Honorary Doctorate

Jun 10, 2012 | News Item, Postings

Carleton University awarded me an honorary doctorate on June 8. Not bad for a girl who barely finished university. In return, of course, I had to give a short speech to the graduating students, who charmed me with their shyness, giddiness, pride and astonishing footwear. Below is my convocation address.

Chancellor Chi, President Runte, graduates-to-be, ladies and gentlemen. Let me first thank the University and the Senate most gratefully for this honour, which was unexpected and totally gratifying. And let me extend my warmest congratulations to all of you who are about to graduate for all the good work you’ve done to get here. The stories of your lives are taking shape, each one unique.

Since I write stories, I like to think of each of you as the main character in the story of your lives. One thing I’ve learned about from writing and from life is uncertainty, about not knowing what comes next and how hard that can be. I also know that what makes a story and a life exciting, even bearable sometimes, are the things you cannot predict.

Here’s a story. In early May I went back to the town on Georgian Bay where I grew up to do a reading in the public library and also to learn more about a key figure in my childhood, my elementary school principal. He was an explosive bull of a man who waged a long reign of terror in that town, something tolerated and even encouraged by the attitudes of the day. Years later one of his former victims stood up publicly against him. That was the story I wanted to search out. But that isn’t the story I found.

First, I discovered that he was still alive, a gentle old man in his eighties.

Second, a boy I knew in those days, who suffered at his hands, spoke to me in his defence. Ross is now a man of sixty-two. He told me about his early years in school: how he didn’t really learn to read until he was in Grade 8, how as a result he spent a lot of time out in the hall, sent there by frustrated teachers, where he hid in the stairwell to avoid the terrifying principal. Years went by like this, and then he was in Grade 8 – “Remember,” he said, “I didn’t know how to read” – and Grade 8 was the grade the principal taught. There came the unforgettable day when the principal leaned over Ross and looked him straight in the eye and said, “Ross, are we going to panic or are we going to think?”

Until then Ross hadn’t known there were two options, or that the opposite of panic was not some unattainable calm, but thinking, which steadies the nerves and opens up worlds outside ourselves. The principal became his saviour, he told me.

Every life has lucky moments when you realize that the ditch you were in is part of a road. When what you knew, and were satisfied to know, becomes only one aspect of many.

Since that visit in May, I find myself frequently saying, “Lizzie, you can either panic or you can think,” and the words help me almost as much as they helped Ross. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to find help in such a roundabout way and from such an unlikely source as one of the prime terrors of your childhood. How often do we get advice from a bully about how to defeat him?

The thinking required isn’t rushed or on the spot. It’s a calm thinking-through to the end of a problem, and it’s both logical and intuitive. I remember the protracted, panic-stricken rewriting of my first novel. Over and over again my excellent editor would point out where I hadn’t thought through to the end some strand of character or emotion or action that I had set in motion. In rewriting a novel you’re trying to have the end complete the beginning. You don’t want the story to peter out, or lose its way in sensationalism or cliché, but touch upon a kind of truth that will leave the reader with many lingering thoughts. My editor was asking me not to panic, but to think.

Several years ago someone looked up from reading a story by the marvelous Alistair MacLeod and said to me, “Why do you even bother?”

It was an excellent and awful question. A fundamental question. Unanswerable, it seemed to me, except, perhaps, with a punch in the nose.

Like all excellent and awful questions, it never goes away. “Why do you even bother, when you’ll never be as good?” Faced with such a question, you can either panic or you can think. And under ‘panic’ I include everything from self-pity to infinite depression.

If we think about it, we know why we bother. We bother because working on something and making it better gives our lives meaning, makes us feel alive. Besides, a certain defiance is necessary if we’re to have productive lives. We can’t let other people tell us we don’t have what it takes.

So somebody in Iowa gets a better lab result. Somebody in Vancouver gets a better job. Somebody in Calgary gets a better scholarship. Somebody’s children one block over are more successful.

So what? If we think about it, we know that’s not the point. The point is to bring all of yourself to whatever truly interests you and then to surprise yourself with what you actually accomplish.

I said a few moments ago that thinking not only steadies the nerves, it opens up worlds outside ourselves. As a writer I work alone, but I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by books, I’m accompanied by the authors who wrote them. I’m surrounded by the place outside my windows, Ottawa, the Ottawa Valley, Ontario and restless Quebec, the world that extends north, east, west, south.

Creativity never comes from one person alone, no matter what the field, whether arts or science. It comes when you fully connect with your material, which has countless sources outside yourself, sources in the present and in the past that keep intersecting and opening up new worlds.

When I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I say, Just remember that being uncertain is part of the creative process, it’s natural and unavoidable.

I would also add, Don’t be too hard on yourself. Putting yourself down is another form of panicking instead of thinking. Life becomes very narrow when you’re hard on yourself. You become the only thing in your mind – when it’s openness to the world that will get you through.

The stories I like best are the ones where the author, without ever turning a blind eye, is kind to the characters and sees them not as open or shut cases, but in all their dimensions. I’ve been suggesting, on this day when we’re celebrating your hard-won achievements, that you are the authors of the stories of your lives. Be kind to yourselves. Panic will make you feel that you’re alone, and thinking will remind you that you have the whole world with you.

Let me only add that I wish all of you the very best. Congratulations, again, and thank you.