Commencement 2021 Keynote Address: Ayad Akhtar
BY Ayad Akhtar, April 30, 2021
I’m so honored to have been asked to address you all on this special day, and to offer a few thoughts on the occasion of this culmination, of your work and dedication, this end of sorts that’s actually really just a beginning. Let me start with hearty congratulations to each and every one of you, to your families, and to the faculty who have read your stories and plays, helped you shape your shot lists, critiqued your performances and paintings, and just generally shared their wisdom about the practice of making work. I know there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of the teachers who’ve shaped me.
Getting to the end of something this significant is no easy feat in any year, but especially so for this past one. The pandemic has tested everyone, of course, but I can only imagine the particular challenges faced by you all as you’ve endeavored to complete your course work, your creative capstones — and struggled all the while to maintain a sense of community — for of course, community is such an important part of any creative practice. But I can imagine that this difficult year has also summoned your tenacity, rewarded your discipline, required of you endurance and uncommon amounts of patience, has enforced solitude, and ultimately demanded that you surmount an almost constant disappointment. In short, let me suggest, that the pandemic has provided you an opportunity to begin practicing many of the core competencies required to make a life in the arts in this country.
Almost twenty years ago this month, I, too was in a graduating class at the School of the Arts, excited to be moving on into the world, so to speak, but terrified as well about the uncertainty ahead, listening with only half an ear to a commencement speech I expected would be full of congratulations and encouragement, and which would exhort me to stay true to the ideals that ignited my passion to be an artist, and which, all the while, I knew would hint at the difficulties ahead. Such are the requirements of the commencement address, and for good reason, the exhortations, the encouragement and the warnings are all necessary. And yet, nothing anyone said that day could possibly have prepared me for the road ahead. But then again, how could it?
In thinking about what I could possibly say today, I kept coming back to thoughts best expressed through the personal lens of my own experience. A few notes from the field, if you will. In particular, I’d like to take some time to talk about what’s been a defining struggle for me. Both in terms of it’s difficulty, but also, in what’s given me and how it’s shaped my work. The defining struggle I’m talking about is about finding my way through the marketplace.
Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad once wrote: The artist appeals to that part of our being…which is a gift and not an acquisition — and therefore more permanently enduring.
Conrad puts the familiar polarity well. On the one hand, the implication that there is an inner life to art. And that, fundamentally, what is important to us about art is not a thing we can have, but rather, something bestowed. And which moves us or revives us or enlightens us or encourages us, not because of the price we’ve paid for it, but because of something unquantifiable and immaterial about the experience that it offers. Something spiritual, if you will.
To this inner dimension, Conrad opposes the implication of there being an outer life to art, a work to be hailed, possession to be coveted, an acquisition to be made made, however subtle. The commodity, or the product, the marketed thing whose value, ultimately, is defined by its price.
Of course we all know both are part of an artist’s life. Without the product you can’t make a living. Without the spirit of the gift, you can’t make art.
How to be in the world, but not of it. How to speak to one’s time, and beyond it as well. How to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. It’s a tension as old society itself, and certainly not limited to the life of an artist. But the havoc this tension can wreak in an artist’s life is considerable.
When I was fifteen, I had a high school teacher who changed my life. Her name was Diane Doerfler and she taught a course in World Literature that had a reputation for changing people’s lives. In the course of two semesters, we covered Chaucer to Proust, and I was never the same again. And it wasn’t just the printed page. She introduced us to Francis Bacon and Arianne Mnouchkine, Anna Magnani and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. When she taught she summoned a kind of attention, provoked a kind of awareness I’d never experienced in another class. It filled me with a sense of purpose and meaning which was also a first for me. She was truly a remarkable person, who emanated an effortless brilliance and knowing warmth, a presence that could only but make you wonder where it came from. And on class after class, the message was it came from a life lived in the presence of ART. Days and years spent in inquiry, in the pursuit of the essential and enduring, in a steady commitment to revealing the real.
It was in Ms. Doerfler’s class that I fell in love with literature; and it was in her office that I decided one day I was going to become a writer. She warned me. It wasn’t going to be easy.
There was another consequence of those class hours spent experiencing Ms. Doerfler’s intoxicating and clarifying passion. It was the desire to write the kinds of books and plays she loved so much. And that she was teaching us to love. The novels of Camus and Kafka, the plays of Beckett and Caryl Churchill, the films of the French New Wave. Works that, to recall Conrad’s quote, appealed to a part of me seeking something more substantial than mere acquisition. Indeed, for almost a decade and a half that followed, and through much of my time at the School of the Arts, I couldn’t seem to square the kind of work that Ms. Doerfler had used to open up the world for me, to square that kind of rich, complex work with the demands of a marketplace that treated stories like commodities merely to be bought and sold. Indeed, it was in a business of film class with Columbia’s own Ira Deutchman that I understood something essential about the film industry. Most of the films getting made were the ones marketing departments understood how to sell before they’d even been written.
And so I began my career in the real world as an artist, armed with little more than my MFA and my passion for the work that inspired me. But also, with a dawning awareness that the gap between my passions and the marketplace’s demands was going to be a painful and running theme in the years ahead.
It was rough going for awhile. I attempted to ply my new trade and at the same time, hide my contempt for the marketplace where I was seeking my living. Not a very promising combination. And t wasn’t until I found myself in the daily company of a group of more experienced artists managing this difficult tension differently than I was, that I started to understand something important about myself: I knew the kind of work I loved; but I didn’t yet know what kind of work I could make.
It was on a screenwriting job that I had a pivotal realization. I’d done a few drafts, and I kept getting a note from the producers about a pivotal part of the story. I felt I was being browbeaten into addressing an idea they had which I thought was silly — beneath me, and beneath the audience. But their threat to fire from the job, depriving me of a very needed paycheck, led me finally to give it a shot. Somehow to try to make the producer’s note make sense to me inside this story. You can imagine my surprise when I emerged on the other side of this struggle with something that sure seemed like the best writing I’d done to that point. The producers reaction was no less enthusiastic. I had to admit to myself, I’d never written anything that had felt that immediately engaging - to others. That was the day I started — just started — to understand that the marketplace might only be an enemy to the extent I refused to engage with it.
The years that followed were littered with unproduced screenplays, abandoned stories, rejected novels, unfinished plays. Each was a tale of a particular failure to navigate some animating idea or personal passion with what, for lack of a better word, I’m calling the marketplace. But what I discovered in failing so many times, was that I seemed to be getting better at something. At telling stories that felt more and more immediate. That needed less explanation, less context, less of me. In short, the pressure of the marketplace was forcing me to focus on something more universal than myself. The flow of a story, it turned out, had a structural logic to it, that I could understand and learn more about. Get better at. I was coming to understand, for the first time really, the power of dramatic craft. The art of ensnaring a reader’s attention, the practice of absorbing an audience, and making that a cardinal tenet.
And yet, progress came slowly. And one thing that surprised me time and again, though it probably shouldn’t have, was I seemed to grow most when confronted most vividly with the demands of the marketplace. A paying audience, a paying reader, the paid critic. When the pain of failing was no longer just a wound to be nursed in private, when this encounter was fully manifest, some other gear would kick in. As if I suddenly had new abilities simply because they were so badly needed. Submitting a manuscript to a literary agent, and then getting an honest and detailed rejection letter; sitting through a play’s preview process with the audience that’s not laughing at the jokes I thought were funny; on set, writing scenes that had to be shot the next day one way or another. Here, there was no time to justify myself except on the page, in the work; there was no excuse, no explanation — if there was resistance, the scene itself had to be persuasive enough to overcome it.
Of course, making a place for the outer life of art, the husk the world takes a hold of and often mistakes for the animating spirit, making a place for art as a thing acquired, bought, honored, awarded, written about, sold, doesn’t mean, mustn’t mean forgoing art’s inner life, its inner calling, that immaterial nourishment which somehow found you, and inspired you to give your life to its continuation. And to try, however hopelessly — though joyously — to pay down the ever-growing debt you owe to the works that fed and feed you. Crafting the empty space inside the alluring husk, the quiet fire inside the persona — whether you’re an actor or visual artist or writer of any sort — preserving this silent devotion inside all the clamoring and attainment, never forgetting that this is the source, art’s deeper reason, this can become a battle of its. Indeed, in my experience, fidelity to inspiration can become a profound challenge when you’re caught up in the maelstrom of the world’s very real demands. But learning to stay attuned to the subtle, the invisible, the essential; staying true to the battle to protect the unpossessable, this, too, is a skill that seems to get better in duress and with practice. At least, that’s what I’ve found.
In the two decades that have elapsed since my own graduation from the School of the Arts, I’ve seen a fair bit of success and failure around me. If there’s a dominant strand to what I’ve seen it has something to do with desire and attrition. Persistence matters. In fact, persistence is really the thing that seems to matter the most; but it’s a certain kind of persistence, one in which the immediacy, the purity of the motivating desire, hasn’t been harmed. Or that the harms to this desire have only sharpened it, transformed it into a deeper will to keep going, to keep preparing for the moment when luck intervenes. Because that has been my experience. Luck matters. But luck also is inevitable if you can wait. Another way of saying this is that staying power isn’t just a choice. It’s also understanding and tending to the conditions that make this choice possible. So that when the time comes, you’re fresh, ready, and better than you have been before to take advantage.
In my case, the necessary condition has always been love. Love for what I do. Love for the artists and the stories that changed me as a teenager. Love for what literature and drama have made and continue to make possible. Love for the experience of being in midst of an audience as the curtain rises. Love for the loss of awareness as the inner rhythms of a sentence on the page are being worked out. I’ve been profoundly in love for most of my life with what I do, even when I was doing it very well. And I’ve been fortunate always to know how precious this love I felt was for me. That’s what’s kept me going, and kept me hungry to keep going, through some very, very difficult times.
In closing, I’d like to thank you. For betting on a future committed to sharing your love with us all. For betting on yourselves. As the world approaches a return to something like normal, as the work of recovery and repair are underway, the opportunities will be considerable, as will the challenges. I wish you all flourishing through the hardships, and the steady deepening of your love for what you do — as well as your ability to do it. Once again, congratulations.
© Ayad Akhtar 2021
About Ayad Akhtar '02
Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ayad is the author of Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown & Co.), which The Washington Post called “a tour de force” and The New York Times selected as a Top 10 Book of 2020, calling it “pitch-perfect…virtuosic.” His first novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown & Co.), was published in over 20 languages. As a playwright, he has written Junk (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Kennedy Prize for American Drama, Tony nomination); Disgraced (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony nomination); The Who & The What (Lincoln Center); and The Invisible Hand (NYTW; Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award, Olivier, and Evening Standard nominations).
Watch Akhtar's speech below.