Stop what you're doing right now and read the commencement speech that's fixing to break the internet please. It was delivered this summer by the master of the perfectly wrought, perfectly weird short story, George Saunders, to the class of 2013 at Syracuse University, where Saunders teaches. Thankfully, the New York Times obtained a text of the speech and reprinted it yesterday on the paper's 6th Floor blog, thereby getting dust in about a million peoples' eyes.
In the now-viral speech, Saunders reflects on his life's regrets:
Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that.
As Saunders explains, his regrets boil down to a single category: "failures of kindness": "Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."
Saunders is a writer's writer whose star shot up wildly this January, when the Times proclaimed his latest collection -- "The Tenth of December" -- "the greatest book you'll read this year." For decades prior though, he symbolized the worth of achievement over success in writers' circles. Further down in the speech, he tackles both notions.
Accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
His advice? Do whatever you must -- "the ambitious things." But, above all, "err in the direction of kindness."
The full speech is well worth a read, or two, or ten. Of note is a linked interview with the Times Deputy Editor Joel Lovell defending the January profile (which Lovell wrote, and which some found overblown). Saunders' latest work involves "things that, as far as I know, hadn’t been done in fiction before," Lovell says. "And that made me want to do a piece that was just honest in its enthusiasm for him and his genius."