July 9, 2015

The Alarm Clock: Notes for the University of Texas at Austin Department of English Commencement Address – 5/22/15

by

Rules for Werewolves 300dpiKirk Lynn’s debut novel Rules for Werewolves, which we’re publishing in October, opens with tension and confusion. The title of the first chapter—“Susan tells Bobert how to become a part of the pack”—has bluntly communicated the facts at play, but we don’t know where these people are, or how they got there, or why Bobert is upset, or if Susan is earnest in her desire to help Bobert, or (most crucially) what it is these people are trying to say to each other. Which is interesting, because the first chapter (and most of the novel’s chapters) is (are) told entirely in dialogue: in many cases, the only thing we know about these people is what these people are trying to say.

One of the many things I find remarkable about Rules for Werewolves is the ease with which Lynn conveys the reader from pure confusion to pure consciousness. The book’s form is unconventional. But its rewards are deep and almost old-fashioned: the plot is tight and gripping; the characters are complicated and irresistible, even at their worst; the dialogue is sharp and funny. In other words, Lynn succeeds at locating an immense amount of range and humor and depth in a form that could, in someone else’s hands, prove austere or forbidding.

And he seems to be able to do this with any form. Take the college commencement address. Is there a genre more susceptible to vagueness, to unearned inspiration, to well-meaning meaninglessness? There isn’t. And yet at this year’s commencement at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of English, delivered on May 22, 2015, Lynn found grace and weirdness in a form that tends to offer neither. He told the graduates and their families a story about an alarm clock, and to reveal any more would be to deprive you of the speech’s many delights.

These are notes for the commencement address, rather than the address itself, but for those—like me—who weren’t able to attend, the distinction is largely meaningless. Kirk was kind enough to share these notes with us, and I hope you find them as surprising and moving and, yes, inspiring as I have. And you can read more about Rules for Werewolves here, which you should, because we’ll have a lot to say about it in the coming months.

***

My First Alarm Clock

One of the reasons I was asked to speak today is because when I was a kid I invented my own alarm clock.

I was never any good at waking up, in part because I was never any good at going to sleep.

There are so many great books and movies, so many great albums, and you don’t know which ones they are unless you try them all.

So when I was a kid I would stay up all night watching TV and reading books and listening to CDs, sometimes all at the same time, and sleep would have to sneak up on me and catch me when I wasn’t looking.

When my alarm went off in the morning I would snooze it, or pull the plug, or sleep through it and then my mom would have to come in and try to do the work of waking me in person.

And I was very mean in the morning because I was tired. I would yell at my mother and curse and be like a little demon torturing her for loving me.

My mom would end up screaming and crying, and then my dad and my brother and sister would get involved, and our whole house would turn into a kind of life-sized alarm clock waking up the whole neighborhood because I couldn’t get myself out of bed.

And then I would be in trouble. I would get grounded for the rest of the week for something I did in the first thirty seconds of day.

Something had to change. I had to make a new kind of alarm clock, a specific alarm clock for the kind of sleeper I was.

My solution was simple. I can tell you in one word: Legos.

Honor and Celebration

Before I tell you the way in which I employed Legos to wake myself up, there’s another little alarm going off in my head right now. Namely that I should talk to you about you and acknowledge your graduation and not just tell you stories about my mixed-up childhood.

The main reason I’m here is to honor and celebrate what you’ve achieved. And I want to do it fully and sincerely.

There’s really no end to the types of success that are represented here. Not only did some of you achieve academic honors, which will be specifically celebrated a little later by others—some of you achieved successes it’s harder to name.

I believe all of you had to change your lives in some fundamental way to get here.

Some of you were like me and it wasn’t easy for you to get up and get to class early.

Some of you, like my own father, probably struggled with reading and writing. My father is a barber in San Antonio. He’s the smartest man I know, but he grew up in an era when people knew almost nothing about dyslexia and learning disorders. So his successes, which are many, were hard earned. And I bet there are some graduates here who share in some measure of my father’s pride and willpower.

For some of you English isn’t even your first language. Even listening to this little speech takes perhaps a bit more work for some of you than for others.

Some of you experienced emotional losses while at school—lost family members or worked through difficult relationships.

And I’m sure plenty of us deal with anxiety and depression and dependence and on and on.

I believe all of you had to change your lives in some fundamental way to get here.

So when we look down the rows of you graduates, the actual human accomplishment is probably more amazing than we can account for.

And no matter whether you view your own obstacles and roadblocks as big or small, they’re not without value.

The People Who Are Not Here

As proof that your diploma isn’t free I would ask you to take a moment to think of all the people who are not here.

I want to spend a moment thinking about the people who are not graduating today, people who dropped out, got kicked out, couldn’t afford it—people who started when you did and did not make it here, now.

It’s my hope that those who could have been here and are not have chosen to do so of their own free will, that it’s not due to the fact that they needed better professors and better friends surrounding them, people who were better at imagining the obstacles they were trying to overcome and better at helping them out.

It’s my hope that the majority of those who could have been here but are not will either come back and finish in their own time, or remarkably, in my opinion, not need a university education to make their impact on the world.

I sure needed mine. I owe such a debt of gratitude to this University and the teachers who helped me become myself. There are so many friends and mentors on this stage with me, so it’s a real honor. There have been so many teachers helped make me who I am.

I remember especially fondly my own mother, who was a teacher and taught me to read and love books. I remember my high school English teacher, Ms. Julia Bathke, who told me I could be a writer and gave me a little journal that said, “Kirk Lynn, writer.” And from this very department I remember Dr. Neil Nehring, Doc Ayres, and Dr. Frank Whigham, all so brilliant and cantankerous—all of them both challenged and supported me at the same time.

So it’s in that spirit of offering challenge and support in the same gesture that I want to celebrate your success today by naming some of the attributes that got you here—attributes which I hope can also remind us all to be better teachers and better friends to those who are not here or who may need even more help to make it to the next level.

I want to celebrate your consciousness, your articulation and your discipline.

Consciousness

I started by talking about building an alarm clock with Legos when I was little, so you know consciousness is an important theme to me.

I spend a lot of my time thinking. I teach, which in theory requires some focus on consciousness. I run a lot, and there’s not much for your brain to do when you run but to think about any old thing it wants to. And as a writer I spend a lot of my time arranging words to create the imaginary consciousness of my characters.

I think of myself as someone who knows something about consciousness.

A few years ago I met Peg Syverson, who runs a community of zen practice and inquiry called Appamada just up the street. Until recently she taught Non-Argumentative Rhetoric at this university and ran the Writing Center for a while. But now she’s a full time zen teacher.

When I met Peg, she said this great thing about her Appamada and the meditation practice that goes on there: “If you like, you can just use it like a bar, but instead of stopping by to get a drink you can use it to stop by and thirty minutes of silence.”

I have two kids. I have a wife. I have a theatre company. I work with a bunch of other theater companies. I have all these students. I’m starting to talk to people in the film and television industry. I thought, “Man oh man, do I need thirty minutes of silence every once in a while!”

So I went to Appamada to learn to meditate.

The very first realization I had meditating (and maybe the only realization I’ll ever have) came after I sat down and arranged myself and started focusing on my breath: I realized that all the noise and the busyness in my life isn’t from out there. It all comes from inside me. My brain is noisy.

Universities are great at offering you new things to think about—introductions to the grand traditions, rare texts, radical arguments, and all-new experiences to develop your consciousness. I celebrate what you’ve done so far in those veins. Not only do you likely think different things than you did when you started college, but the way you process your thoughts has probably changed, too.

Now that college is going away for most of you, I invite you to apply your consciousness to your consciousness. Make it a part of your life’s plan.

Set goals for how much you time you want to spend thinking. It doesn’t matter how you do it: make time to pray, be in nature, watch movies, simply make time for reading and writing. Every other aspect of your life will benefit if you think about how you think and give your consciousness the same sort of attention you might give your body, or your career, or your hobbies, or your best friends.

Now I want to move from thinking about consciousness to speaking about articulation.

Articulation

I have an almost-five-year-old daughter and an almost-two-year-old son. And I don’t want to jinx it, but my wife and I feel like we’re just on the other side of our years of sleeplessness. Most nights we all go to bed, one at a time, and then don’t see each other until morning. However, the other night my daughter got up out of bed in the middle of the early part of the night and came into our bedroom terrified.

She said, “Daddy, I have a thought I can’t stop thinking.”

And I was cool. There are so few moments when I feel like I get the parenting right on the first at-bat, but I was cool. I said, “It’s no big deal. It happens to everyone. Eventually you’ll stop thinking the same thought over and over and think something else. Do you wanna tell me what it is?”

“No,” she said.

“All right,” I said, coolly, “It’ll go away on its own, so it’s no big deal. If you do wanna describe it to me later, just let me know. I’ll put you back to bed in a little while. But first I’ll sit with you for a while and we can talk.”

She did eventually tell me. She’d seen a cartoon where a whale swallowed a girl. So we talked about cartoons and images. We talked about thoughts and dreams we’d each had, and we talked about how they had all passed from our thoughts. And when the time was right I put my daughter back in bed and left the room.

And as soon as I got back in my own bedroom with my wife, I freaked out. You know, “Oh my God, my daughter’s not even five and she’s having obsessive thoughts.” And I googled around a little bit about Childhood Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. My wife started googling around. And we read bits of the internet to one another, stories about OCD, and I put my daughter’s face on each one, and I was so upset. I tried to explain to my wife how worried I was, over and over again; I felt like my wife didn’t understand my anxiety, so I kept re-explaining it. Finally, my wife pointed out that our daughter was asleep; she hadn’t gotten back out of bed, but I was the one obsessing over this incident.

Again, college is great place to learn articulation. Articulation, even more than consciousness, is perhaps the central event of college: learning through near infinite forms how to articulate your thoughts and feelings to professors and colleagues.

By trying to speak my feelings to my wife I pinpointed an anxiety, and because my wife spoke back to me, I became conscious that this articulation belonged to me and not my daughter.

My life is blessed in so many ways in the arena of articulation: a theatre company, good colleagues, good students, my kids, and now, with my first novel coming out I’ll have readers. That’s a lot of people with whom to talk.

So I want to point to and celebrate the friendships you have here—the community, the mentorship. And I want to encourage you to find ways to hold onto these people with whom you practice the articulation of your experience in the world. And I want to encourage you to reach out to others as you go forward. Replace this part of college that’s going to go away. Replace it with communities in other locations—in the workplace, at home, at church, with groups of friends who all like scary movies and sushi. Any group you feel comfortable speaking to will do.

Here’s the key: the best way to actively start a practice of articulation with a new person or a new group is to listen.

Listening takes discipline, and that’s the last skill of yours I wanna celebrate today.

Discipline

The alarm clock I made when I was a kid wasn’t actually made of Legos. It was, in fact, designed to dump my Lego collection on my head. The thinking being that if the Legos didn’t wake me up when they fell on me, then they would poke me awake as I rolled around in my slumber because Legos are hard and small and sharp.

I got a giant cardboard box and filled it with Legos and I suspended it at an angle over my bed. I made a little doorway in the box and with a spool of red thread (I still remember), I tied this doorway in the cardboard box of Legos to the knob of a wind-up alarm clock. When the alarm clock went off and the spring that rang the bell turned the knob, it would reel in the thread and pull open the door to the cardboard box of Legos above my bed.

On the first day I tried it, it didn’t work because the door was shut too tight and I hadn’t anchored the clock, so the clock just pulled itself closer to the Legos.

On the second day it didn’t work because the thread was too thin and it just snapped.

On the third day it didn’t work because it turns out Legos don’t really tumble. The same thing that makes them pokey keeps them from rolling. They’re rectilinear. So when they’ve had three days to settle in a box, when the door opens, the Legos just sit there.

And I grasped these failures all too well because I was so excited to see my clock in action that I was waking up before the alarm ever went off so I could watch.

That’s what discipline is to me. Not forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. But manipulating what you have to do, over and over again, until it’s something you long to do.

So my alarm clock has become my plays, and my novels, and the last couple of weeks this commencement address, and in general my writing, and more recently my children, and always my wife and drinking coffee and talking with her, which I do almost every morning. I wake up at five and type and type until I hear my daughter’s feet pounding down the hallway, and then she and I start making so much noise that everyone else has to get up and come play with us.

Most of us don’t need a clock that will force us awake—we need a discipline that makes us want to wake up in our lives.

A Simple Closing Prayer

So I want to close with a little performance, because I’m an artist after all. I’ve been experimenting for a while now with little call and response events. You can think of it as a two-character conversation if you like, just me and all of you. And this one is composed as a celebration of your consciousness, and your articulation, and your discipline.

Repeat after me:

Thank you.

. . .

I’m sorry.

. . .

Please.

. . .

I don’t know.

. . .

Congratulations.

. . .

My greatest current sin

. . .

is knowing what to say

. . .

but saying nothing.

. . .

Because it’s easier.

. . .

to make the mistake

. . .

of thinking it’s easier

. . .

to speak up another time.

. . .

Knowing what to say

. . .

is consciousness.

. . .

Saying it

. . .

is articulation.

. . .

And wanting to say it

. . .

no matter how hard it is

. . .

is discipline.

. . .

So help me speak to you

. . .

by speaking to me

. . .

with those simple phrases

. . .

we all know:

. . .

Thank you.

. . .

I’m sorry.

. . .

Please.

. . .

I don’t know.

. . .

Congratulations.

. . .

Amen.

. . .

 

Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.

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