His wife was sitting next to him: “So which of his books have you read?”, she asked and I froze.
“Which have you read?” she asked again.
Everyone at the table was quiet, watching, waiting. I smiled a mad smile, and I mumbled “the one about — the one about the man discovering himself” which of course was complete bullshit.
But I thought it might be convincing since that kind of describes half of all the novels written by men. And then I fled.
But before I fled, I heard the writer say to his wife “Honey, you shouldn’t have done that.”
But the truth is that I shouldn’t have done that.
To read a novel is to give honor to art, why lie about giving honor to something to which you have not?
I was of course absolutely mortified that day. But I have come to respect what that writer’s wife had: a fantastic bullshit detector.
And now that I have the good fortune of being an established writer, one who does not like to miss an opportunity to wallow in praise by the way, I can sense when a person is saying empty words and it feels much worse than if they had said nothing at all.
So have a good bullshit detector. If you don’t have it now, work on it. But having that detector means that you must also use it on yourself. And sometimes the hardest truths are those we have to tell ourselves.
When I first started sending out my early writing to agents and publishers and started getting rejections, I convinced myself that my work had simply not found the right home, which might have been true.
But there was another truth that took me much longer to consider, that the manuscript was not very good. And in fact, the first novel I wrote or what I thought was a novel, eventually needed to be put away in a drawer. And I’m so grateful that it was never published.
It is hard to tell ourselves the truth about our failures, our fragilities, our uncertainties. It is hard to tell ourselves that maybe we haven’t done the best that we can. It is hard to tell ourselves the truth of our emotions that maybe what we feel is hurt rather than anger, that maybe it is time to close the chapter of a relationship and walk away. And yet when we do, we are the better off for it.
I understand that the Harvard College mission calls on you to be citizen leaders. I don’t even know what citizen leader means. It sort of sounds like a Harvard Graduate saying I went to college in Boston, which by the way has to be the most immodest form of modesty.
Please, class of 2018, when you are asked where you went to college just say Harvard.
By the way — By the way, I went to Yale for graduate school, not New Haven which has other universities. But we also know that in the grand snobbery sweepstakes of prestigious American colleges, grad school doesn’t really count, it’s undergrad that counts. So it’s entirely possible that I don’t even know how all of this works.
So you’re charged to be citizen leaders which I suppose means that you’re charged to be leaders. I often wonder who will be led if everyone is supposed to be a leader. But whether you are a leader or whether you’re the led, I urge you always to bend toward truth, to err on the side of truth.
And to help you do this, make literature your religion, which is to say read widely, read fiction and poetry and narrative non-fiction. Make the human story the center of your understanding of the world. Think of people as people, not as abstractions who have to conform to bloodless logic but as people: fragile, imperfect, with prides that can be wounded and hearts that can be touched.
Literature is my religion. I have learned from literature that we humans are flawed, all of us are flawed. But even while flawed, we are capable of enduring goodness. We do not need first to be perfect before we can do what is right and just.
And you Harvard class of 2018 are not unfamiliar with speaking the truth. When you stood alongside dinning-hall walkers during the strike, when you protested the end of DACA, when you supported the Black Lives Matter movement, you were speaking the truth about the dignity that every single human being deserves. I applaud you. I urge you to continue.
But remember that now, outside the cocoon of Harvard, the consequences will be greater, the stakes will be higher. Please don’t let that stop you from telling the truth. Sometimes especially in politicized spaces, telling the truth will be an act of courage; be courageous.
Never set out to provoke for the sake of provoking, but never silence yourself out of fear that the truth you speak might provoke; be courageous.
People can be remarkably resistant to the fact that they do not like, but don’t let that silence you from speaking the truth; be courageous.
Be courageous enough to acknowledge that even if there is no value in the position of the other side, there is value in knowing what that position is. Listen to the other side, at least the reasonable other side.
Be courageous enough to acknowledge that democracy is always fragile, and that justice has nothing to do with the political left or the political right.
Be courageous enough to recognize those things that get in the way of telling the truth — the empty cleverness, the morally bankrupt irony, the desire to please, the deliberate obfuscation, the tendency to confuse cynicism for sophistication.