Brain Pickings

What Now? Advice on Writing and Life from Ann Patchett

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“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”

In 2006, writer Ann Patchett gave the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. The speech, a worthy addition to history’s most memorable graduation addresses, spurred such wide resonance that it was soon adapted into a small and lovely hardcover book titled What Now? (public library) and designed by none other than the great Chip Kidd — a fate not entirely uncommon, also shared by David Foster Wallace’s celebrated This Is Water commencement-address-turned-book.

Patchett opens:

If all fairy tales begin ‘Once upon a time,’ then all graduation speeches begin ‘When I was sitting where you are now.’ We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.

Having once sat in those very chairs herself, Patchett offers a poetic, bittersweet meditation on the elasticity of time:

Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.

Echoing Steve Jobs, who in his own fantastic commencement address famously cautioned that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Patchett urges these new graduates to be sure to return at some point — this, she argues, would let them reflect on the series of small choices which, as William James put it a century ago, “[spin] our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” Patchet writes:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?

Borrowing in part from great scientists and in part from great poets, Patchett advocates for embracing uncertainty as a positive force:

Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.

Patchett goes on to offer a treasure trove of insight on the craft of writing, from honing your daily routine to dealing with rejection. Complement What Now? with more fantastic advice for graduates — or for anyone turning a new leaf of any variety — from Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Novogratz.

Photograph courtesy Ann Patchett

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