World renowned writing coach and scholar Roy Peter Clark has written a lot about cliches — how to avoid them, and how to give them a surprising twist. In his own work, he specializes on the latter, drawing on pop culture, music and literature in ways that make his lessons familiar and, at the same time, fresh. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard him teach the power of word and clause placement by using a single line from Hamlet: “The Queen, my Lord, is dead.” Each time, I am both entertained and enlightened.
I hope that’s how seniors at Providence College feel when they read Clark’s letter to them, written as a virtual commencement speech. I hope they find it both hopeful and memorable. Then I hope it gets shared with any young person who is frustrated by the cancellation of graduation ceremonies, and frightened about their future under the pall of coronavirus.
Speeches of any kind are a slightly different art form than writing for print. Commencement speeches are probably a niche within that niche — written for the spoken word, and directed at a specific audience with a specific message.
There have of course, in the sea of unmemorables, a few kickass speeches. They range from the profound to the irreverent, depending on the speaker (or writer) and the context of the times. Within our community, they often come from fellow journalists. Just Google one of your favorite writer/columnist’s name with “commencement speech” and see what pops up. (I would have linked to the famous dust-up over the “sunscreen speech,” by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, but the Trib has a tall paywall. And as much fun are reading about the Kurt Vonnegut connection, or listening to the YouTube videos it inspired.) Send in your favorites. They might make a great Storyboard study.
Writing for the outer (and inner) ear
For now, let’s take a look at Roy Peter Clark’s letter to seniors at Providence College, and what it demonstrates about skilled writing.
- He speaks directly to his audience in a way that’s intimate, yet not exclusive. He starts his essay as a letter: “To my PC brothers and sisters.” He carries that tone throughout, allowing each reader to feel that he is writing directly to them. (Journalists write for wide and often unknown audience. But each reader comes to those stories alone. The more it feels like a story is written or told directly to them, the more effective it is.)
- He draws on a shared connection to relate to that audience. Clark graduated from Providence, a Catholic liberal arts college in Rhode Island, in 1970; he was given an honorary doctorate from the college in 2017. As an alum writing to soon-to-be alums, he allows himself a bit of insider references. He mentions the outgoing college president, and the Grotto on campus. As a fellow Catholic, he references St. Jude, “patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.” He then opens the piece up a bit to stories from the college’s history, which they now will become part of.
- He immediately puts the piece in the context of the times. His short opening paragraph doesn’t dance around reality: this generation is graduating into “a global pandemic and a world-wide economic recession.”
- He makes deft use of numbers in a way that, rather than separate the himself and the 2020 graduates by 50 years, connects them. Consider this litany from his written speech:
- • We both benefited from cool class numbers. The number 1970 is cool, but can there be a better class number than 2020? My ophthalmologist thinks not.
- • Our president back then left office in disgrace. Yours was impeached.
- • We both attended college during periods of political polarization, social unrest, and struggles for racial justice and gender equality.
- • The graduates of both classes faced existential crises: war and pandemic.
- • We never got to finish what we started — and neither have you, yet.
- He writes with a voice that is quintessential Roy Peter Clark. This is no templated version of a Serious Graduation Speech. It is serious in its message but often playful in tone — something Clark often does to engage readers with information they might otherwise avoid. (He used that technique to great effect when he wrote about his first colonoscopy. I couldn’t find a copy in a quick Google search, but I’ll be Roy will send it to me, and then I’ll include it here.) Because it is meant to be heard as it is read, it is conversational throughout: mostly short sentences, some sentence fragments, repetition of words and phrases in ways that give the piece rhythm — which is key to the art of speech writing. His paragraphs are short. That’s something essential in writing for speech because the reader needs to know when to pause. But if you think about writing that will be read on digital screens, especially cell phones, the same wisdom applies. Also, brain science says people hear in their minds when they read. If you read anything you write out aloud, you will hear the stumbles and the possibilities.
- He breezes through a few quick cliches as a way to keep the piece grounded in conversational intimacy: flip your tassels; Father Shanley’s last rodeo; a Before and an After. As an editor, I would have challenged “last rodeo” if this piece was written primarily for print. But spoken writing is more forgiving of a fleeting cliche if it that cliche is appropriate in tone and context. And that last phrase — a Before and an After — is especially interesting to consider in the context of a religious university.
- He draws on the past to put the present in perspective. This may be the greatest strength of Clark’s quite-short piece. (973 words. Clark has often said his sweet spot as a writer is between 800 and 1,000 words.) He calls on his audience to remember other cataclysmic times: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II. Then he moves to the times his generation lived through — Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon — with a special focus on how those events affected college students. But he soon brings things back to his audience and the now as he climbs to the top of the ladder of abstraction — the big universals like fear, loss and betrayal, along with hope, courage and community.
- He tells stories throughout his piece to build to his ending and overall message: We are living through a great story.
A letter to college seniors
For your convenience and enjoyment, we’re posting the entire non-speech here, with permission.
To my PC brothers and sisters, Class of 2020:
Cheers on your four years of hard work — and lots of playtime, I hope. Cheers on your upcoming graduation. I have no doubt that our alma mater has prepared you perfectly to face a global pandemic and a world-wide economic recession.
Even worse than debt and unemployment, they want to close the bars and coffee shops. How could they?
Let’s get to the important, emotional questions. What about Commencement Exercises? What about that glorious ritual of walking across the stage, your three relatives cheering from the balcony of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center?
This was to be Father Shanley’s last rodeo as president of the college. I wondered if he would have shaken every hand as usual? And then wiped his own each time with hand sanitizer? Instead of academic gowns, everyone could have worn a hazmat suit.
Let me express some solidarity with your disappointment. Your ceremony was postponed and now so is mine: the 50th reunion of the Class of 1970.
I am praying to St. Jude, patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, that you get a chance — at some point in time — to flip your tassels and hug your classmates goodbye.
Our prayers need to extend across the globe to the millions affected by the pandemic. It feels, more than ever, that humankind is a mystical body in which all of us are connected.
This disruption may feel unprecedented. But I want to share with you a little history to provide a dose of consolation.
Providence College was founded in 1917, but did not open until 1919. Why? Because of two fairly significant events: The Great War (what we have come to call World War I) and a global pandemic that has come to be known as The Spanish Flu. That virus infected a third of the world’s population, killing as many as 50 million people, including almost 700,000 Americans.
But that crisis passed, and the College opened and grew until a collision with two other fairly significant events. We call them The Great Depression and World War II. Imagine the education PC students got when they went off to war, invaded Europe, and liberated concentration camps. I just learned that 37 members of a group of PC students known as “The Lost Class of 1944” were killed in action.
Compared to those cataclysmic world events, maybe my class — the Class of 1970 — had it easy. Except for this: During our four years, thousands were killed in the Vietnam War, we were subject to the military draft lottery, and we became involved in social and political upheavals the likes of which we had never seen before.
Back in our day, graduation ceremonies took place in June. On May 4, 1970, four unarmed college students were shot and killed at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard. We wondered whether our government had declared war on students.
Fifty years ago, students went on strike. Fearing violence, many colleges closed their doors early and sent students home. PC did the same.
The Class of 1970 made a kind of history: We were the first full PC class to never have completed our final year.
About six weeks went by, and seniors were able to return to the college and convene in the outdoor setting of the Grotto for our graduation ceremonies. I got to deliver the “class oration” on how to imagine a peaceful world at a time of war.
So here we are again, and how alike we seem, the classes of 1970 and 2020.
• We both benefited from cool class numbers. The number 1970 is cool, but can there be a better class number than 2020? My ophthalmologist thinks not.
• Our president back then left office in disgrace. Yours was impeached.
• We both attended college during periods of political polarization, social unrest, and struggles for racial justice and gender equality.
• The graduates of both classes faced existential crises: war and pandemic.
• We never got to finish what we started — and neither have you, yet.
• Oh, and we had the Beatles and you … well, sing it with me: “All You Need Is Love.”
Here is the good news, and there is a lot of it:
• You WILL see your classmates again. I promise. For 50 years I have been in close touch with my three roommates. They are like family. I love them as brothers.
• While we mourn and pray for those families most affected by the pandemic, there is no capstone course you could have taken that will be more valuable to you than this experience. The lessons of fear, loss, tragedy, betrayal, intolerance — but also courage, hope, community, science, and culture: these are learned abstractly in our studies of the humanities but are now made manifest in real time in your final days of college.
• We were never sure when the Vietnam War would end, but it did end. We are not sure when the pandemic will resolve itself, but it will. There will come to be a Before and an After. We will come to savor the simple pleasures of life: that party on St. Patrick’s Day, that family reunion, a baby’s first step, that iced vanilla latte.
Finally, I believe that “God writes straight with crooked lines,” that what appears catastrophic will be redeemed in ways we cannot imagine.
You think this pandemic has ruined the celebration that you have earned and deserved. In the long run, you may change your mind. It may have given you a special legacy and one of the greatest gifts of all: A great story.
Think of the story you will tell in the days and years ahead. To your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Back in 2020, you will say with your perfect 2020 hindsight, we made history.
Roy Peter Clark ’70 & ’17Hon. is the retired senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla. He graduated as his class salutatorian and earned a Ph.D. in English from Stony Brook University in 1974. He did NOT attend that graduation ceremony. “It was too hot,” he said.