Barry Moser’s Commencement Address

I graduated from a military school in 1958. The yearbook reminded me that “Moser is never on top in any field.” True. I wasn’t. But, back then, I didn’t care.

I did graduate though— thanks to the generosity of my history teacher who allowed me to re-take my failed final exam (and who, I am certain, graded that second exam with compassion for a boy who couldn’t care less about history…or math, or English, or chemistry, or anything else academic).

My folks gave me a record player for my graduation present. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it played the music I enjoyed listening to, which was not the music my classmates listened to. While they listened to Harvey and the Moonglows, the Platters, and Elvis Presley, I was off in my own world listening to Nat King Cole, Rachmaninoff, and Broadway musicals like Oklahoma, and South Pacific.

In South Pacific, a character named Bloody Mary, a large Polynesian woman, belts out a tune in which she tells her beautiful brown daughter that “if you don’t have a dream, how you gon’ have a dream come true.”

And it is this matter of having dreams that I address this morning.

There are a number of you out there who, like me when I was sitting out there, dream. Dream of being a professional athlete, perhaps. Or an Olympic gymnast. A scientist maybe. Or an artist, a poet, a novelist, …or a farmer or an auto mechanic. And I am equally certain that somebody in your life has told you that being a farmer or an auto mechanic is beneath your station. Or that being an artist is just a pipe dream because you can’t possibly make a living at it.

My daddy told me that. His boss, Charlie Thompson, had a son who had a degree in art, but he ended up selling life insurance. So the day I announced that I wanted to major in art in college, my daddy said to me, “Son, don’t even think about it. You’ll never be able to make a living at it. If Charlie Thompson Jr. couldn’t do it, you sure as hell can’t.”

And it wasn’t just my dad who was discouraging. Baylor—the military school—was hardly supportive. There were no art classes. In fact, I was often disciplined for drawing in a class or study hall. One time, I got a good paddling after a teacher caught me drawing a naked woman on a blank page in my textbook. Hauled me up by the scruff of my neck like a dog, he did, and sent me to the Commandant’s office where the remedy for my deplorable  transgression was meted out against my backside.

But despite the academic upbraidings and the familial disapprobátions, I never stopped drawing—nor have I ever stopped dreaming. And today I make a comfortable living. I live with my wonderful wife in a big house in the woods that’s full of life and love and art and music and poetry and literature and books—thousands of books . . . as well as a fine English mastiff…and two worthless cats.

So don’t you ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something, because if you have the dream, and if you have enough drive, determination, discipline—and above all, the PASSION for your dream— you can bloody well do anything you want to do. The German poet Goethe said: “If you can do something—or if you dream that you can do something—then DO IT, for in action lies genius.”

So it is to those among you who dream of doing something beyond the ordinary and typical, beyond the conservative professional expectations—some-thing like becoming an artist, say, or a poet, a novelist, a theoretical scientist, a mountain climber, a flim director to whom I am speaking. And the one person I really want to hear me is probably asleep.

And so here is what I have to say about fulfilling a dream— and forgive me if the first seems glib—but the most important thing in realizing a dream is to work. Work at what you dream of doing. Work at it. Work at it everyday. At the same time everyday, for as long as you can take it—work, work, work.

You can’t depend on talent. I’ve taught for over fifty years now and I’ve never met an untalented student. Talent is as common as house dust, and—in the long run—about as valuable as teats on a boar hog. I think it was Melville who said that there is nothing more common than unsuccessful people with talent. So remember that nothing is as valuable to the achievement of a dream as is the habit of work, and work has to become a habit. Has to become something that you cannot NOT do. It has to become bone within you.

Two—listen to music. Maybe not South Pacific or the Platters, but, for God’s sake, listen to Bach. Listen to his Art of the Fugue and The Goldberg Variations. Listen to them over and over and over. Everyday, day after day until you begin to sense, if not understand, what Bach is up to. Then implement what you intuit into your own work, whether that work is dance, or prose, or poetry or putting the shot. I don’t care if you don’t like classical music, or if you feel that it has nothing to do with what you do. Do it. It is invaluable. Let that music fill your mind. Let it flow over you and into you until you are aware of nothing else. Bach—and others of his ilk— will teach you form and structure and rhythm and space and movement and all sorts of things you’ve never imagined—if only you are willing to listen and to learn.

Three—be willing to fail. William Faulkner said that to not fail is to be perfect. He said that if he ever did anything perfectly nothing would remain for him but to cut his throat. Experiment and fail. Move on.  Always keep in motion and finish the job, even if it is not exactly what you hoped it would be. Even if it is not as good as it could be. The fact of the matter is that it will never be as good as it could be, and that’s ok. It’s ok because it’s all part of the never-ending, self-perpetuating growth process—and failure, my friends, is the foundation of growth.

I’ve designed and illustrated nearly four hundred books now, and not a single one of them is perfect. But I’ll tell you this: I would rather have the three hundred and seventy imperfect books that comprise my history and mark the vectors of my journey through my art form—than to have one perfect book that would comprise nothing but its own perfect self, sitting lonely on a shelf.

Four—always think of yourself as a student—now and forever more. Never—not now, nor at any time in the future—think of yourself as an artist or a poet or a dancer or a mathematician. And never, ever refer to yourself as such. Not now. Not ever. Leave that up to someone else, and I don’t mean your mamma or daddy or anybody else who’s vested in you. To do otherwise is to be self-congratulatory and arrogant, and God only knows we have far too much arrogant, self-inflated, self-important pomposity in the arts (and in politics and professional athletics) today. So don’t you go adding your own feculance to that cesspool. Not now. Not ever.

Work. And fail. That’s all that’s important. And in doing so try your hardest to be the best that you can possibly be, and try your hardest to make the things you make, or do the things you do, as well as they can be made or as well as they can be done. Do it for the ages. Don’t squander your work and your gifts by pandering to what’s cool, or to the stupidity of what’s currently fashionable. Look beyond. Eschew that which is easily done. That which is easily understood. And that which appeals more to your hormones than to your mind.

There is little more that I can advise you, except, (first, as corny and prosaic as it may seem) put love first in your life: love of your work, and of other people, and of yourself, and of whatever things of the spirit move and motivate you.

Second, have a lot of fun in order to balance all the hard work. Maintain a fierce sense of humor to balance the underlying seriousness of your purpose. There are very few things that are so serious or important that they can’t be laughed at, or even poked a little fun at—especially politicians, televangelists, and commencement speakers.

Third, never under estimate the value of luck.

Fourth, don’t get drunk and drive a car.

Fifth, get plenty of sleep.

And, sixth, eat your greens.


4 thoughts on “Barry Moser’s Commencement Address”

  1. My son graduates from Kalamazoo College next year, I’m sending him a copy of this speech. Well said.

  2. Incredible speech–funny, insightful, totally REAL, and inspirational in an ‘into your bones’ way. It’s a wonderful read, but was really a treat to hear it delivered by the man himself.
    We are all still reeling from the enormity of the weekend. Williston changed the lives of every single person in our family, and the love and gratitude we feel for every member of the faculty, staff, administration and students can not be overstated. What a school!!

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