Friday, January 14, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Ursula K. LeGuin's "left-handed commencement address"

I've been reading the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin almost all my life, and this "left-handed commencement address"--delivered in the 1980s at the Mills College commencement--has all the qualities I've come to love in her writing. It is not your mother's commencement address. The tone is direct, amused, serious, intellectual and plainspoken, all at once.

We had to have it here, on The Eloquent Woman, because she tackles the challenges of women and public speaking, right out of the box. She opens by thanking the graduating class of this women's college "for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women."  Here's part of paragraph two:
Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men's language. Of course women learn it. We're not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.
Here's why I like this famous speech, and what you can learn from it:
  • There's not an ounce of fat in it.  Commencement addresses are full of round, plump, caloric words and empty phrases that put distance, often unwittingly, between the speaker and the audience. This one is the opposite. Its words are plainspoken--but not one ounce less intellectual, understandable or moving. Writers should be striving for this. Speakers should insist upon it.
  • She varies her sentence lengths throughout:  Whether you write for yourself or someone else, varied sentence lengths can make a speech dynamic--even if it's read from the sheet.  Varying the lengths helps to create a cadence that avoids the sing-song, and plants surprises for the listener's ear.
  • As a result, it's written as if someone were actually going to say it out loud. I'm sorry to say that many speeches do not sound as if they were meant to be spoken.  This one achieves a conversational tone with ease. (Yes, of course, the writer was the speaker in this case--and yet this is not an easy art to master, even for yourself. Maybe especially for yourself.)  LeGuin has a strong, established voice and it shows. Go ahead--read that text aloud for yourself and put some personality into it, and record it. See how that sounds in your voice.
  • She makes the case for why women should speak in women's words, rather than imitate men.  The 1980s were a time when women were taking high-level political office at a rate not seen before, all over the world. LeGuin here joined other women observers of language and politics in noting that adopting men's language was like putting on men's clothing--for the most part, it doesn't work for women speakers, and avoids letting women sound natural and genuine.
  • She carries that point through by telling the grads in real terms how to proceed.  If you adhere to the tradition that the commencement speaker needs must share advice with the newly minted scholars, LeGuin delivers. She tells the young women to think of the world of women as its own country, then says:  "So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is."  Using "I hope" keeps this a wishful, positive vision--and sets up the repetition that brings the listener along.
On top of all that, this speech is a message of pride, encouragement, reality and common sense...just what graduates need, in abundance.

To my delight, LeGuin, 81, is blogging; she's not answering most correspondence, however. Her website could not be more thorough or conversational, and is encyclopedic without seeming so...just like this speech.  Share your reactions to it in the comments, please.  I'll be writing to alert LeGuin to this sharing of her speech (something she asks for on her website), so perhaps she'll see your thoughts here.

(I asked readers what they'd like to see more or less of on the blog in 2011, and one suggested "Famous Speech Fridays - famous women who have given exceptional speeches and excerpts of them."  I'll be looking for speeches by women that include words about women, so you'll get not just good examples but words to inspire you. Got a favorite speech I should include? Leave word in the comments.)

(Photo copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch)

Related posts:  Finding a quotable eloquent woman, which shares this LeGuin quote about women speakers: "We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains."


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