Last month, I graduated from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts with my sparkly new MFA. My fellow grads were kind enough to elect me as their commencement speaker.
Among other things, I said this:
There are benefits to a writing career. Nicholas Taleb, in his book Antifragile, says that in most careers – teacher, banker, janitor – the unexpected is bad news. (He calls this the “turkey problem”: most turkeys are fed and cared for, day after day – it’s very predictable… until Thanksgiving, when those turkeys confront the unexpected.) Most professionals don’t like surprises, because the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is downsizing, budget cuts – sudden unemployment. And what’s the best surprise they can hope for? A Christmas bonus? A three-percent raise? Teachers, bankers, and janitors crave the status quo.
Writers love surprises. We struggle to escape the status quo, because in our business, that’s called “breaking out.” For us, the unexpected is good news. We don’t get downsized. For us, the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is sudden best-sellerdom.
Plenty of turkeys are optimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future. Plenty of writers are pessimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future.
A lot of people seem to have enjoyed the rest of the speech as well. And trust me — the line about lentils was really, really funny.