Based on her lauded commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, this stirring essay by bestselling author Ann Patchett offers hope and inspiration for anyone at a crossroads, whether graduating, changing careers, or transitioning from one life stage to another. With wit and candor, Patchett tells her own story of attending college, graduating, and struggling with the inevitable question, What now?
From student to line cook to teacher to waitress and eventually to award-winning author, Patchett's own life has taken many twists and turns that make her exploration genuine and resonant. As Patchett writes, "'What now?' represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life." She highlights the possibilities the unknown offers and reminds us that there is as much joy in the journey as there is in reaching the destination.
As Luck Would Have It: An Essay by Ann Patchett
Writing a book isn’t the kind of thing I do without knowing it. I’ve written five novels and a memoir. I’m working on another novel now. I’m closely acquainted with a process which consists of the search for a good idea followed by a lot of hard work. But the creation of What now? was more akin to finding a baby under a cabbage leaf than it was an act of labor and delivery. If someone hadn’t pointed it out to me, I feel certain I would have walked right by it.
What now? started out as the commencement address I gave at Sarah Lawrence College (my alma mater) in May of 2006. I make a lot of speeches and for the most part I talk off the cuff, a knack I picked up in high school as a forensics and debate champ. The only speeches I write in advance are the ones given for convocations and graduations because I’ve found that people like to keep a copy as part of the memorabilia of the day. I had originally composed a very dull and ponderous talk for the occasion because I wanted to sound smart (I was going back to college, after all) but as luck would have it, I ran into my friend and former writing teacher Allan Gurganus just before the big day. When I showed him the speech I planned to give, he sent me back to my desk to start over again.
Every sentence regarding this book could begin with the phrase, As luck would have it... If I hadn’t shown my speech to Allan, who hadn’t looked over my homework in more than twenty years, I would have been just another boring graduation speaker. But Allan set me on a new course, telling me to talk about myself, my work, and my own struggles, the exact topics I had wanted to avoid. I hope that I will never be too grown up or successful to disregard good advice when I hear it, and this was good advice. I went back to work. The new speech, delivered in a giant tent during a crashing thunderstorm, seemed to hit all the right notes. The graduates broke into cheering bedlam, my back was slapped many times, and I marked the day down as a good one. End of story.
Except, as luck would have it, copies of the speech started making the rounds, and it wound up in the hands of an editor who thought it would make a fine little book in the tradition of Anna Quindlen’s triumph, A Short Guide to a Happy Life. Once again, not my idea, but one worth listening to. The new format gave me the extra room that graduation speeches don’t allow (nobody likes a long-winded speaker) and Chip Kidd’s brilliant design gave additional resonance to my words. I looked at the end result with no small amount of wonder.
When the first copy came in the mail, I gave it to my 86 year old mother-in-law who was visiting from Mississippi. After she read it, she said she wanted copies for all of her friends. "We’re going through a real period of What now? ourselves," she told me. "At our age we’re all wondering what’s going to happen next. The question is always there. It’s just that sometimes you hear it a little louder."
"Wow," I said. "That’s really good. I wish we could have used that on the jacket."
It is my sincere hope that my mother-in-law is right, and this book will serve a purpose not just for graduation, but for life. Given its history, it seems that anything is possible.
Starred Review. Just in time, novelist Patchett's 2006 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College has been expanded, postscripted and published in a handsome small-format hardcover volume, cleverly designed by Chip Kidd and priced to sell-making it quite possibly the best graduation present on the market (at least until Bird by Bird gets the full gift-book treatment). Personal but direct, with a warm, searching voice, Patchett (Run, Bel Canto) looks at her own struggle with the perennial question "what now?" and finds some surprising moments of revelation: a conversation with an airport Hare Krishna, a job waiting tables at Fridays and, less surprising, the counsel of friends and teachers Allan Gurganus and Alice Ilchman (the late president of Sarah Lawrence). Wise, illuminating observations abound, putting Patchett's talent for cogent, colorful metaphor to brilliant use: "Receiving an education is a little bit like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it's in you but it takes a while to digest." Though Patchett's thesis boils down essentially to "one must never stop learning," every example she provides is fresh and worthwhile. A wise, generous and compact primer for life that could well become a touchstone, readers will return to this book, and probably find something new each time they do; deserves to be given often and enthusiastically.
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