Actually Useful Commencement Speeches

Remember graduation? Remember what your speakers talked about? I vaguely recall something about never forgetting about what my dreams are, and to remember to do something that I love and that will make a difference in the world because I am the future. Something about living each day like it’s my last—you know, a bunch of stuff that was supposed to inspire and encourage us while we pursued our individual careers. And then we all went off into the real world and learned how the real work is done.

This is why I enjoyed reading Brian Keene’s speech to aspiring writers at a boot camp at Towson University earlier this month. There’s a lot of useful information in his speech! Keene has written several books under speciality publisher Borderlands Press, as well as a number of comic books—mostly about zombies.

Here’s Keene on why he decided to be a writer:

I have been a full-time writer—meaning writing is my only source of income, and how I provide for myself and my loved ones—for a little over a decade. My commute is great—from the bed to the coffee pot to the computer. I get paid to make up stories about zombies and giant carnivorous worms and people give me money for them. Not a bad gig. Usually. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Writing is a hard way to earn a living, and the costs are high. Too high, at times. And yet, I continue to do it because the rewards are unlike those of any other profession I know. And I continue to do it because I can’t do anything else. I can’t not write.

On what you can expect to earn if you want to write fiction:

If you choose to publish via traditional means (publishing companies) then understand that your pay will be sporadic. When your novel is accepted, you will receive an advance. The average advance these days, for a genre fiction novel, ranges between $2,500 and $10,000. That’s right. The novel you spent a year working on only earns you between $2,500 to $10,000 at first. When the book is published a year later, that advance will have long been spent. And you probably won’t see a royalty check until another year AFTER your book has been published (provided enough copies have sold to earn out your advance). So it will actually be two years from that advance check before you get paid again.

And some more real talk about earning money:

I’ve been on CNN, Howard Stern, a documentary on the History Channel, and a trivia question answer on an ABC game show. My readers include rock stars, movie stars, stand-up comedians, professional athletes, a few politicians, a few more porno actresses, and even a daytime soap opera diva. I am one of the most popular horror writers of my generation. I say that not brag or sound arrogant, but to set the stage for what I am about to tell you. I am one of the most popular horror writers of my generation—

—and on average, I make between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. Sometimes it’s a little bit more. Sometimes, it’s less. That’s an average.

He also goes into some personal details about how his work has affected some of his personal relationships:

My first marriage dissolved when I was trying to become a professional writer. We lived in a trailer and had about three dollars to our name. I worked all day in a foundry (and later as a truck driver) and then came home at night, and focused on my word processor, rather than my wife. I was young and dumb and it never occurred to me that my equally young wife might like me to spend some time with her rather than writing. Even when we did spend time together, we didn’t really communicate.

And there’s more! Now this is the sort of thing I would have loved to hear at a commencement ceremony: real talk about money, about careers, about life.

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6 Comments / Post A Comment

blair (#1,962)

I wish more speeches were like this, but it’s also easier to give more direct advice when your audience is that specialized. Addressing 5,000 liberal arts and science students (plus their parents, grandparents, friends, etc.) means that you have to temper your ideas a bit.

Source: I WAS a speaker at my convocation (one of three student speakers, mind you, not the Main Guy) and I got the gig by writing a speech that was not about the future. I think it went okay? But it was kind of a blur. I think it’s on YouTube.

Mike Dang (#2)

@blair True! But I got sort of the same, vague, “work on stories that matter to you” speech when I was in journalism school too. Now, whenever I’m given the opportunity to speak on a panel to journalism students, I always ask them if they’ve thought about how they’re going to make money to support themselves after they graduate.

blair (#1,962)

@Mike Dang Good for you. I’m fortunate enough to have a parent with both an MBA and a career as an artist, so I’ve grown up with an expert soundtrack of how (not) easy it is to support yourself creatively (basically: never give up! Also, marry someone for insurance, eventually)

megsy (#1,565)

Thank you, Mike! great post

faustbanana (#2,376)

I didn’t go to my college commencement, but Mayor Daley (the latter) spoke at my high school graduation. Malapropisms ahoy. My only inspiration was to embrace nepotism whenever possible.

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