(Romance Language Undergraduates Anual Award Speech. May 7th , 2018).
Ladies and gentlemen, graduates, families, friends, faculty and members of the Boston College Community, I feel truly honored to be standing here today in front of such an exciting and excited audience in order to celebrate the Annual RLL Undergraduate Awards Ceremony with all of you and to honor the amazing achievements that this group of fine young people has just accomplished.
So, first of all, I would like to ask for a warm round of applause for all of those students who are here today receiving awards and for the rest of the students who have accomplished so much this semester.
Congratulations, kids, you made it!
Today, I am very happy for all of you, but I am also very grateful to have the opportunity to be heard as a member of the university’s faculty, as a member of the Hispanic Studies Department, and, perhaps most importantly, as a writer.
Standing here as a writer—as an author—makes me feel delighted and nervous, full of responsibility, but, above all I feel stoked because this is what I have always wanted to do: write. And now I would like to share some of my thoughts about how my teaching career has helped me with my writing, or, maybe, how my writing has helped the teaching.
I have been teaching in the Greater Boston Area and at Boston College for just 3 years now, but that has been more than enough time to allow me to become aware of just how much I have received in return from this university.
It is amazing to be associated with the academic world, and with the educational system as a whole, but it is even more remarkable and more interesting for me, to be in permanent contact with our younger generations and their energy each and every year. It is a blessing to have a fresh group of young adults renewed each year, a fresh set of ideas, a fresh new interpretation of the world.
Sometimes it can be difficult to understand them. For me, for instance, I don’t quite get SnapChat, or the increasing popularity of Reggaeton, or when all my students walk into my classroom in complete silence staring down at their phones until I say: Hola, Buenos días, ahora estamos aquí.
But now I know that you don’t necessarily have to understand. Understanding is mainly judging, and I believe that analyzing and trying to look at the world with different eyes other than the ones that you have in your head is a much better way to approach knowledge.
At this point I have to make a confession.
Teaching is my alibi.
I come to this university every day mainly to learn; teaching is just an excuse that I use.
Learning, knowing, observing is essential to the life of a writer and, I like to think, to the life of all human beings too; but sometimes we don’t ask ourselves enough questions.
Why learn, after all?
What is the reason for any of your interests? You might think about it while you check your phones…
Many of us, I’m sure would simply say: well, just because…
I’m sure you do have a lot of reasons for learning, though I wonder if you have ever thought deeply about those reasons. Either way, I would like to tell you about a realization that I had many years ago:
At the first novel workshop that I attended, I met somebody who I still don’t really understand. He paid a couple of hundred dollars to attend this small, nonacademic, but meaningful and powerful fiction workshop. Well, what the literary troll said was this:
“I really don’t think Ernest Hemingway ever attended any damn novel workshop.” I looked at the instructor and at the rest of my colleagues—the wannabe writers. It was more than obvious that none of us were Hemingway. None of us even vaguely resembled him. And I believe today that that was exactly why we were all there except for that novel workshop hater; because we didn´t want to be Ernest Hemingway.
Well, that is probably the reason why we all study: to learn, to acquire the knowledge that took somebody else a whole life of dedication to reach. The more you learn, the more you stare at the pictures on the covers of Hemingway´s books, the more you become aware of the fact that you are not Hemingway. So? There was only one Hemingway (and in the end he stared down the barrel of his gun and pulled his own trigger). I honestly do not believe that we need to follow his steps up to that point. Instead, let’s follow our own path.
Here comes another confession:
Don’t panic, but
I do not hold a PhD degree.
I don´t and I sleep at night fairly well, I promise.
I do not hold a PhD degree because I deliberately decided not do so 22 years ago and you know what? That is probably one of the reasons I was invited by the Romance Languages and Literatures Department to deliver this speech today as an accomplished adult who has found his way and his professional career as an author.
Well, I’m not here to encourage you to do something that I have not; there is a whole well structured and perfectly greased education system able to take care of that. What I would like to encourage you to do is to look inside yourself and listen to your inner voice—that voice that we have been training to keep silent for years.
What do you want to do?
And once you have THE answer,
What is the best way for you to get where you want to go?
Well, you don’t have to have your answer right now, but whenever that answer comes to you it should be honest and sincere.
Follow it, listen to what that voice tells you. If it’s honest, it will be right.
Why do I write? Why it is important to me? Why do I think that it is important to share this with you? Well, for one, I believe in art. Art is not just something beautiful to be admired. Art is not just something for a curator to hang on a wall; it’s not just work printed on a t-shirt at a gift shop. Art is politics. Life is politics, and no, I’m not talking about an institution or activism. I’m talking about your position in the world and how you relate to it. Do you say good morning when you pass by somebody on campus? Depends? On what? That´s a form of politics and art has a lot to do with that.
I write because I am in love with language, with communication, with discussion (not argument). I’m in love with being able to place myself in someone else’s thoughts. I do love to question things but I love being questioned even more. In order to do any of this you need to understand the power of words.
I’m in love with language: it´s flexible; it’s organic; alive and human. It creates the world as we know it. And, if it’s something you can create, then it’s something you can change.
Believe it or not, the world is built by our own words. We create the world by naming it. Naming things properly despite all the noise and all the entropy is one of the most elevated and challenging tasks I can think of right now for you.
That is why you are all so important for the world: because you have the opportunity to define it or redefine it—as academics, as part of those in charge of the world’s legacy—so please do it wisely. Use words with care, love and precision; don’t let the euphemisms of the world win the game.
You would be amazed by how many times the definition of a problem changes the problem itself. Actually, oftentimes there are not even problems as such; there are just solutions that we neglect for different reasons. Think about it…how many moments in life have we experienced that we originally considered to be epic fails without even realizing that they were going to lead us to a place of success, improvement or personal growth?
I’m aware of this not because I’m wiser than you, but because I’m older and have experienced this many times.
Talking about age, I would like to quote two major influences for me, and they both happen to be native English speakers—an Irishman and a Welshman:
Samuel Beckett, awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 said: “Ever tried, ever failed. Try again, fail again, and fail better.”
He also said: “Dance first, think later. It’s the natural order,” though I’ll let you think about that one on your own…
I would also like to quote Lemmy Kilminster, the bass player, singer and leader of Mötorhead, the iconic speed metal band. He continued touring up until a couple of years before his death at the age of 70 in 2015. He said: “If you think you are too old for rock and roll, you are too old for rock and roll.”
Both used a similar wisdom to teach me and encourage me to find my own way, to do what was meaningful for me. Forget about what you might think is the standard of happiness, of productivity, of success; be true to yourself. Or, at the very least, question yourself every once in a while.
Before I go I would like to add that
I have held almost every kind of job you could think of in order to support my writing career. I have been a flight attendant, a psychologist, a DJ, a surf instructor, a trashman, a filmmaker, and a roadie. I´ve done a lot of things. Sometimes, it seems like I´ve done almost everything because really I´ve always done one thing: commit myself to writing, to fail better and better every time.
In the pursuit that I’m still on, I have published in different countries, toured with my work, been awarded and rejected, have had both amazing and terrible critics, have felt motivated and desperate, and I still get very excited when words blossom for me.
Well, this pursuit is never going to have an end; this is what I am going to do forever, and having the opportunity to be associated with this institution has given me the chance to meet some incredible professionals and students (as well as lame ones, obviously, that’s just human nature and statistics). I have been fortunate to have access to plenty of amazing resources. Have you ever tried using Kanopy or asked for a book on loan from O’Neil?
Anyways, I think I have spoken way too much here today. I’ve hopefully made my point with words, sharing the importance that they have for me and the role that they play in shaping our world. So please, love them, take care of them, do something worthy with them.
Thank you all for your presence here today and let’s celebrate!