Ghosts In The Sunlight.
In the past couple of years, I’ve had the honor of participating in not one, but two university commencement ceremonies– one undergraduate and one graduate, all back-to-back in the course of merely twenty-four months. To say it’s been a whirlwind of a ride would be an obvious understatement, but as mentioned in an earlier post, I am more than grateful to have been able to embark on two such extraordinary journeys.
Almost three months have passed since Southern California Public Radio President Thomas William Davis gave our commencement speech under a blazing hot Friday morning sun, and though his words were more than memorable, I am still finding inspiration now and again from other fantastic speeches I come across in this post-graduation phase I seem to be dwelling in– like this one, for example.
The New York Review of Books recently published the marvelous speech writer Hilton Als delivered at Columbia University’s School of the Arts this past May. Drawing on prominent figures from American author Truman Capote and the Caribbean-born Jean Rhys to artist Kara Walker and, of course, his not-so-studious collegiate self, Als delves deeply into what it meant to him to become an artist, as well as what it should mean for the sea of eager young faces seated before him– i.e. US, the next generation of creative artists and thinkers.
Als begins by reminiscing about the strange ‘lawlessness’ of New York City in the 1980s, crediting it to helping him better “understand the society that surrounded [him] during [his] time on campus.” He also speaks fondly about his own education in Columbia’s art history department, a field that involved so many of the things that still enthrall him today, “such as cultural production, politics, aesthetics, and words.”
But most importantly, Als offers students one pivotal piece of advice– he encourages us to always remain faithful to the world that gave rise to our ‘art,’ to always remember and pay close attention to the various experiences and incidents that encompass our everyday lives:
“…Memory is your greatest ally and your primary source material, because memory is your body as it was in the world and the world as it was and will be; memory is the people you have loved or wanted to love in the world, and what are we if not bodies filled with reminiscences about all those ghosts in the sunlight?…”
And so he concludes:
“The artist’s memory is a dangerous, necessary thing. Never disavow what you see and remember—it’s your brilliant stock-in-trade: remembering, and making something out of it. Artists remember the world as it is, first, because you have to know what it is you’re reinventing; that’s a rule, perhaps the only one: being cognizant of your source material.”
So listen up all you Creatives. Our thoughts and experiences do in fact matter, even if it doesn’t always seem or feel that way. I, for one, am no stranger to feeling like the odd ball out, the outsider looking in, the girl who seems to always second guess herself a little more than necessary. But as Als so cleverly puts it:
“There’s not an artist on God’s green earth who feels, emotionally speaking, that he or she has been invited to the prom. It’s in our DNA—to stand to the left or outside of life’s fray, in our tennis shoes, in our painter’s smocks, in our director’s caps, in our moth-eaten writer’s sweaters, awash in memory even as it becomes that in the just-now past.”
Inspirational words indeed– a truly refreshing take on what every artist’s personal mantra should be: Be Yourself. Never stop yourself from experiencing the beauties and realities of life. Embrace everything. Fully. Because that’s what makes life so valuable.
We must, first and foremost, ‘claim our space as artists.’ That’s definitely a lesson I need to slowly learn.
Thank you, Mr. Als, for these motivating thoughts.