Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Commencement Address, 5/26/24

The Cate School class of 2024, of which my daughter is member, kindly asked me tdeliver their commencement address this spring. Here's the video.

Here's the transcript:

Alex, trustees, guests, colleagues, and you, class of 2024, it means a great deal to me, being invited to speak to you today, by you, as I hope you’ll see...


But first, if you don’t mind, I want to take us back –

all the way back to the cusp of history and pre-history –

to consider a certain brand of Elder,

Priestess, or Shaman,

whose practice was to journey out to the secret caves 

where all the sacred vessels were stored   

– the jars, tablets, knotted ropes – 

and just by looking at them,

somehow manage to see into the past. 

See the future. Other worlds. Gods and monsters. 

Hear their voices somehow. Speak to them.

And on the basis of these exchanges, 

descend again to their communities

to cultivate, to heal, and to preserve them.


In retrospect, we can surmise the secret power these sorcerers possessed 

was literacy.

Those jars were basically books.

The caves were libraries.

These were the first readers and writers –

defining experience for their followers, 

casting spells on them the way all good wizards do. 

With words. 


That’s why even today, when we break words down into their component parts, 

we call it “spelling.”

(Annie, I’m not sure that’s true, but I so much want it to be, I didn’t check.)

Point is, the sages all agree. 

Words create the world. 

Words are magic.

All schools are Hogwarts… 

But it appears we’ve run into a little competition.

My own first encounter with AI language models happened maybe five years ago.

I’d written an Email to an agent: “Hey Matt, 

just wondering if those people ever got back to you about that project, 

because if not, then, yada-yada-yada.” 

That kind of thing. “Let me know.”


A couple days go by, no answer.

Third day, I get two words: “Sounds great!”

And I just thought…not really. 

This happened a few more times, 

me sending off these typical faux-casual professional check-ins, 

him sending back these very brief, very positive non-sequitors. 

I didn’t make that much of it until a few months later

I noticed my own Gmail was starting to suggest replies that I could use: 

Will do! Can’t wait! Sounds great!

And I thought to myself, ‘Holy Toledo, 

is my agent auto-responding to my emails?’

I couldn’t believe it.

It explained a lot…But still…


So that’s when I first began to sense something sinister at play.

It wasn’t really until a couple years ago, though, when OpenAI showed up, 

that the alarm bells started going crazy. For all of us.

These new language models have gotten so good, so fast

– at simulating understanding, and stimulating it – 

it’s terrifying.

And it does begin to feel like we might be supplanted soon 

as the premier readers and the writers 

(by which of course I mean wizards) in the sphere;

It seems clear we will accept the supporting role:

Soon enough, teachers like me will only assign computer-generated prompts 

to books that we may or may not have read.  

You’ll get ChatGPT to write the papers for you. 

We’ll get Powerskool to do all the grading and commenting.

We’ll get them (indicate audience) to pay for this nonsense. With Bitcoin.

And no one’ll be the wiser. 

It’ll be the perfect crime.

Ok, that won’t happen. And I don’t mean to sound alarmist.

It’s probably a good thing that we’re asking the Big Questions now:

What does it mean to be ‘literate’ anyway? In 2024. 

And if we are our about to be subsumed by some superior, hollow, intelligence – 

what exactly are we prepared to give up? And is there anything we’d like to save?


I find myself thinking back to the days before all this –

You know, when the phones were attached to the wall, had one function,

and if you decided to go for a walk, you might as well have been Odysseus. 

No one knew. 

It could be a lonely, disconnected place, I do recall.

Most of those missions you set out on,

you came back from disappointed, frustrated, heartbroken. 

But it also seemed like every so often some serendipitous something 

would come along to compensate you.

Some unseen angel would slide up and whisper in your ear, 

‘No, psssst, over here,” 

and gift you with something you hadn’t seen coming. 

The most obvious example, for me, probably being that time

I spent five years writing a novel that came to me in about a block-and-a-half – 

On 23rd Street between Second and Third Avenue.  

All I’d wanted was a bagel.

But that was the point. 

That was the abiding lessons here:

That when you went out looking for one thing, and managed to find another, 

that was the best thing that could happen to you.

That was the genius maneuver.

And if you were smart, you should figure out how to do that more often. 

Make yourself available to the thing you didn’t know you were looking for. 

And bring a notebook.

But then so this may be my question – or my biggest fear:

that in this world here today, where we do almost all of our searching online  

– where we know for a fact that every choice, 

every next turn has been set there by some algorithm designed to trap us – 

how are we supposed to hear those angels?

How are we supposed to access any instinct or intuition whatsoever

through the din of: people who bought this item also bought…  

Because that’s the whole game inside that place. 

Homogenizing choice. AND homogenizing language.

I only recently started texting.

My family gave me an Android. 

(I don’t know what message that sends.)

But I’d been thinking you were all a bunch of geniuses with your thumbs.

I didn’t realize: You’re not really typing. 

Mostly you’re accepting the recommendation 

of the word the phone has figured out you probably want. 

Based on patterns. Balls in a pachinko machine.

Which is okay, I guess, until you find yourself conceding,

thinking ‘fine, not the word I was looking for, but close enough.’

You click. Take the road most traveled.

And die a little in the process:

“Sounds great!”

But this is where I turn to you.

And I should preface this by saying,

we try not to play favorites, we teachers, we really do.

But as our old friend Teddy points out, we all have our ‘affinities’. 

Setting aside the fact that my beloved daughter sits among you,

I do feel an affinity with your class.

I taught you as freshmen. And sophomores. AND seniors.

English, more to the point.

You’re a very gratifying bunch to teach English to.

Collectively, you have what makes good readers good. 

Not just keen minds. But open.

You look for a reason to like the text, and learn from it,

not set it aside.

You enjoy uncertainty, ambiguity. You’re challenged by it.

If there’s a happier creature on earth than a baffled Clyde Kye, I haven’t seen it.

Maybe Ember, luxuriating in the description of a broken tooth;

or Thomas, flushing red with frustration at his own thesis, insisting it could be better;

Mel brimming with everything she wants to say, at once; 

Seb politely begging to disagree,

while Tonfai lobs the truth bombs down from the mountaintop;

or Noor bounces at the prospect of revision;

But it’s every damn one of you.

Burak, putting on that anti-intellectual show in class, 

only to turn around and hand in those steel-cut arguments;

Tristan, scouring for the simplest, most indelible route;

Josie, losing her voice–hearing that–and finding it again.


You have what makes good writers good. Grit.

The determination to work a sentence til you get it right. Carla. Chloe.

The stubborn commitment to what you mean, what you intend. Sahar. 

Nothing derivative. You only borrow to transform.

You understand the point here: to be a primary source.

I’m not na├»ve, of course. 

I don’t expect you to foreswear the technology. 

You’re going to work with it, test it,

use it in ways that would probably never have occurred to us, 

and that some of us might even object to.

But that’s to be expected, and that’s okay, and here’s why. 

We all know what a ‘foil’ is, in literary terms.

It’s that character who both compares and contrasts with the hero

In a way that helps us see them better.

I confess, I had always thought the reference was to fencing: 

The foil was the guy our hero sword-fought with. 

No. The word ‘foil’ refers to the little silvery cup on which a jewel is mounted, 

to make it shine more brightly.


There it is: 

Whatever you do with all the new software coming down the pike at you, 

no matter how innovative or autonomous it seems to be, 

just keep that image in mind.

AI is a foil: shiny, flat, cheap,

there for the purpose of serving the jewel. 

It is not a threat.

It is a clarifying opportunity:

to recognize what it can do for us,

but also what it can’t.

And when it tries, it fails 

(to a discerning eye)

so utterly, so comically by comparison to what we are capable of, at our best,

the point stands out in bold relief:

The jewel – the diamond – 

the most beautiful thing the universe ever came up with – 

is still the individual human…being.


You know this. I know you know this. 

I’ve read your work. 


One of the unsung perks of teaching: It instills hope.

A hot commodity when there’s so much out there to fear for.

The planet. Justice. Democracy.

As for the Word,

I have to say I am not afraid.

I am not afraid for one good reason. 

And I am looking at it.


On behalf of the whole Cate family, your families, 

and everyone else out there upon whom you’re about to cast your spell,

thank you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

On Why We Write Historical Fiction...and Why I Do

Way back when, from first to fifth grade, I attended St. David’s School in New York City. (In fact, St. David’s is the school featured in my little book Beastie.) The alumni magazine recently asked me to contribute a piece on the topic of writing historical fiction. 
The result is here (pp. 36-39), but for the less digitally dexterous, the full text of the piece is offered below:


Most historical fiction isn't really about history. It's about the exact opposite, in fact.


This has always been my official explanation for why, despite having spent the last three decades writing stories set so squarely in the past, I've never really considered myself an honest scholar of it. For the record, these stories have included one novel about Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, another about the life John the Baptist, a few more set during the turn-of-the century -in South Africa, London, and Finland, respectively, and then again in my most recent book, The Unknown Woman of the Seine, which takes place during the last three days of the World's Fair in Paris, 1889.


And yet for all of the years of research that these efforts have entailed, all the library stacks and diaries and codices, correspondences and maps, all the trips and interviews and twisted, bottomless rabbit holes, I've never felt like much more than an amateur when it comes to history.


Why would this be?


Well because, as I say, there is a dirty little secret hiding behind the whole idea of historical fiction, and that is that -- at least from the perspective of the writer -- setting your sites upon remote times and places is less about discovering other worlds, more about disciplining yourself. It's kind of like traveling abroad in real life, or camping in the wilderness: the decision to deliberately install yourself in unfamiliar and maybe even inhospitable environments forces you to keep it simple. To rely upon essentials. And in the case of storytelling, those essentials have nothing to do with research or expertise. They have to do with what makes your characters tick --what they want, what they fear, what drives them to make the choices they do. These are what get you through the rough terrain. Not snuff boxes and wig powder.


To give an example: If you wanted to write a novel about Cain and Abel, say, set in the time of Cain and Abel, you would be wise to do some research on agrarian practices in the 4th millennium BC. And animal husbandry, for that matter. You'd pretty much have to. In the course of doing so, however, you would soon come to recognize just how vanishingly little you know, or can ever really know, about the lived experience of this time and place, and therefore just how vain it is -- in every sense of the word -- trying to capture that experience in contemporary and parochial language. No matter how descriptive you are, no matter how exhaustively you do your homework, each scene will be an exercise in smoke and mirrors. A deliberate deception. A narcissistic fantasy –


That is unless…


...Unless maybe you can find one of those driving forces I mentioned before, some common thread of human experience that connects us to them -- which in the case of Cain and Abel is clear enough:


Cain envies his brother.


Cain feels less loved by their father than Abel.


THAT is what the scene is about, and that is what you must make clear. Not the proper way of loading a shepherd's slingshot in the era before interesting as that may be.


This, then, is the hidden value of choosing the far-flung subject. It sets you out upon the open sea -- or strands you in the desert, if you prefer -- and the only canteen it provides (or the only life raft) is the humanity of your character. Which is as it should be.


It is from that perspective that the apparent function of this thing we call "historical fiction" -- to transport the reader into the past, and to show them just how much the world has changed since then -- is revealed to be a pretext. The deeper and more meaningful objective is to render in the clearest relief imaginable the presence of those things that never change. Envy, for instance. The ever-thus. 

This has always been my party line anyway -- the official, public explanation for why I keep playing this trick. And it's not untrue. However, there is another equally good answer, which I would normally only share with those in the know. But since the reader of this might actually be in that "know," I will make an exception.


The other answer is Mr. Bill Ryan.


It does seem to be the case that in the life of every remotely happy and/or well-adjusted person, one is bound to find one or two transformative teachers who manage somehow to align you to your core – by seeing what’s good in you and encouraging it; by infecting you with their passion for a given subject; and by simply being someone you want to do well for.


Mr. Ryan was my Fourth Grade homeroom teacher at Saint David's School back in 1973-74. I have written about him elsewhere, in fictional guise that I kept thin to make the point that he was not obviously cast in the role of beacon. Fig-shaped, bounded in the middle by thin black belt, black shod, horn-rimmed, Elvis-haired but hardly Elvis-featured. The eyes were a little squinty, the nose a little pointy, the chin most definitely doubled. But none of that mattered because, to me, he glowed -- imbued as he was by a vast intelligence and curiosity, humor, kindness, patience, principle, and an evident love of things that should be loved. Baseball, for instance. And history, of course. But most of all...story.


Boy, did Mr. Ryan love a good story, and man-o-man, could he tell one.


I can see him in class, striding the aisles between our desks, reading aloud to us from a book of his choosing -- The Hobbit, Robin Hood -- but he could expound extemporaneously and with equal flair about Ancient Greece, gods and goddesses. Sophocles. Odysseys. Arthurian legend. Gregorian chants. Thomas More. The Mighty Casey.


I don't recall if any of this was actual curriculum, or if this was just him treating us to the things he most enjoyed. (He enjoyed saying the name 'Uther Pendragon'.) I do remember, though, that for any assignment of sufficient heft, he would as he was handing back our graded papers, declare the authors of the most distinguished efforts -- the 'A's, I'm guessing -- to be members of the 'Commendabi League' (pronounced KAHM-en-DAH-bee), holding up that paper like a torch before setting it down on your desk. To be as consistent a member of the Commendabi League as one was able -- maybe a resident even -- was clearly the goal.


As inspiring a presence as Mr. Ryan was in the classroom, his most natural setting was the school chapel. On the days he was tapped to speak, there was always a special energy in the room. The sight of him seated up in the front row, consulting an index card, would start a murmur among the boys. That murmur would soon become a buzz and leave the room as word went out. "It's Mr. Ryan." The message traveled all throughout the building, and the heavy door would remain open a little longer on such days, for anyone whose calendars were clear, other teachers and administrators who wanted to come and listen.


The excitement was deserved. Mr. Ryan was as gifted a public speaker as I have ever heard -- or seen -- striding comfortably in front of the lectern. Left hand in pocket, rubbing his chin with the other, leaning back, sweeping with his arm as he spoke. Painted really. Stories from memory. Poems. Anecdotes passed down, with maybe a little O'Henry sprinkled over top. All parables, though, and not so many that a few favorites didn't emerge over the Lower School years. "The family jewels." Recollections of war. Mr. Ryan had served in Korea. There was one story of a troopship, I think, downed at sea, and of sailors clinging to jetsam in the eerily quiet Pacific as the blanket of night fell all around.


I can still hear the silence in the room, borne of Mr. Ryan's pauses, and sustained by his reflection, accented here and there by the splintering groan of chapel pews. He was a captivating man, and there can be no question that while I sat in those creaky benches, in those suspended breathless moments, a path appeared before me -- not one that I'd have presumed to recognize at the time, being a bit shy, but that I would eventually take up in my way, in my own language, and for reasons likewise of my own.


Still, not a day goes by that I don't close the office door and follow that path just a little further, writing and rewriting my scenes, trying to distinguish the things that change from the things that don't. And so not a day goes by that I don't on some level think of Mr. Ryan, and hope my effort finds me in the Commendabi League again. I've yet to come across a higher honor.