proud moms and relieved dads,
members of the 2013 graduating class of Kenai Peninsula College.
First of all, congratulations.
Congratulations to the father-son graduating team of Robert and Chris Pepper,
congratulations to Debra Miller who earns her GED and her AAS on the same day,
congratulations to Danna Spring, who follows her mother and her brother as valedictorian. Overachievers R Us in that family, evidently.
Congratulations to the process and petroleum technology graduates,
and to the occupational health and safety and paramedic graduates,
and to the general program and computer electronics and computer info and digital art and general business and industrial process graduates,
and congratulations to the lone corrections graduate,
and a big congratulations to the over 100 GED graduates–you’ve made it this far, don’t stop now!
Today you prove you finish what you start.
You have also earned a degree, which contains the singular virtue of permanence. You can’t lose it, it can’t leave you, it can’t divorce you, it won’t die on you, it’s yours for life. Well done.
Some of you may remember a little film from last year called Pitch Perfect.
A college freshman joins an a capella group at her university. It’s a story you’ve seen a hundred, a thousand times before: Girl gets boy, girl looses boy, girl gets boy back. But how does she get him back?
She risks it all on one song. She not only risks it all, she risks it in front of all her friends, in front of her father, in front of an auditorium full of people, in a situation where she is literally being judged for her performance.
“Don’t you forget about me,” she sings. “Don’t you forget about me,” and then having got his attention she pushes him, again right there in front of god and everybody, in front of her peeps, her dad, the entire a capella community, she sings “Will you walk on by, will you call my name? Will you walk on by, will you call my name?”
It’s a Hollywood movie, he calls her name. But if she hadn’t asked the question, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to say yes.
So here’s the takeaway from this little pop culture lesson.
1. Don’t go safe.
I left a job on the North Slope that paid $64,000 a year to go back to school. That was a lot of money then. It would have been a lot safer to stay right where I was.
But I didn’t go safe. I left that lovely salary and all those lovely cradle-to-grave benefits and went back to school and got my MFA in 1985. It took me five more years to write and sell my first book, for the princely sum of $3000. You do the math. It would be another three years before I earned enough to afford my own apartment again.
But look where I am today. Successful enough that you wouldn’t leave me alone until I came to speak at your graduation. [Note: The KPC students’ association kept asking, until after three years they finally wore me down.]
Don’t go safe.
2. Go big, go bold.
The best thing my writing ever earned me was the first thing my writing ever earned me, a residency at Hedgebrook Farm, the writers retreat for women on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. It was the first time anyone ever acted like writing was a real job.
I have some view property in Homer. My newest project is Storyknife Writers Retreat, also known as Hedgebrook North. It will take a million dollars to build and twenty million to endow. Those are big, bold numbers, all right. Failure is most definitely an option.
But I’m going to try anyway, because if I don’t try, there is no possibility of success.
Go big, go bold.
3. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Three years ago, I had 16 books out of print. My webmaster, a guy by the name of Scott Gere, FYI a Kenai guy, said, “Let’s publish them as e-books.”
Neither of us knew what we were doing going in, and the learning curve was very steep. Scott fronted the labor and the costs, to the tune of $4500 a book. For twelve of the longest months of my life I was terrified that the project would fail utterly, and that his business would be tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket and, worse, I would have destroyed the best and longest term business relationship in my life.
Nine months after he uploaded those ebooks for sale? I paid off my house, and Scott’s business is now entirely debt-free.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Or go ahead, be afraid, but do it anyway.
Ask. Them that asks, gets. Understand that you won’t always get a yes in reply. I have coined a phrase, “To be a writer is to embrace rejection as a way of life.” For years I’ve wanted to write an historical novel about Marco Polo’s granddaughter traveling the Silk Road west between the years 1322 and 1327. Every single print publisher I’ve approached to publish it has said, “Mmmmmyeah, no.” None of them want to take a chance on “diluting the Stabenow brand.” I won’t even mention the rabid Kate Shugak fans who only and ever want another Kate Shugak book, world without end, amen.
So I’m going to write my historical novel anyway, and Kenai guy Scott Gere and I are going to publish it originally in e, and we’ll just see, won’t we, if I “dilute my brand,” or if I kick the crap out of conventional publishing wisdom.
I’m asking my fans to trust me to write something different that they will enjoy just as much as the Kate Shugak series. Again, the possibility of failure looms large and threateningly on my horizon, but, again, if I don’t try? I’ll never know if I could have succeeded.
5. Say yes to everything.
I was on a plane into Shannon, sitting next to two young men who had just graduated from high school. Their bikes were in the cargo hold and they planned to spend the next month cycling around Ireland. We talked about where they should go and what they should do, and in the end, as we were deplaning I said to them, just off the cuff, “The Irish are the most hospitable people on the planet. Say yes to everything!”
Everyone within earshot, most of them Irish, turned around and looked at me, and smiled.
So allow me to repeat that here today. Say yes to everything! My friend Don said, “Go meet my folks in Ireland” and I said “Yes!” and found another family. My friend Sharyn said “Want to go to Turkey?” and I said “Yes!” and wound up in Peru. (Long story.) My friend Kathy said, “Apply for the Hedgebrook residency!” and I said “Yes!” and had the best writing experience of my life. My dad, a Bush pilot, was always saying, “Hey kid, wanna go for a ride?” and I never said no, and one time it almost got him arrested in place of Baker Bob. (Another long story. But a really good one.)
Say yes to everything. The only regrets I have are the times I said “No.”
I leave you today with the words of the immortal Jesse J.
It’s not about the ba-bling ba-bling
Forget about the price tag
You just want to make the world dance
And you want to make it dance to your tune.
So get off your butts and get out there and make the best life you can. It’s the only one you’ve got, and it never lasts as long as you think it will. Don’t waste a minute of it.
Congratulations again, and thank you!