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Be Your Own Author
Congratulations to today’s graduates and your families. This is an exciting time in your lives and I am very honored to be here with all of you to celebrate your accomplishments. I would like to thank SUNY New Paltz and President Christian for selecting me for this special recognition.
Twenty-eight years ago, when most of you weren’t even a thought yet and students here took part in nickel beer nights in town, and before the internet, cell phones, laptops, Wi-Fi and apps, I sat exactly where you are sitting today. And like you, I did not know where I would end up and certainly never expected to become an author.
In fact, I thought that I just became an “author” after publishing my first book three years ago. I was wrong. Very wrong. I was an author all along, the author of my own story. I just didn’t know it until recently. And you, 2016 New Paltz graduates, are the author of yours. Although our stories may be different, we all share a similar backdrop. This includes the Sojourner Truth Library, this beautiful campus, the Sky Top at Mohonk and the Walkill River, and we share a similar storyline – that is we all received our college degree at SUNY New Paltz.
At birth, we each get handed draft manuscripts of our life where sometimes our characters are already pre-defined. The original drafter of the manuscript, which includes the society we live in, will write about what we
should be now in order to evolve into the characters they want us to be. They’ll write about where we will learn, who we will play with and how we will play with them, what we will do and who we will love.
Since the day I was born, I had many in my life who tried to write a very different story for me. For example, they did not define me as being a college graduate. They defined my adult character to be a drug and alcohol addicted homeless mother who had spent time in jail. Why? Because that is who my mother was. They even tried to write a very different story for me after college graduation. In fact, during my all-out post-college job search, every single headhunter I met advised me that the only job I was qualified for was as a secretary – so I started to believe them and went on interview after interview to be someone’s secretary. But all those headhunters were wrong. I wasn’t even qualified to be a secretary. Why? Because, I couldn’t type! No one hired me. So after a few months I just stopped going on their interviews. Now the job of secretary is honest work, but it was not the storyline I wanted, it was the storyline they wanted.
You can either play that character that someone else writes for you or throw the narrative away and write your own story. But you may not throw it away completely, especially if you were written as the protagonist, the person who struggles, cries, feels pain, overcomes, and perseveres and that everyone cheers for. Those parts of the script you need to keep, because it is from the barriers you face and how you break through them that you will truly define the character that you really want to be.
So what you have achieved by standing here today is something that others wanted for you. Right? Somewhat. But you also wanted this day in New Paltz, this degree for yourself. You knew that you needed a college education otherwise your memoir could turn out to be a series of fragmented vignettes with no smooth transitions.
You not only realized you needed an education but you needed it from one of the best public universities in the United States. You knew that with a degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz you would have a better chance of writing the story of your life that you actually want to get published, that you want people to be inspired by and that you want them to tell others about.
Your first chapters are already written. You are now equipped to move forward to write the next one where you will tell your readers that with a New Paltz degree, you are no longer a bystander, but are actually on the playing field – with others, many, many others.
Everything you do going forward will be with others. It is others who will contribute to your chapters by offering you opportunities and options, it is others who will encourage and challenge you and will be your teammates on the field. So remember, it takes more than you to write your story. How you work and play with others, and more importantly how you treat them,
really matters. Your life is not a one man or one woman act. It includes your families, friends, colleagues, mentors and professors. It is vital to your inner soul that they are still standing alongside you when you write your epilogue. Because who really wants to read a book, where the lead character is greedy, sinister, selfish or vindictive- without wanting that character to get what is due them at the end. Figure out what you want your memoir to read like, and begin writing your next chapter with the help of others.
Most importantly, remember life is a journey, an amazing, painful, uplifting, debilitating and inspiring journey. Because no story is worth reading without the protagonist being challenged, how will you challenge yourself?
Now, go on and be your own author, but don’t write the ending now, because the characters and plots will keep changing. So enjoy the drafting stage, it is truly the best part.