The tradition of the acceptance speech appeals to me for a few reasons. It happens in the context of community — a community honoring the achievements of its members. Often it inspires others to persevere through their own challenges, knowing that someone else managed to overcome great obstacles or do something extraordinary. And most of all, acceptance speeches are about gratitude. Expressing gratitude to everyone who contributed to what, superficially, might seem like an individual feat, but is actually the culmination of much effort by many people. (And by greater powers, if that’s how you feel about it.)
Given the loveliness of this tradition, I don’t see why it should be limited to celebrities. Or, even, like, “winners” in the traditional sense. Don’t need to tally votes to know that every day, ordinary people like you and me do good things with the help of others. So why not give ourselves, and them, a little recognition? Why not deliver our own mundane acceptance speeches?
I thought about this a lot back in the spring, when I was feeling particularly grateful for a phenomenon that honorees often mention in this oratory ritual: “being where I am today.” I started thinking of all the people without whose help I could never have reached Spain, and the meditation center that radically transformed the quality of my life.
I thought of these people, and then I started writing to them.
Here, transcribed from my notebook, is one of the first letters in my multi-phase acceptance speech. To Canadian author Alice Munro, whose short stories quite literally changed my life. Obviously, it doesn’t matter whether or not the letter actually reaches the intended recipient — I had a hell of a time trying to dig up a mailing address for this notoriously reclusive writer, and six months later my lovingly hand-stamped envelope is probably still floating around in the UK postal system. But the main point of the practice is the intention.
So, friends, do me this favor: take the concept and run with it. Reach out to somebody who’s helped you achieve something wonderful. (And yes, I guarantee that you have achieved something wonderful in the last year. ;) ) In a letter, in a Facebook post, in a phone call, over coffee. Just try it. You might like it. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!
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15 March, 2009
Dear Ms. Munro,
Hello! How are you? I hope this note finds you in good health and high spirits.
I wanted to write to you just to thank you for your work, and to express how much it has changed my life for the better. To be honest, I never thought I would say that to an author of fiction. When I reached college five years ago and discovered feminist theory and sociology, I completely immersed myself in political writing — journalism, critical social theory, even political blogs. It wasn’t until graduating, last year, that I finally felt I had the ‘time’ to read novels and short stories. Fortunately for me, a good friend had recommended Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and so I started there.
In short, I think what your stories did for me was provide a perspective on the entire arc of a person’s life. And what I saw was that people do not necessarily get wiser as they get older. Coming out of Harvard, with everyone informing me (directly or indirectly) that life goes onward and upward, that personal progress is essentially linear (grad school; begin career; get married; help more and more people through your career; be somebody; etc.), your fiction gave me a reality check. A much, much needed reality check.
Aha! So neuroses and destructive cycles don’t simply disappear as youth fades.
Aha! So we don’t automatically learn how to be better people.
Aha! So the unexpected, and usually the unwanted, is bound to happen sometime, whether gradually or suddenly.
Aha! Pain takes us by surprise. Catches us sleeping.
So thank you, Ms. Munro, for this very valuable wisdom. Your work inspired me to slow my own pace and spend more time trying to identify and cultivate good qualities. I took my interest in Buddhist philosophy off of the page and onto the floor, joined a meditation center near my apartment and began to practice. Observing and learning, very slowly. The practice has helped me immensely. And now, rather than be bullied or seduced into law school, or into any sort of predetermined future, I’m finding my own way. Sometimes it may coincide with the mythical linear trajectory; sometimes not. But so far, it feels wonderful.
Thank you for your courage in writing, for your kindness to yourself and others. Thanks for the reality check.
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PS: I think the lessons your stories taught me are similar to the kind of insight that a ‘high achiever’ might gain when someone close to them dies. Cracking the illusion of control. I prefer your books. Haha!
this is a lovely idea. for the past few months i’ve been thinking about slipping a little thank you note under the door of my former therapist who was instrumental in helping me make through my quarter-life crisis. i wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.
or, i wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the relationship she and i cultivated every tuesday evening for over a year.
what i love about your post is how it surfaces the networks that prop up the individual, the networks, relationship and connections that enable us to achieve the mundane task of being in the world day in and day out.
thanks for this!