Commencement Address: the Well-Written Life

Commencement Address
Saint Mary’s Hall 2005
By Rick Riordan

This is weird because in 1982 I graduated in this auditorium, back when Alamo Heights was small enough to have commencement here. I don’t remember much about that night. I certainly don’t remember the commencement speaker or a word he said. But I am pretty sure he wasn’t my sixth grade English teacher.

When John asked me to be the speaker, at first I wondered if it was because I’d been faculty until last year and they still had a robe for me. Apparently that wasn’t the reason. I’m certainly not David Robinson or Peter Holt or any of the other distinguished people who have spoken at past commencements. But I do feel like I have a special connection with this graduating class, and that’s why I’m honored to be here.

The students on this stage who were at Saint Mary’s Hall in sixth grade had me as their English teacher. That was first year I taught at Saint Mary’s Hall. After watching the past seven graduations from the faculty section, I would’ve been very sad not to be here tonight, because this is the first graduating class I really know well. These guys suffered through countless book reports from me. They endured my stories of Mwindo and Fafnir’s Ring. They took over Japan with pushpins. I am also one of the few human beings who has even seen these young people perform on stage in Viking costumes.

Every year of teaching at a new school is like your first of teaching all over again. And this class was my introduction to Saint Mary’s Hall. They taught me at least as much as I taught them. In a way, I feel like we started a journey together, and now that they’re embarking on their college careers and I’m embarking on a new career as a children’s novelist, I feel like we’re completing that journey together tonight, and starting something new and exciting.

So what advice can I give you? Look, I don’t know much about making an easy five-point plan for succeeding in college. I certainly never had a plan like when I was stumbling through UT. They had “Plan 1” at UT and “Plan 2” and I was kind of “Plan B.” It took me a long time to figure out where I wanted to go.
But there is something I do know about. That’s writing books. And strangely, the same advice I often give to aspiring writers might apply tonight. Ben Franklin once said that you should either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about. So maybe there is a connection between a well-written book and the well-lived life.


Okay, so my first piece of advice. Outlining. You remember in sixth grade when I told you that you should always outline everything before you start writing? I lied. Most successful novelists I know don’t do that. I often don’t do that. Outlining has its uses, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good story. You have to be flexible enough to change in midstream and let the story take you where it needs to take you. Even when I do outline, the plot changes. The ending changes two or three times. That’s what makes it fun.

In the same vein, most people I know did not outline their lives before they lived them. Sometimes it’s okay not to know exactly where you’re going. When I graduated, I couldn’t have imagined the twists and turns I’d have to take to get where I am today. If you’re not sure exactly where you’re heading either, don’t worry about it.

Now I’m not saying you should never make plans. Don’t go as far as the famous mystery writer Raymond Chandler. He never outlined. He said if things got slow in his books, he just solved it by sending a man through the door with a gun. Do not try this approach in your life.

But whatever your subject matter is, whether you outline or not, make sure it’s something you really love writing about. You should never write a story that you wouldn’t want to read yourself! Try to live your life the same way. Find what you love, what interests you, what calls to you. Don’t be afraid to stray from the outline.


Second piece of advice: character. Every novel is ultimately driven by its characters.

Another writer once explained to me about all the different ways to keep a reader’s attention when you’re writing a book.

Pure action is the first way. Flashy car chases, light-saber battles – all of that’s great. But pure action will only keep a reader’s attention for one chapter at best. Then it gets old, unless there’s something else to go with it. Pure action is a little shallow to carry a whole book. Or a whole life.

Your second option is a surface dilemma – like a romantic problem or a dangerous situation or some kind of natural disaster. That’ll keep a reader’s interest for almost fifty pages. Your typical soap opera falls into this category. It’s easy to get tied up in a soap opera, but it’s no accident that they rarely run longer than sixty minutes. It’s still pretty shallow stuff. It’s probably not going to keep you up at night wondering, “Gee, what would I have done in that situation?”

The only thing that will keep a reader’s interest for an entire book is a moral dilemma. Will your character tell the truth, even though it might get her in trouble? Will your character do the right thing even though everyone else in the town is against it? Nothing defines a character more than the moral choices he or she makes.

Life is the same way. Pure fun is great. Surface dilemmas? You’re guaranteed to have some. But what will your character be? That’s the story. You will only know that from the moral dilemmas you face, and the choices you make.


Finally: plot.

What’s the plot of your life going to be? A mystery, romance, fantasy, adventure? How will you keep your story moving? How will your audience remember your time on stage?

The most important consideration when you think of plot is how to handle the backstory – all that stuff that happened before chapter one began. You need to honor your backstory, and be true to it. Remember where you came from. At the same time, you can’t get bogged down in it. You have to move past it. If J.K. Rowling took time to explain everything that had happened in all the previous Harry Potter novels every time she started a new one, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince would be four-thousand pages long. For the record, I understand it’s only about two-thousand pages long.

Your life has a backstory too. I am part of that, as your sixth grade teacher. Everyone here is part of where you’ve been. Your job is to know where you came from, and recognize how you got here today. But more importantly, your job is to move past all that, and write the story from here.

The simplest definition of plot? It’s what the main character does next. We are all waiting to read the next installment of your lives, guys. I have a feeling you’re going to deliver a real page-turner.

Good luck and God bless you all. The spotlight is now on you. Chapter 1, Page 1 begins today.

Rick Riordan