Aaron Sorkin Delivers SU Commencement Address
Aaron Sorkin has won Emmys and an Oscar for spinning good yarns on television and in the movies.
He can also add "darn good commencement speaker" to his list of accolades, as he wowed 16,272 people in the Carrier Dome during 2012 commencement ceremonies for Syracuse University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
“I liked the speaker,” said graduate Lisa Mullan, of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. “His speech was funny, inspirational and the most entertaining part of the graduation.”
“Graduation was cool, it was a lot different than what I expected,” said graduate Taylor Metcalfe, of Oakville, Ontario, Canada. “And the speaker was really great.”
Sorkin, the award-winning screenwriter, producer and playwright of such movies as “A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” and television shows “The West Wing,” “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” graduated from SU in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater.
He delivered an entertaining speech for the nearly 6,000 graduates and their families and friends with talk about his years on the hill, his mistakes and advice as the graduates move on from SU.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but from time to time the city of Syracuse experiences inclement weather,” he said. “All this going to class and reading and walking through snow, wind chill that’s apparently powered by jet engines, was having a negative effect on my social life in general and my sleeping in particular.”
He told a story about how one day in his play analysis class, he was quizzed on the play “Death of a Salesman.”
This was “a play I had not read and I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies,” he said to an uproar of laughter. “And I failed the class.”
He had to repeat the class his sophomore year.
“It was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing. And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer,” he said. “I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D. I’m joking: it was pass/fail.”
But what he learned from this and his professor, Geraldine Clark, was mistakes will be made and they can be corrected. “I stood at the back of the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington watching a pre-Broadway tryout of my plays, knowing that when the curtain came down, I could go back to my hotel room and fix the problem in the second act with the tools that Gerry Clark gave me,” he said.
Sorkin also told the graduates about his 10-year addiction to cocaine.
“My big fear was that I wasn’t going to be able to write without it,” Sorkin said. “There was no way I was going to be able to write without it. Last year I celebrated my 11-year anniversary of not using coke. ... In that 11 years, I’ve written three television series, three movies, a Broadway play, won the Academy Award and taught my daughter all the lyrics to “Pirates of Penzance.”
At the end, Sorkin told the graduates that as of today, everything changes. He said “decisions are made by those who show up,” and “don’t ever forget you are a citizen of the world.”
As such, he said the graduates can do many things — some of them free — to change the world, things such as “civility, respect, kindness, character.” He said, “ You’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance — and ... you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy. Unless they went to Georgetown, in which case, they can go to hell.”
But in all, he told them, this is it — rehearsals are over and now, they’ve got to do it, live their lives and make a difference.
“Today is May 13, and today you graduate, and my friends, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” he said.