by Margaret Atwood
Byliner Jun 1983 9 mins.
A 1983 commencement address given at the University of Toronto.
I am of course overjoyed to be here today in the role of ceremonial object. There is more than the usual amount of satisfaction in receiving an honorary degree from the university that helped to form one’s erstwhile callow and ignorant mind into the thing of dubious splendor that it is today; whose professors put up with so many overdue term papers, and struggled to read one’s handwriting, of which "interesting" is the best that has been said; at which one failed to learn Anglo-Saxon and somehow missed Bibliography entirely, a severe error which I trust no one present here today has committed; and at which one underwent excruciating agonies not only of soul but of body, later traced to having drunk too much coffee in the bowels of Wymilwood.
It is to Victoria College that I can attribute the fact that Bell Canada, Oxford University Press and McClelland and Stewart all failed to hire me in the summer of ‘63, on the grounds that I was a) overqualified and b) couldn’t type, thus producing in me that state of joblessness, angst and cosmic depression which everyone knows is indispensable for novelists and poets, although nobody has ever claimed the same for geologists, dentists or chartered accountants. It is also due to Victoria College, incarnated in the person of Northrop Frye, that I didn’t run away to England to become a waitress, live in a garret, write masterpieces and get tuberculosis. He thought I might have more spare time for creation if I ran away to Boston, lived in a stupor, wrote footnotes and got anxiety attacks, that is, if I went to Graduate School, and he was right. So, for all the benefits conferred upon me by my Alma Mater, where they taught me that the truth would make me free but failed to warn me of the kind of trouble I’d get into by trying to tell it—I remain duly grateful.
But everything has its price. No sooner had I tossed off a graceful reply to the letter inviting me to be present today than I began to realize the exorbitance of what was expected of me. I was going to have to come up with something to say, to a graduating class in 1983, year of the Ph. D. taxi driver, when young people have unemployment the way they used to have ugly blackheads; something presumably useful, wise, filled with resonance and overview, helpful, encouraging and optimistic. After all, you are being launched—though ever since I experienced the process, I’ve wondered why “convocation” is the name for it. “Ejection” would be better. Even in the best of times, it’s more or less like being pushed over a cliff, and these are not the best of times. In case you haven’t figured it out already, I’m here to tell you that it’s an armpit out there. As for your university degree, there are definitely going to be days when you will feel that you’ve been given a refrigerator and sent to the middle of a jungle, where there are no three-pronged grounded plugholes.
Not only that, the year will come when you will wake up in the middle of the night and realize that the people you went to school with are in positions of power, and may soon actually be running things. If there’s anything more calculated to thick men’s blood with cold, it’s that. After all, you know how much they didn’t know then, and, given yourself as an example, you can’t assume they know a great deal more now. “We’re all doomed,” you will think. (For example: Brian Mulroney is only a year older than I am.) You may feel that the only thing to do when you’ve reached this stage is to take up nail-biting, mantras, or jogging, all of which would be recognized by animal behavior specialists as substitution activities, like scratching, which are resorted to in moments of unresolved conflict. But we’ll get around to some positive thinking in a moment.
“What shall I tell them!” I thought, breaking out into a cold sweat, as I tossed and turned...
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