The Difference Between Reading Your Life & Writing It


Adam Norris at the CAS reception at the Quad Cities campus Spring 2019.

Here is the speech I wrote for Honors Convocation, under the guidance of Dr. Macchi and Dr. McGinty. I was thrilled when a young woman told me after the ceremony that my speech had inspired her to return to school and finish her degree. I hope it can inspire more people! – Adam Norris

Thank you, Interim Provost Clow. I’d like to begin by telling you a personal story, with assurances that it will have a point, and will relate to you. Two years ago, I took Dr. Malachuk’s course on literary theory. One of the philosophers we studied in this class was Richard Rorty. It was within his writings that I discovered the foundation of my own personal philosophy, and it is that perspective that I want to share with you today.

In his writings, Rorty constantly refers to what he calls our “final vocabularies.” They are vocabularies, because they are the sets of words that we use to tell ourselves who we are and where we’re headed, and they are final, in that these words cannot be broken down, cannot be further explained. They are words that are foundational aspects of our reality, which can only be truly understood by living our life, and possessing our identity. These terms tell us what we think of our selves and of the others around us, and are fundamental to our outlook on life; words like “good” and “bad” and “kindness” and “cruelty.” With our final vocabularies, we construct our perceptions of our world, our community, our peers, and ourselves and share them with one another. In this way, Rorty believes that we don’t discover our reality; we create our perceptions of reality using our Final Vocabularies.

When I first encountered this idea, I was immediately hooked. The idea that the reality of my life was negotiable, that everything was on the table, was a breath of fresh air. My journey here at Western was my second attempt at college, the first having started strong, but ultimately burning out. That being said, I already felt I was on shaky ground, coming back to school to finish what I had started several years before.

So the idea of establishing my reality, rather than discovering it, felt empowering to me. When it came time to write a paper about this idea that had enthralled me, I found myself working harder than I had on any assignment since I had enrolled at Western. I’m sure many of you have excelled at Western since your very first class, but for those of you who, like me, found themselves consistently coming up short in their pursuit of that first big “A” on a major assignment, you can understand the anticipation I felt as I awaited my grade. I was sure this would be it; this would be the elusive A I had been hoping to finally earn.

To my utter dismay, I received a B+

Surprising even myself, I ended up writing an extremely lengthy email to my professor, trying to explain the genius of my paper (although it wasn’t very good) and imploring to know what it was about Richard Rorty’s idea that I hadn’t understood (it was quite a bit). Dr. Malachuk’s gracious response, along with generous assurances that I could earn A’s if I kept working at it, was that I should join the Honors College, which would greatly benefit me through the extra projects and one-on-one time with my professors.

Prior to accepting the challenge of joining the Honors College, I was extremely nervous. It had taken years to build up the courage and self-confidence to enroll in school again; did I really want to challenge myself with enrolling in the Honors College as well? What I was really asking myself was “Do I believe there is a reality of success waiting for me if I enroll in the Honors College?” Perhaps your own deliberations factored in different life circumstances, but I feel safe in assuming we all can relate to some level of speculation we engaged in prior to enrolling in school, or any other huge life challenge we’ve taken on. Could we handle the extra workload, the additional time required? Was success waiting for us on the other side?

Whether we know it or not, when we participate in deliberations like this, we are doing so from the position of someone who is to receive the reality of who we are and what we’re capable of. We factor in our outside commitments, our personal history, and our general level of self-reliance, and construct stories in our heads of what we think might be reality: stories of success and stories of failure. Then we determine which of those stories feel like what we’ve previously known reality to be.  This is how we unconsciously construct the stories of our life experience, and it’s how we tend to fall into a rut. When your future reality is dictated by what you know to be your past reality, the memory of past failures becomes the promise of future shortcomings.

But if each of us can recognize this mechanism through which we construct our personal reality, then reality doesn’t have to be something we receive, and today’s reality has no need to look anything like yesterday’s reality. If we can recognize that our realities start with our stories, then we can start consciously writing our stories, and consciously writing our realities. It was not until I accepted that I can have a hand in writing my own story, and that the absolute reality of what I am capable of is undeniably connected to what I say I am capable of, that I gained the confidence to accept the challenge of entering the Honors College. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it confidence. It didn’t feel like confidence. It felt like self-knowledge. It felt like liberation.

That is the message I would like to leave you with. We need to recognize that everyone’s perception of reality starts with the stories of potential reality in their head. We need to recognize these stories, embrace them and share them. Be receptive to others’ stories. Read everything you can about the lives of others, because you never know what it will reveal to you about your own life. But then write back to them. Be productive with your life story, not receptive. Consciously write your stories that shape your perception of reality, and you will be effectively writing your reality.

So write your reality. Write your reality out in detailed prose, or in ambivalent poetry. Write your fiction, and then test out which fictitious stories start to feel real to you. Don’t be content to merely read your own life. Pick up a utensil and start writing it. Thank you for listening.