The text for today’s lesson is a commencement address David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. Despite having skipped both of my college graduation ceremonies, I have a fondness for reading good commencement speeches. Read Wallace’s now, and then come back for my take on what it means for writers.
This is, perhaps, obvious and trite, but I’ll say it anyway: We writers, we storytellers, we word people — we are the ones who create the little stories Wallace uses and talks about.
Presumably, then, we are able to break out of our own default settings to come up with alternative narratives for events. We can see life through the eyes of our characters and have empathy with other points of view and with other ways of living. Or we can see life as others experience it and bring that to our characters. Our stories are how we share these insights.
Harlan Ellison has told us that “writers take tours through other people’s lives.” If we have learned to step out of ourselves to tour those lives, then we can see the world differently and can share that in a way that’s both entertaining and meaningful. Perhaps we will show the readers their own lives to reexamine, or perhaps we can help them ponder lives they hadn’t realized existed.
We writers, we storytellers, we word people — we are the ones who, like the old fish and like Wallace, tell others, “This is water.”