What Now?by Ann Patchett
Based on her lauded commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, this stirring essay by bestselling author Ann Patchett offers hope and inspiration for anyone at a crossroads, whether graduating, changing careers, or transitioning from one life stage to another. With wit and candor, Patchett tells her own story of attending college, graduating, and struggling
Based on her lauded commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, this stirring essay by bestselling author Ann Patchett offers hope and inspiration for anyone at a crossroads, whether graduating, changing careers, or transitioning from one life stage to another. With wit and candor, Patchett tells her own story of attending college, graduating, and struggling with the inevitable question, What now?
From student to line cook to teacher to waitress and eventually to award-winning author, Patchett's own life has taken many twists and turns that make her exploration genuine and resonant. As Patchett writes, "'What now?' represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life." She highlights the possibilities the unknown offers and reminds us that there is as much joy in the journey as there is in reaching the destination.
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If all fairy tales begin "Once upon a time," then all graduation speeches begin "When I was sitting where you are now." We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it's what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn't there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost. For me this feeling is compounded by the fact that Sarah Lawrence was my own alma mater. I look out at all these chairs lined up across Westlands lawn and I think, I slept on that lawn, I breathed that wisteria. I batted away those very same bees, or at least I batted away their progenitors. Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn't changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.
But I have.
That's why I'm the graduation speaker. Think of me as Darwin sailing home on the Beagle. I went forth in the world just the way you are about to go forth, and I gathered up all the wondrous things I've seen; now I've brought them back to you. As the graduation speaker I'm the one with the wisdom, or at least that's the assumption, but you as the graduates have something even better: you have youth, which, especially when you multiply it by several hundred, is a thing so fulgent it all but knocks the breath out of those of us who are up on the stage. I'd like to tell you to appreciate your youth, to stop and admire your own health and intelligence, but everywriter has a cliché quota and I used up mine by saying, When I was sitting where you are now.
When you leave this place, as you will in a couple of hours, be sure to come back. 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 first time I reached that particular impasse in my life I was in high school, and the burning question concerning my future was where I was going to college. Every day I stood at the window watching for the mailman, and as soon as he had driven safely away (for some reason I thought it was important to conceal my eagerness from the mailman) I would dart out to the box and search for the documents that would determine my fate amongst the grocery store coupons, utility bills, and promotional fliers. But not a single envelope bore my name. It seemed in those days the world only had one question for me, and it was not, How are you feeling? or What is the state of your soul? or What is it you want from life? No, the only thing anyone asked me back then was, Where are you going to college? Everywhere I went I felt as if I were being hounded by my own Greek chorus, and even though all those people hounding me quite possibly had good intentions and were genuinely interested in my future, after a while the questions started to feel like nothing more than a relentless interrogation: a dark room, a single chair, a blinding light in my eyes. "I don't know!" I wanted to scream. "I don't know where I'm going to college!" What if I didn't get accepted anywhere? Didn't they ever think about that? What if I had to live at home forever and find a job waiting tables and never got the education I needed to be a writer? If the people who questioned me had any notion of the depth and the darkness of my fears, I doubt they would have had the temerity to ask me anything at all.
But thanks to the natural order of the universe, for better or for worse, everything eventually changes. One beautiful afternoon the mailman drove off and I ran out to the box and there it was, my entire future in one slim envelope. I ripped into it right there on the lawn and read the contents again and again until I had it committed to memory. I was going to college. In that instant everything in my world was different because I had an answer for the inevitable question. In a funny way that was even more meaningful than the acceptance itself.When the aunt and the dentist and the best friend's mother asked me where I was going, I could reply with a level of nonchalance that made it seem there was never any doubt, "College? Why, I'm going to Sarah Lawrence."
Oh, I was set. My sense of time was so underdeveloped that four years sounded like a glorious eternity. I had gotten into the school that I wanted to go to and . . .What now?. Copyright © by Ann Patchett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain's Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books.
- Nashville, Tennessee
- Date of Birth:
- December 2, 1963
- Place of Birth:
- Los Angeles, California
- B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1985; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1987
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What a surprising little treasure. I am 68 years old and found this a great renewing of spirit for any age. I have always enjoyed Patchett's writing, but this is a real insight into a very special woman who was willing and able to share hope and encouragement in a joyful way. Will definitely give as gifts to family and special people.
I loved the wisdom and grace of this book. I am a career counselor and am thinking about buying this book to give to my mid-life clients in career transition because it has such a beautiful view of the lessons learned in one's life.
If you are feeling overwhelmed with life or like you can't quite figure out what to do next, read this. It was a breath of fresh air. I give this as a gift to graduates and anyone going through a transition in their life.
I was sure what to expect but once I began to read this book, I did not stop until I had read the last page. There are so many wonderful lessons for life. I was able to place my life in parallel and brought me to serious reflection. This book has helped me to reflect on many things and although not all of them have been easy, happiness has been felt knowing I have learned for my experiences. I highly recommend this book. This is a worthy gift to those who could use some help in finding peace. Simply inspiring.
Take notes, all you who are asked to give commencement addresses. The rest of this slim book is less important, and a tad less interesting.
I bought this book for my daughter when she graduated from college. Patchett is one our favorites, and my daughter had heard her speak at a literary event. The book is based on a commencement speech given by the author- it is an easy and inspiring read that you can pick up again and again. My favorite quote is at the end of the book-"You are... someone's favorite unfolding story""- Interesting black and white photographs accompany the words of wisdom.
The perfect gift for my recent college grad! So inspiring and touching, it has to ring true for almost everyone who reads it! I immediately ordered 5 more copies for gifts! But I kept a copy for me!
What Now? This book is a recipient of the prestigious Mom's Choice Award. The Mom's Choice Awards honors excellence in family-friendly media, products and services. An esteemed panel of judges includes education, media and other experts as well as parents, children, librarians, performing artists, producers, medical and business professionals, authors, scientists and others. A sampling of the panel members includes: Dr. Twila C. Liggett, ten-time Emmy-winner, professor and founder of PBS's Reading Rainbow; Julie Aigner-Clark, Creator of Baby Einstein and The Safe Side Project; Jodee Blanco, New York Times best-selling Author; LeAnn Thieman, motivational speaker and coauthor of seven Chicken Soup For The Soul books; and Tara Paterson, Certified Parent Coach and founder of the Mom's Choice Awards. Parents and educators look for the Mom's Choice Awards seal in selecting quality materials and products for children and families.