For many of us, college is a journey full of ups and downs. While many people look forward to graduation day, I can almost guarantee that not a lot of people think about who is going to give the commencement speech or what they are going to talk about. Now, you may be thinking that every commencement speech is basically the same so why does this guy matter? You’d be correct in that assumption; they are all pretty much the same. However, one speech that has stood apart from them all is “This Is Water.” David Foster Wallace gave this commencement speech on May 21st, 2005 to the graduating class of Kenyon College. Since then, his sarcastic and brutally honest speech has been made into videos, documented in multiple online databases, and even printed as a small non-fiction novel. David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York in 1962 and he tragically took his own life at age 46 in September of 2008. An accomplished author, speaker, and friend, he published sixteen different literary works, both fiction and nonfiction. All of his works were published by one company–– Little, Brown and Company–– which is an American publisher founded in 1837. They are “committed to publishing fiction of the highest quality and nonfiction of lasting significance.” During his lifetime, David Foster Wallace was awarded a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. His legacy lives on through The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust; the foundation is currently donating the proceeds of sales from his collected works, The David Foster Wallace Reader. The proceeds will go to the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam – a nonprofit that advocates youth literacy, critical thinking, and youth voice through poetry competitions, workshops, and community showcases.
“This Is Water” is classified as a motivational and persuasive speech in which David Foster Wallace challenges his audience to choose to live a full and compassionate life from that moment forward. This twenty-two-minute speech became so popular that his published seized the opportunity to memorialize his work and createdThis Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. This nonfiction book is his speech, word for word, printed out over 137 pages. Pictured to the right is the cover of the book. Published only a year after his death, the book is available for purchase online or in stores at a range of four to eleven dollars. If you’re not interested in purchasing the book, here is a LINK to the audio and text version of the speech.
Originally written for a group of college graduates and scholars who worked at Kenyon College, “This Is Water” became so much more than just another commencement speech. His words encompass passion, the value of a single choice, life’s clichés, and the motivation to succeed in whatever life path you choose. I was curious in my research so I decided to see how this speech ranked in comparison to others according to the toughest critic: The Google Search Engine. If you type “Motivational Speeches” into your computer, 22 of the Most Inspiring Speeches pops up and places Foster Wallace’s speech as number two. Among the ranks include: J.K. Rowling, Sylvester Stallone, Steve Jobs, Ellen DeGeneres, and many others. This goes to show “This Is Water” is comparably unique to other graduation ceremony speeches.
People who are likely to engage with this text include but are not limited to: a person who is preparing to write a commencement speech, a person seeking motivation or how to
handle stress, future or current college graduates, or even someone who is researching David Foster Wallace. Situations and motivations for textual engagement range from research to pure enjoyment to stumbling upon the speech after a deep Internet dive. In its original context, the speech was delivered by one person to the masses. An important aspect of the context was that during the speech, there were no special effects, technologies, or digital enhancements, only his brutally honest and slightly sarcastic message. This is significant because it shows that he was not concealing any bias or ulterior motives other than what he directly told his audience about. David Foster Wallace’s motivation behind writing and presenting the speech the manner in which he did can be drawn back to a line within the speech itself: “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” His motivation stems from the belief that it is the audience’s choice to lead a life worth living. The purpose behind his powerful words is to inspire the masses that they have that opportunity to navigate their future day-to-day adult life with compassion, fearlessness, and faith.
Throughout his entire speech, David Foster Wallace uses a variety of plain and creative stylistic strategies and rhetorical devices in order to captivate his audience’s attention and open accessibility to a wide variety of people. Right away, he demolishes the speaker to audience barrier by telling his listeners that “[i]f anyone feels like perspiring, I’d invite you to go ahead because I’m sure going to.” For the next twenty-two-minutes, he maintains this same level of conversational and down-to-earth tone with his audience. By speaking to the graduates of Kenyon College directly and on a personal level, he establishes a connection that captivates their attention. He never lets his listeners’ thoughts wander because he is constantly saying things like “[a]s I’m sure you guys know by now…” and “[y]ou get the idea…” The speech begins with a short story about some fish in the water and directly after, his brutally honest agenda comes out as he states:
The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.
In this small part of an overall larger message, David Foster Wallace reveals three things to his audience. First, he tells the audience that he is aware of the typical format for commencement speeches but he generally doesn’t like the style. Because of this, he has decided to go about it in his own way. Second, he is “not the wise old fish.” Meaning, that just because he was asked to give a speech to liberal arts graduates doesn’t mean that he knows the meaning of life; he isn’t about to tell them everything they need to know or what they should do. That is for them to figure out. And finally, he clears up any ambiguity in the meaning of that short story. He makes it clear that he is not going to let his audience listen to his entire speech without telling them exactly what he is trying to say or what the point of the story is. All three strategies establish his credibility with the audience within the first couple of minutes. What surprised me the most about this speech was how informal and personal it was. The fact that he remained honest and open during the entire speech made me want to trust him and pay more attention.
David Foster Wallace makes fun of and critiques the stereotypical style of commencement speeches in order to create an open-space with his audience and capture their attention. To the right is a table of readability statistics combined from two different calculators. As you can see, the average
Written in a brutally honest filter, this speech advises the audience on how to navigate through their future day-to-day adult life. The stylistic elements and rhetorical strategies work together in order to open up reader accessibility and understanding. This is important because David Foster Wallace’s stylistic choices allow the masses to understand and benefit from his message: This Is Water. So why does any of this matter? You have the choice to decide what to stress over, what to celebrate, or what to forget. This is water and you always have the power.
- Lindsey M.