By Ann Patchett
This is not a zine, but an essay that novelist Ann Patchett delivered at Sarah Lawrence College’s commencement in 2006. However, this book’s personal and inspirational content and artistic appearance makes it seem that if it weren’t written by an award-winning author and professionally published, it could be a zine. Sarah Lawrence’s website states that in her speech, Patchett “drew similarities between plotting a novel and the first steps into post-academic life.” While this is not untrue, I believe that this summary misses the whole point of her speech. Patchett’s speech features main themes that go much deeper than the creation of a novel and the writing process and is full of quotes such as one at the beginning of the speech that wisely states:
Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours—long hallways and unforeseen stairwells—eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight—there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
The thing that I find most interesting about this book is that she rewrote the entire thing after being advised to do so by her favorite former college professor. Patchett is an acclaimed writer who has won numerous awards, but she still believes that she can always learn from others. In this book, she writes about her life experiences as she navigates the questions and doubts throughout the different stages of her college and post-college life. Each stage is dotted with uncertainty and questioning, but that is what Patchett wants her audience to realize and become comfortable with. After she got accepted to college, Patchett thought the questions of “what now” would end, but she soon discovered that into her junior and senior year, she would face the same question, and more of its kind…and these questions continued after she graduated, and while she had a waitressing job, and while she was in grad school, and…You get the idea. The speech is, at its heart, an inspirational, funny, and interesting ride through Patchett’s life. She eventually embraces the uncertainty that makes life exciting, and she wants the students to feel excited for the future and at ease that everything may not always be planned out for them. I also like the photographs that are sprinkled throughout the book, which reflect the uncertainty but peace that Patchett’s essay also conveys. They are black and white ambiguous images of signs pointing in both directions, people lost and wandering, garden labyrinths, infinite highways, mazes, endless circular paths of footsteps in the sand, question marks, missing puzzle pieces, and other such symbols that represent the idea of “what now?” and represent the desperation and hopelessness that Patchett once felt during those times in her life. She was able to overcome those feelings, however, and through her speech, shares various life lessons she learned and urges the graduating seniors to enjoy the moment and be open to life and whatever paths their lives may take – which are always winding, always bumpy, and always unexpected.
– Sentaniz Palmer