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Novelist Alice Sebold to Emerson Graduates: “Complexity…Is In Every Way Richer”

Best-selling novelist Alice Sebold told the soon-to-be graduates of Emerson College that an education should not be simple, and success should not be defined by the rules of a “zero-sum game.”

Sebold, whose first novel, The Lovely Bones, became an international bestseller and later a Peter Jackson film, was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and the undergraduate speaker at Emerson’s 2016 commencement ceremony, held Sunday, May 8, at Boston University’s Agannis Arena.

“At its absolute best, and education is imperfect,” Sebold said. “To my mind, that’s also what makes it thrilling.”

Watch the speech

In a speech that switched fluidly from humorous to dark and back, Sebold said when she went off to Syracuse University, adults told her to cherish her time there because they would be the best years of her life.

During her freshman year she was raped, an incident she wrote about in her 1999 memoir, Lucky, and she spent her sophomore year enduring hearings that eventually led to a trial. In her senior year, her best friend also was raped.

But in those four years at Syracuse, she said, she also had “stellar, dream teachers,” and was exposed to some of the greatest writers and thinkers in American literature.

Sebold said calling college the “best years” of your life discounts the students whose experiences are outside the norm.

“Education isn’t about ease or comfort…no college experience should ever feel simple,” Sebold said.

“Complexity is in every way richer, and such riches can sustain one’s life and soul over a lifetime,” she said.

As a young writer in her 20s living in New York, Sebold said she struggled with rejection as three of her novels went unpublished and she went through as many agents. Back then, she said, you weren’t considered a successful writer unless you got your first novel published before your 30th birthday.

In her early 30s, she applied to, and was rejected by, a series of graduate schools, until finally she was waitlisted and accepted into one. She said she would joke to her younger classmates that her only achievement thus far was reaching her 30s without too much debt.

She left Manhattan for a job as an onsite caretaker for conservation land in California’s Inland Empire, bringing a laptop to a cabin without electricity.

“If kangaroo rats hadn’t been on the Endangered List I could have easily lived off the meat I found in my cabin,” she said.

She finally met a man named Bob with five sons, who told her, “You know, Alice, I don’t care if a sone of mine is a king or a bum, as long as he’s happy.”

“It’s funny to me now, but at the time it shocked me with its clarity,” she recalled. “I realized there were lenses through which I viewed my life and I could choose [what they were].”

She “kept following my weird path, beating my little drum and most importantly, kept writing my manuscripts,” one of which became The Lovely Bones.

Sebold cautioned against seeing life as a zero-sum game, in which you’re either a winner or a loser, a philosophy that leads to black men being shot and killed without cause, veterans battling PTSD, women enduring hateful and violent online bullying.

“If we allow a world where there are only winners and losers to thrive, we’re condoning a pattern of conduct that makes us all perpetrators and victims,” she said.

There is a difference between willful ignorance, which is where we as a nation continually go wrong, and actual ignorance, which is a “blameless state” that allows us the opportunity to learn, if we take it.

“Please pause for a moment in front of a mirror and know this,” she told the Emerson College Class of 2016, “Your brain is the flame that will carry you forward. I beg of you. Keep feeding it.”

The graduate student commencement was scheduled for 3:00 pm at the Agannis Arena. Danielle Legros Georges ’86, Boston’s poet laureate, will be the speaker.

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