Each year I write a poem for the graduating class, but this year I decided to write a commencement speech after being inspired by my friend Adrian Nester who does this on a yearly basis. I delivered this speech to my seniors on Monday, their last regular day of school:
Friday, you will march across the field in cap and gown to receive your diploma thus ending your high school career. I have had the privilege to be a small part of your Northgate experience. You were my smallest class ever but big in personality, and I love the community we have formed. When I began to think about my commencement address to you, I was struck by the parallels between writing and life. My charge to you is ten writing principles we have learned this year that will also prepare you for life.
Try new things.
This time last year you were picking up summer work including directions for a summer journal. The purpose of this assignment was to broaden your experiences thus expanding your thinking so you would have more to write about. Life is an opportunity for you to meet new people, travel to new places, and try new things. Be proactive in providing yourself these opportunities to grow as a person.
Plan before writing.
Good writers take a few minutes to plan before they start writing in order to think through the direction of the paper as opposed to vomiting words out and hoping for the best. Planning takes discipline when you are ready to start writing because the clock is ticking. The same is true in life; planning provides focus and direction for life but take some time. What do you want to be doing in five years? Ten years? Set goals to help you get there. Life can take unexpected twists and turns but let these happen naturally and not be the result of lack of planning.
Hard work yields results.
Raise your hand if you’re a better writer after this class. The reason you’re a better writer is due far less to my instruction and far more to the practice you put in on Writing Wednesdays (and writing Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays because we wrote almost every day). Hard work, in writing and in life, pays off over time. Maybe not today, tomorrow, or even next month, but hard work will set you ahead in life far more than talent or intellect.
We have studied diction and syntax in texts and modeled our writing ideas after writers’ choices. We have looked at anchor essays and analyzed what makes them good and learned from them. The same is true in life. Find people who are doing life well in certain areas of life or life in general and learn from them. Ask people to mentor you in how to be a good spouse, parent, businessman, teacher, and in financial, personal, and spiritual areas.
Pay attention to the big picture and small details.
Great papers begin with precise word choice and solid sentences; however, great papers must also be well organized and have a consistent controlling idea. You should take out your life telescope and zoom in on a regular basis examining the habits of your daily life to make sure they are consistent with who you want to be then zoom out examining your relationships, character, faith, and career to make sure you are who becoming who you want to be.
Find people who will give you feedback.
I have worked hard to not put a grade on your writing and move on to the next essay. Every essay you received back from me had a glow comment providing insight on what you did well and a grow comment providing insight on how to make your paper better. You then had the opportunity to revise every single paper. Make sure you have people in your life who will give you honest feedback about how you are living your life then adjust your life accordingly. Hopefully, you will make life adjustments more frequently than you revised essays.
Surround yourself with other writers.
We were a community of writers this year. We experimented with our style, shared ideas of how to be better, read each other’s papers, and collectively groaned when prose prompts were passed out; writing in a community made us better. Surround yourself with people who are moving through life in the same direction as you and reap the benefits of communal learning and growth.
Always answer the Why.
I’ve said it 1,000 times: you cannot just identify a device and give an example; you must tell why the device is important and connect it to a bigger theme. In life always ask the Why about what you are doing in order to make sure your actions are aligned with your life dreams, convictions, and goals. Why are you going to college? Why do you want this promotion? Why do you want to have five kids? Why do you play trivia every Friday? Don’t move through life without asking Why.
I love that your essays have included pictures of tombstones, humorous titles and hashtags, and warning notes about the essays. I can honestly say that I literally laughed out loud with each batch of essays. These, in most cases, accompanied well-written essays. Approach life the same way and laugh at yourself. Laughter and hard work can coexist.
Write in your voice.
Typically we wrote on the same prompts, yet your essays were different due to your individual voices. Some have an intellectual tone while others are marked with flowery language. Some are written in a journalistic style while others have complicated syntax. And even though we learned from mentor texts, we made them fit our personal style. Don’t be afraid to be true to your own voice in life. You will be tempted to say things that are of the popular opinion even though you may not necessarily agree. You may have a hard time hearing your own voice due to all of the noise in today’s society which is why it’s so important to be quiet and think just like when you are writing. Lean into who you are and use your voice to make a difference in the world.
If you follow these principles in writing, your pen will flow easily. If you follow these principles in life, you will have a well-written life. A well-written life does not mean a life free of trials and pain but rather a life that weaves together the planned and unplanned, the good and the bad to form a beautiful verse. Class of 2017, the time for you to write your life verse is now. How will you write your life?
My AP Lit class on the last day of their senior year; some brought their parents/grandparents to celebrate the day with them.
Here’s an overview of my class this year.