John Grisham Commencement Address

Uploaded by UNCChapelHill on 10.05.2010

Before Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal, and before Law & Order became a franchise,
there was John Grisham.As an international best selling author of the 1990s, Grisham
perfected the art of the modern legal thriller in a breathtaking series of books from A Time
to Kill and The Firm, to The Innocent Man and The Associate. He has written 23 books,
all of which are available in print, audio and now, digital formats. More than 250 million
copies have been sold worldwide and his works have been translated into 29 languages. Nine
of his books have been made into movies. Grishams heroes have been portrayed by no less than
Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Matthew McConaughey, Chris ODonnell, John
Cusack and Matt Damon. I doubt any other author could match that list. Johns passionate commitment
to social justice plays out in his fiction. One reviewer noted that, no other writer
… is quite so keen-eyed or as fierce a social critic. He's an idealist but not an optimist;
a moralist but not a moralizer. His heroes are often young lawyers facing off against
powerful and corrupt enemies. In their quest for justice, they triumph by abandoning the
rules and exhibiting what one observer called, moral pluck.
Grisham has plenty of moral pluck himself, devoting considerable time to charitable causes.
He serves on the board of the Innocence Project, a litigation and public policy organization
dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully-convicted. After Hurricane Katrina, he established the
Rebuild the Coast Fund, raising 8.8 million dollars for hurricane relief projects. For
those of you who are still worrying about your career choices, you might be reassured
to hear that John Grisham had two careers before finding his calling as a writer: first
as an attorney and second as a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives. And
he did not major in English. Instead, he holds a bachelor of science in accounting from Mississippi
State University, and a juris doctor from the University of Mississippi Law School.
It is not in his official bio but I have it on great authority that he is also a passionate
follower of Carolina basketball. Please welcome John Grisham …
Thank you, Holden Thorp. Thanks to you, the University, and the Board of Trustees, the
administration, the faculty, and the graduates for the invitation to be here. I am honored
to address the Class of 2010. To the graduates, congratulations upon this day. Your hard work
and perseverance have brought you to this milestone, and you are to be commended. Your
families and friends are here and they are very proud. Make this day last as long as
possible. Take lots of pictures. Give lots of smiles and hugs. Savor it. It is truly
unique. I have been here before. Two years ago, I was sitting out there as a proud parent
watching my daughter graduated from UNC. That day was not quite as pretty as today. The
weather looked bad. The forecast was dreadful. The skies were dark and threatening. It looked
bad. At the last moment, the decision was made to keep the festivities here and not
move them indoors. Just as the graduates were preparing to march in, a tropical depression
settled on Chapel Hill and the bottom fell out. The rain began, driving, howling, cold
wind with no end in sight. James Moeser was the chancellor then. Most of the crowd scattered.
We were soaked. It was awful. It was wonderful James Moeser, who was also soaking wet, finally
decided to just dispense with all formalities. With one wave of the hand, sort of like Moses,
he conferred 5,000 degrees, and we got out of here. It was a very short commencement.
There were no speeches. Maybe it was not all bad, I do not know. With that day in mind,
I am very grateful to see sunshine and a sky that is Carolina blue. I have been watching
the weather for two months. I am just as proud today because my wife, Renee, is a member
of the Class of 2010.
She is finishing her work for a degree in English, work I interrupted almost 30 years
ago when I convinced her to marry me. I am not sure she wanted to back then, but we did
anyway. It is a big day for our family. Some of you are sad to be leaving, probably in
shock that your time here has gone by so quickly. Others are, no doubt, thrilled to be getting
out of here. Regardless of how you feel now, your emotional attachment to this place will
only deepen as the years go by, and you will find yourself drawn back time and time again.
I have never met a Tar Heel who did not let it be known, usually within the first 30 seconds
of a conversation, that he was in fact a Tar Heel, or that she loved her days in Chapel
Hill. Let us face it. It us a great school. We all know it. There is so much to be proud
of. You are leaving today, but you will not be forgotten. Whether you are graduating with
honors, or without;
regardless of what you studied, or did not study, you will not be forgotten. There are
people on this campus who work in what is called development, that is another word for
fundraising, and they are watching you even as we speak. They will follow you. They are
very friendly. They will send you letters, birthday cards, Christmas cards, and at first
you may be flattered, but you will soon learn that these cards are very expensive. They
will expect cards in return Ð pledge cards, commitment cards, they even take credit cards.
They will follow you well into your old age. And when you die, they will expect a sizeable
chunk of your estate. You will not be forgotten. But do not be irritated. They are good folks
and they really, really want you to succeed. The generosity of others has played a major
role in building this great institution. Those who have walked here before you have enriched
your learning experience. It is important for you to give, as a way of saying thanks,
but also to invest in future generations. Give, because others have given for you. Now
I have never written a long book, and I have never given a long speech. This one will last
for 17 minutes, from top to bottom, so hang on, I am almost finished. Before I close,
though, I am expected to at least attempt to say something significant, something you
might remember for more than 24 hours. Certain things are expected in commencement speeches,
and I would hate for you to leave here feeling as though you did not get your moneys worth.
Not that I am getting paid, but that is no big deal. On campuses this spring across the
country, commencement speakers are saying such things as: The future is yours. Take
control of your destiny. Set your goals high. And so on and so forth. These platitudes are
not worth much, so I do not use them. You do not really want to hear them. Of course,
the future is yours. Who else would want it? Take it. You can have it. We have had our
chance and made a royal mess of things. I am sure you can do better. I expect you will.
Advice is common theme during these speeches. Someone who has been out there comes back
here and shares a few nuggets of wisdom, a few tips on how to succeed. Advice is very
easy to give and even easier not to follow, so I do not fool with it. You do not want
to hear it. You do not need the advice. You have got the brains, the talent and now the
education to live your life the way you want. You will figure it out. On a couple of occasions,
I have given a speech entitled: The Top Ten Reasons You Should Stay in College until you
are Thirty Years Old. It got a few laughs, had a little wisdom to it, but I realized
it really was not being heard. You would not hear it now. Let us face it, you are done,
you are finished, you are ready to get out of here, it is time to move on. I stopped
giving that speech because the hate mail from the parents was so vicious. Actually, I do have one piece of advice. I
guess sometimes we cannot just help ourselves. Call home at least once a week. It is a proven
fact that we call home less frequently the older we get. And that is wrong. It should
be the other way around. As we get older, our parents get older. E-mail, Facebook, text,
that is all good. Call home once a week so your parents can hear your voice, and you
can hear theirs. Okay, one more piece of advice. Read at least one book a month. That may not sound like much, but the big
publishing companies in New York have spent a lot of money studying you and your reading
habits. You have terrified them. They cannot figure you out. They do not know how many
of you, in five years, will be reading books on Kindles, iPads, Nooks, Kobos, and Sony
E-Readers. About half the research suggests that you will read more because of these incredible
devices. About half the research says you will read even less. They cannot figure you
out. As far as I am concerned, I do not care if it is a hardback, paperback, e-book or
library book. Read. Reading stimulates the brain and the imagination. A video takes away
your imagination. Now, this is self-serving, obviously. It is a proven fact that people
who read buy more books than people who do not read, so I am always thinking about book
sales. I cannot help it. Truthfully, I wish you would read 10 books a month, or at least
buy that many.
The most difficult part of writing a book is not devising a plot which will captivate
the reader; it is not developing characters the reader will have strong feelings for or
against; it is not finding a setting which will take the reader to a place he or she
has never been; it is not the research, whether in fiction or non-fiction. The most difficult
task facing a writer is to find a voice in which to tell the story. A voice is pronunciation,
diction, syntax, dialogue, plot, character, the ABCs of writing. But a writers voice is
much more. A writers voice is the tone, the mood, the point of view, the consciousness,
the sense of credibility. I have never thought of writing as hard work, but I have worked
hard to find a voice. All writers do. Sometimes we are successful, often we are not. But long
before the first chapter is finished, and often before the first chapter is started,
we search and search to find a voice. Students of creative writing are constantly urged,
find the voice, find the voice in which to tell the story, and to do so they are taught
to try different techniques, different narrations, different points of view Ð all in an effort
to find the voice. When a writer finds the voice, the words flow freely, the sentences
become paragraphs and pages and chapters and the story is told, the writer is heard and
the reader is rewarded. In this respect, writing is a lot like life itself. In life, a voice
is much more than the sound we make when we talk. Infants and preschoolers have voices
and can make a lot of noise, but a voice is more than sound. The voice of change, the
voice of compassion, the voice of the future, the voice of his generation, the voice of
her people. We hear this all the time. Voices, not words. There are over 5,600 of you in
the Class of 2010, and I doubt seriously right now if anyone of you believes that you will
leave here today, go out into the world, start your career, and not be heard. Is not that
one of our greatest fears? We will not be heard? No one will listen to us when we are
ready to lead, there is no one to follow? To be heard, you must find a voice. For your
ideas to be accepted, for your arguments to be believed, for your work to be admired,
you must find a voice. A voice has three essential elements. The first is clarity. When I was
in high school, I discovered the novels of John Steinbeck. He was and is my favorite
writer. The Grapes of Wrath is a book I have read more than all others. I admire his talent
for telling a story, his compassion for the underdog, but what I really admire is his
ability to write so clearly. His sentences are often rich in detail and complex, but
they flow with a clarity that I still envy. His characters are flawed and tragic, often
complicated, but you understand them because they have been so clearly presented. In life,
we tend to ignore those who talk in circles, saying much but saying nothing. We listen
to and follow those whose words, and ideas and thoughts and intentions are clear. The
second element is authenticity. Few things I like better in life than getting lost in
a good book written by an author who is in full command of his subject matter, either
because he has lived the story, or so thoroughly researched it. I read a lot of books written
by other lawyers, legal thrillers, as they are called. I read them because I enjoy them,
also I have to keep an eye on the competition. I can usually tell by page 3 if the author
has actually been in a fight in a courtroom, or whether he is simply watched too much television.
In life, we tend to discredit those who claim to be what they are not. We respect those
who know their subject matter. We long for, and respect credibility. The third element
is veracity. In the past few years, the publishing industry has been scandalized by a handful
of writers who wrote very compelling stories of their real-life adventures. These were
good stories, they were well written, the voices were clear and seemingly authentic.
They sold for big money, they were marketed aggressively, they were reviewed favorably,
and then they were exposed for being what they really were frauds fabrications, lies.
The real-life adventures never happened. The books were pulled from the shelves. The publishers
were embarrassed. Lawsuits were filed to retrieve the advances. And the writers voices have
been forever silenced. In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each
of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be
told. You will be heard. The size of your audience does not matter. What is important
is that your audience is listening. You are lucky to have studied here. Lucky, and deserving.
Many, many applied, and only you were chosen. You have been superbly educated, but now your
time is up. You have to go. You cannot stay here until you are 30; and besides, on August
21, the freshmen will be here to replace you. One final thought: right now, you want to
be something. You have big dreams, big plans, big ideas, big ambitions. You want to be something.
Do not ever forget what you want to be right now. The future has arrived. It commences
now. Good luck.