Founders' Day Address at Kenyon College, given October 1996
I have long-held opinions about many things and being asked to give a speech presents an irresistible opportunity to express those long-held opinions. Although these opinions are mostly about art and entertainment, you have my word that my thoughts will apply to you whether you are pursuing the arts or something more sensible. And you have my word that I will stick to the subject and at least try not to rant.
The subject is Founder's Day, and by implication foundations. Thinking about foundations led me to think about ladies' foundations, which as some of you may know refers to loungerie--but loungerie of substance, girdles, brassieres, that sort of thing. A few years ago I met a man who had made his fortune in ladies' foundations, after the war when nylon and rubber were again readily available. And I visited his house in the north of England where he had built an entire golf course for his pleasure. He was in his eighties at this point and no longer golfed but still many people were employed to keep the greens green. In his old age he felt the cold and his house was kept so warm that it felt like a hothouse but it was a hothouse with no flowers and there he sat watching the occasional sweaty visitor watching his golfcourse. This reminded me of what the esteemed literary critic George Steiner said to last year's graduating class, that the making of money was the saddest ambition on this Earth.
But you live in a world that values money, a world where a man betrays his wife and his employer and is rewarded with a 2.5 million dollar book contract because that book will sell. And you live in a world that values physical beauty and celebrity. And there is no distinction made between fame for having actually accomplished something and infamy--they all fall under the same celebrity rubric, and suddenly Dick Morris has earned the right to lunch with the gifted writer Henry Louis Gates, Jr. under the aegis of The New Yorker.
When I lived in the East Village, I did my writing in my neighborhood's public library which was across the street from Tompkins Square Park. At that time there was a Hooverville in the park, a cluster of tents where the homeless camped out. Many of the homeless spent their days in the library to keep warm and I befriended one man who spent his days reading PEOPLE magazine. Now he was just sick with worry about Jane Fonda and all that she was going through what with her divorce from Tom Hayden and all. Seven years later we know that Jane landed on her feet. I wish I could believe that my homeless friend did too.
So in this inverted world the homeless are more concerned about Hollywood than Hollywood is about the homeless, and young people who used to want to write the Great American Novel now want to make movies. And I am not saying that one is art and the other is entertainment. Movies can be art and I'm all for entertainment, but bad art is not art and it's not entertaining and this is what results when you don't tell the truth.
Hollywood lies to us in many ways, including casting impossibly beautiful and often surgically-altered people to represent us. They lie to us by underrepresenting minority experience, including that of gays and lesbians. And as far as I can see the only way they have responded to diversity criticisms is by using African-American and Latino actors to play all the judges. And while those actors are working they do not get the love scenes and they're only given lines like "overruled" and "sustained."
But most importantly Hollywood demeans us by eliminating the complexities of our lives. I was working on a play called MACHINES CRY WOLF about parents with a sick child in a neo-natal intensive care unit when I discovered there was a television movie of a memoir called BORN TOO SOON, which was about a child born pre-maturely. I was curious and anxious to see how the movie was tackling a subject similar to my play's.
In this television movie the nurses and doctors were unfailingly solicitous and upbeat, the other parents supportive, and the movie full of incident. From experience I can tell you that the nurses and doctors are impossibly busy, and in order to function they have to detach themselves from your pain, and they can't be too hopeful because they're afraid of lawsuits. The other parents can barely say hello to you because they have nothing left to give, every ounce of their strength having gone towards caring for their own child. And hospital stays are not dramatic. They are filled with long bouts of anxiety-ridden tedium, with trips to Au Bon Pain for coffee alternating with sobbing in the bathroom. The movie did one brave thing--they allowed the child to die as he did in real life but in the movie the parents learn something and are better people for it and don't worry, they went on to have more children. The truth is that sometimes you don't learn anything from tragedy, you just ache, and the fact that they went on to have more children means something, but not everything, because children cannot be replaced like so much broken china.
Allright, that was a little bit of a rant, but sometimes we define ourselves against what we hate. So please don't go to Hollywood to make money and become famous but to make art that at least tries to tell the truth. And only go to Hollywood if that is your calling, if you have an authentic love of the movies, because I'm here to tell you the thing that will give your life meaning will be work that you love. The best advice I ever got was from a Greek restaurant owner who said "Do what you love and the money will come." I will add that if the money doesn't come at least you'll be doing work that you love.
It is one of the great privileges of education that you can aspire to work that you love. Most people have jobs not work, and it's possible that many of your parents slaved at jobs they hated in the hope that you would one day find work that you love.
How can you tell what work you love? I remember as a child brielfy flirting with a career in the foreign service because I wanted to travel and in the library I came across a book entitled DO YOU WANT TO BE A FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICER? Inside it was a list of questions--do you read the national news daily from cover to cover? No. I read the comics. Are you tactful? Yeah, right. Do you like meeting new people and attending frequent social events? My God, what a nightmare. I was clearly not cut out to be a foreign service officer.
I have a couple of questions for you. Do you love the process of what you're doing or do you merely love the results? My happiest moments are in the rehearsal room. When my play actually opens, I am miserable and my palms are damp. I watch the performance, waiting for certain catastrophe. I monitor the faces of the audience, convinced they hate it, and if people tell me they like it I'm convinced they're lying, and if they say "Congratulations" I KNOW they despised it. But writing the play, rehearsing the play, is pure joy. And I find a comparable joy in the classroom.
What are you good at? It will make your life ten times easier to follow your natural bent and anyway if you're good at something, we need you. Everyone knows there are eighty million people who want to be actors for example, but there are not eighty million GOOD actors, and when I go to cast a play I am hard-pressed to find four or five. The playwright Robert Anderson said "that you can't make a living in the theater, but you can make a life," and a life is something to hope for, a life in balance, with time for your work, your family, your community.
Allright, that's your future, but what can I tell you about these next four years? You are repeatedly told that these are the best years of your lives but more often than not, on Friday nights after going in search of the love of your life, you will return to your dorm room alone, regrettfully nauseous from grain alcohol, feeling you are not thin enough, not buff enough, not popular enough--because if you were you would certainly be having a better time here, and in your sadness you may not realize that an entire culture is conspiring to make you feel this way. And one day it will dawn on you that you are secretly happier reading Yeats in the library or working in the lab or smelling that turpentine smell at Bexley than you are at the parties, and on that day you will have discovered the truth. You have just found the love of your life.