Graduation address, Arts Faculty
Charles Sturt University, 6 April 2005
Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning. Most of all, my warmest greetings to you, the graduates.
I’m thrilled to be here. If I were you, on the other hand, I would be thinking, Who is she and what’s she doing here?
I would be glancing sideways to my friends and whispering, I’ve never heard of her
, and noticing that my shoes aren’t very exciting and that I’m certainly not wearing any impressive headwear.
Now, I don’t blame you for this because when I was first asked to speak today,
I was as alarmed as you are. But once I stopped hyperventilating and started thinking, I came to believe that perhaps this was not such an odd choice after all. Not only because I’m one of you, a proud arts graduate, but because I happen to have for you a secret message from society that you need to hear.
More on that later. First, perhaps I should give you my ostensible credentials. (As you’ve heard) I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Charles Sturt University, in Bathurst, 1992. I studied journalism but crucially, I also studied literature and creative writing. And while I still work in journalism I define myself as a novelist — because it’s the thing that makes my life interesting, the pursuit that opened up the best part of myself and let it bloom. And it was during my arts degree that I began to discover this.
Sometimes, when I look back on my university days I wonder if I was a typical arts student. I didn’t feel I exactly fitted in, I was a little older than my peers, I wasn’t quite as right for the place as everyone else seemed to be.
Then I remember these things. I loved reading. I dressed badly. I was very often late, for everything. I was thrilled and disturbed by words on pages. I visited the shrine of St Vincent de Paul daily. I discovered music, politics, and notions about justice that I’d never known before. I drank passionately, and smoked furiously. I studied, with zeal, subjects I didn’t have to — drawing and painting, photography — just because I wanted to. I was broke, and I was dazzled — by art, by my beautiful, witty, wild friends. Dazzled by ideas, and the possibilities they held for me and for whom I might one day become.
And some time after I graduated I realised that slowly and profoundly, it was indeed during these university years that I had started to become my real self — a person brave enough to think critically, to speak my mind, to challenge opinions and actions and systems I believed to be wrong. Brave enough to engage with the world, to write a novel, to take up my role as a citizen and as a creator of my own meandering path in the world.
So today, standing here and looking down at your youthful, intelligent faces, I wonder about the selves you are becoming, and about the interesting — and sometimes difficult — paths you will create for yourselves after today.
It’s easy for the others, you see. You get a commerce degree, you sniff the air for money and follow your nose. You get a teaching degree, you find a school. This is simplistic, I know. But I hope you see my point — with nursing, or computing, or pharmacy — give or take a few sidesteps, it’s clear where these choices lead.
But we arts graduates, on the other hand, choose a different way to live. Often to the consternation of others, our roads are not mapped, and we have to chisel them out ourselves. But the uncertainty and the risk of this fact are also its beauty and its thrill.
My road began in journalism, and public relations. Then I took a left turn into the health sector. I saw a window and climbed through it into graphic design, then to public education campaigns, magazines, social justice, teaching, writing novels. Those tracks, in turn, allowed me to wander down lots of little tributary paths — to book publishing, travelling, the architecture of Gaudi, to arts festivals, to monasteries and war zones. And these travels were bound up with my journeys as a writer, around the terrain I want to keep exploring until I die — grief and epiphany, love and death — these things that scare us, and scar us, and make us human.
I was speaking to a writer friend the other day, about how, while various people we know are having mid-life crises, we are having quiet mid-life euphoria. And it seemed to us both that the mid-life crisis friends are those who chose the narrowest, most linear paths. Their successes, defined by other people, came early — and then left them empty. And my friend said that she and I, both arts graduates, were now living exhilarating lives that we never knew we would have, because we didn’t make the conventional choices. Because our horizons were broad and our futures unpredictable.
And looking around me now I wonder if you know just how cool, how sexy and powerful you are, you arts graduates (by the way if you ever need reminding of that fact, just remember this: Cate Blanchett has an arts degree; John Howard doesn’t.) But you are cool and powerful and dangerous because you are the thinkers, the challengers — the imaginers of society. You’re the ones who hold up the mirror; you reflect for us our history and show us our future.
Now, if you’ve noticed that challenging, questioning and imagining don’t seem exactly top of the pops in this country right now, I think you’re on to something. For it seems to me that things are going to be harder for you than they were for me when I left university.
Thirteen years ago Australia seemed a braver place, more generous — perhaps a warmer place for thinkers and creators. We didn’t fear terrorism. We didn’t have to pay through the nose for our education. Thirteen-year-old boys were not trying to hang themselves in our detention centres — and those who spoke up in dissent were not so easily dismissed with that newly pejorative term, ‘elite’.
Earlier I spoke of a message I had for you, and I hinted that I am an envoy from contemporary Australian society. We’re the society you don’t hear a lot about because we’re quiet, we’re a bit bookish. Often we don’t quite know what to make of things, and quite a bit of the time, we’re anxious.
But this is our message: We’ve been waiting for you. We welcome you — and now, more desperately than ever, we need you
. We need your compassion, your intellect. Your courage and empathy. We need your wit, your youth – your creativity, and your eye for beauty.
You may not know what you will be doing a year from now, or 10 years from now. But that’s okay: there are people and organisations out there who will help you and push you along — and they’re waiting to be pushed by you.
The painter George Braque said that the purpose of art is to disturb. I think perhaps this is the purpose of all the arts, the social sciences, the humanities.
So I’m here today to urge you, to ask you, to go forth and disturb — shake up our bigotry, our boredom and ignorance, destroy the ugliness around us. Show us who we are, and help us to become the society that, at our best, we can be.
I congratulate you all, and wish you the most brilliant of futures. Thank you.
© Charlotte Wood 2005