through your entire life, will join you in a small room in the hereafter. Do you want to spend eternity with that styrofoam cup? Didn’t think so.

13. The more you work, the more you work. This one is from my friend John, who is a farmer in Chatham County. He knows about work. But I think his point might be that there’s other things in life, as well. My other favorite of John’s is this: If you want to make a millon dollars farming, start with two million. Don’t know if any of you are planning the agricultural route, but it’s good information, at any rate.

14. Involve yourself in the world around you. Volunteer, run for office, pay attention. The greater your stake, the greater your return. And for that, your children and grandchildren will thank you later.

15. In every ending, there is a beginning. In every mistake, a lesson. And so, in every moment and every one, endless potential.

So there you have it. Sage advice from not just from me, but a variety of folks, from retired professors to carpenters to organic farmers to IT workers. Maybe you’ll use it all. Maybe none. But at least, hearing it, you might learn something.

I know I did. In fact, after I’d compiled and written up this list, it occurred to me that really, this is kind of cheating. I got every one of these lessons because someone had to learn it the hard way. The real way, like I learned I was meant to be a writer. So I can stand up here and pass them along, but you’ll never really know them, just as someone can ever really know how hard you’ve worked to get here today just by hearing about it from you. You have to live it to own it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The bottom line is, life is about learning, whether you’re in school or not. We are human. We make mistakes. But your lowest moment might also be the one where you begin to rise, and rise. So double back. Regroup. Brush yourself off, and try again. And twenty-something years from now, when you are asked to give a speech on a day like today, you’ll have more than enough for a list yourself, with each item hard-earned and worthwhile, and all your own.

Congratulations to all of you and your families.

Whew! I got nervous just reading that again. But I am proud that I did something that terrified me (always good to do that once in awhile) and I heard from several people that they enjoyed it. The tattoo part got the biggest laugh, which surprised me, considering it was a pretty studious crowd. Gotta love that.

Husband will be home to celebrate Father’s Day in less than an hour. My gift to him: trying NOT to disappear in a puff of smoke, cartoon style, the instant he’s here to take over. Hope you all made YOUR dads feel special today. They deserve it.

Have a good evening, everyone!

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