My Commencement Address to the University of Maine at Augusta

Yesterday, May 11, 2013, I was honored to give the keynote speech at the forty-fith annual Commencement Exercises at the University of Maine at Augusta. Some people have asked me to publish my remarks. Here is what I had to say to the graduates and their families:

Thank you. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here today to celebrate your commencement. Every time I give a speech, I like to quote Mark Twain who famously observed, "There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars."

I'll let you decide what I am.

As President Handley said, I am the Editor in Chief of Down East Magazine. I am also a novelist who writes books about Maine game wardens.

Usually, when people ask me for advice it’s about writing. But it occurs to me that writing advice can be life advice too. Let me give you some examples:

Rule #1: You can’t write well without reading.

You’d be shocked by how many submissions we get at Down East about cool things to do in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. These queries come from writers who don’t realize that when we call ourselves Down East: the Magazine of Maine, we mean that literally. We are not Down East: the Magazine of New Hampshire. The reason these freelancers make this mistake is because they haven’t bothered to read an issue for themselves.

The same goes for life. If you don’t read, you aren’t collecting information for yourself. You’re not exercising your brain. You’re jumping to false assumptions or letting other people tell you what to think. When you read, you take control of your own mind. You’re testing arguments. In short, you’re becoming an adult. Everyone gets older — we all grow old — but not everyone becomes an adult.

Another rule. Don’t sit around waiting for the muse to arrive.

It’s romantic to think that you can’t create something unless you are inspired. But that’s not the way it works. Inspiration isn’t something that comes to you; it’s something that you hunt down and pin to the ground.

The same goes for life. People, as a rule, don’t randomly give you gifts. You get the things you want in life by actively pursuing them. Malcom Gladwell wrote this great book called Outliers, and it he noted that the Beatles played live more than 1,200 times in Hamburg, Germany from 1960 to 1964 — they played more than 10,000 hours in sleazy nightclubs perfecting their craft — before they were “inspired” to write “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” 

Or think of your own lives and what brought you here today. No one knocked on your door to give you a diploma from UMA. You’re getting one today because you worked hard for it. 

Next rule: There’s no such thing as writer’s block.

If you can’t write something it’s because you don’t know enough. I tell my writers at work that if they are stuck they need to go do more interviews. The writing is hard if you’re trying to bluff people and pretend you know more than you know. It’s easy when you’ve done all the legwork. 

Let me give you an example from my own life. I write about Maine game wardens and I’ll often run into a problem. Wait a second? I’ll think. How does a warden trap a bear? What does he use for bait? I know doughnuts and bacon grease and lobster shells work, but I want my game warden to be an expert woodsman. And I’ll stop writing because I am blocked. The only solution is to call a warden and he’ll tell me that the secret ingredient in good bear bait is propane. Actually it’s a chemical called ethyl mercaptan, which bears love for some reason. I bet you didn’t know that. And neither did I until I made that phone call.

To be confident, you need to do the research, you need to do the legwork. That’s a rule you can use at your next job interview. Imagine you are invited in for the job of your dreams and the interviewer starts asking you one tough question after another. If you know your subject thoroughly—if you studied it hard and understand the industry and have researched that particular business and the challenges it faces—you will have no trouble answering the toughest questions. If not, you will be "blocked." And you'll walk out of the office with sweat stains under your arms and no job. 

Here’s a famous writing rule. Avoid cliches. Or as editors like to joke: Avoid cliches like the plague. 

When you use a cliche in your writing you are being lazy. For instance, “nerves of steel” or “fit as a fiddle.” (Does anyone know what that means by the way? Why do we associate violins with being physically fit?). But what you are also announcing is “I don’t have anything unique to say.” “My ideas are unexceptional.”

Now if I am an employer, who do I want to hire: the person with the boring ideas or the imaginative person who will help solve my problems, the person who can think for his or herself?

Another one: Don’t be afraid of rejection.

If you want to be a writer, plan on having people rejecting you. Some will tell you that you have no talent or nothing to say. Others will imply that your entire life has been a waste. Ignore those losers.

Stephen King’s novel Carrie was rejected by 30 publishers. Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected only 12 times. Imagine the persistence it took for those authors to keep sending out their manuscripts. And imagine how it felt for those publishers when they realized the billions of dollars they could have made. 

So don’t be afraid of rejection. Have faith in yourself and keep sending your best stuff out into the world. 

If you are afraid of rejection, you will stop taking risks. If you are afraid to visit France because French people will make fun of your poor French pronunciation you will never see Paris (and everyone should see Paris). You won’t ask your secret crush on a date. You won’t start your own business. Why? Because you might fail.

I was smelt fishing with a Scottish friend last weekend, and he said his favorite movie was Braveheart (which I should have suspected because it must be every Scot’s favorite). And he quoted a line from the film that inspired him to become certified as an EMT in his late forties. The line from Braveheart is “Every man dies, not every man truly lives.”

The man — or woman — who truly lives is the one who risks rejection and failure. 

More writing advice: Ernest Hemingway once said that the first draft of anything is doo-doo.

Only, he was Ernest Hemingway so he didn’t use the word “doo-doo” and he probably had a drink in his hand when he said it.

His advice was absolutely true, though. Masterpieces are never written. They are always rewritten. Tolstoy wrote something like 8 drafts of War and Peace. And that book is 1,400 pages long!

The same goes for life. Your first drafts—your first attempts at doing something—are unlikely to go well. We fall the first time we try to snowboard. But if we keep at it, eventually we can become Seth Westcott. Or at least we stop falling so much and have more fun.

That gets me to my next editing motto: done is better than perfect.

Every month at Down East we have a deadline to get the magazine to the printer. If we miss it, we lose thousands of dollars in newsstand sales. So no matter how much we think we might improve an issue, at some point, it needs to ship.

The same is true with life. Done is better than perfect. Now that rule doesn’t apply if you’re a brain surgeon. We all want our brain surgeons to be perfect! But most of the time what we want is for something to be finished. We don’t want one perfect mitten. We want two pretty good ones.

That’s how I feel about this speech, by the way. I would have liked it be perfect, but now I wish it were done, and I bet you feel the same way.

That gets me to my last rule: Nothing has made a greater difference in my life than perseverance.

I went to graduate school with dozens of people who wanted to become novelists. Most of them were more talented than I was. Today only a few of us are published authors. The difference was that I wanted it more.

As a novelist, I subscribe to Ernest Hemingway's other dictum: "The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it." But I would add that Hemingway's advice applies to more than just books. Finishing is the key to so many things in life: football games that slip away in the final seconds (Patriots fans you know what I mean), sales calls that break down over negotiations, botched fundraising campaigns. It is so easy to lose focus or become discouraged; it is so tempting to give up when there seems to be no hope.

Sometimes quitting seems like prudence. More often, it is an excuse we use to avoid failure. The book that is never finished can never be rejected. Nor, however, can it ever become a success. It took me six years to write my first novel, The Poacher’s Son. I spent many, many, many sunny days at my desk, staring out the window watching people enjoy time with their friends and family, and I thought what I am doing here? I am wasting my life.

But I kept at it. And eventually I finished the book. Today The Poacher’s Son has been translated into 10 languages and is a bestseller in countries that I will probably never visit, like Slovenia and Romania.

Seeing a project through to the end is a test of will and a test of character. It is true that we learn a great deal from the process of doing something; the journey can be as important as the destination. But achievement comes from finishing. When you have struggled a long time with hardship and doubt, there is no greater joy than saying to yourself those three wonderful words: "I did it."

Those are words you can say to yourself today. You’re sitting here because you did it.

Congratulations and Godspeed.