Monday, June 19, 2017

The End and Beginning of a Journey: Five Questions (and a Bonus) for Life and Writing

by Paula Gail Benson

During the month of May, numerous commencement speeches have been featured on social media sites. I feel for the persons selected for this “honor.” In a matter of a relatively few minutes, these folks are expected to be inspirational, reflective, humorous, wise, and memorable. It’s a tough gig.

My friend Art Taylor, a Yale alumnus and Associate Professor at George Mason University, faced the challenge when asked to address his son’s preschool graduation. He writes about his experience in his “Graduation Day!” post on

Art Taylor
Initially, Art had questions about the relevance of a preschool graduation, but after evaluating all he had seen his son learn, considering the relationships developed that might not continue as students went to different kindergartens, and watching the joy the graduates expressed about celebrating their milestone and preparing for their transitions, he realized that the occasion very much deserved its own recognition and struggled to keep his remarks within the allotted time frame.

As I viewed recent videos of commencement addresses, I came across a speech that I found particularly meaningful on two levels: first, for its perspective on the human experience and life lessons, and second, probably unintended by the speaker, for its applicability to writing fiction.

Dean James Ryan
The speech was given by Dean James Ryan (another Yale alum) to the Harvard Graduate School of Education on May 29, 2016. Dean Ryan, who has been described in a Harvard press release as “a scholar at the crossroads of education, law, and policy,” received his A.B., summa cum laude, from Yale University and his J.D. from the University of Virginia, which he attended on a full scholarship and from which he graduated first in his class. He clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist before teaching law at the University of Virginia. He became dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education on September 1, 2013.

In his speech, Dean Ryan addressed the five essential questions to be asked in life along with a bonus question. [Here's a link so you can read and watch the entire speech. I hope you will. It's very inspirational.] The questions Dean Ryan recommended were:

(1)       “Wait, what?” According to Dean Ryan, this question indicates that the audience has focused its attention on a particular subject. Dean Ryan’s example was asking his children to clean their rooms. He said what they heard him say was: “blah, blah, blah, and I’d like for you to clean your room.” Their “Wait, what?” signaled that they were not really listening closely, then suddenly heard something that applied directly to them, and needed him to repeat it for clarity.

In fiction, this is what we call the hook, the reason why a reader chooses one story over any other, the personal, emotional connection that convinces the reader, I want to spend my time with this author and what he or she has to tell me.

(2)       “I wonder, either why or if?” Dean Ryan characterizes this question as demonstrating curiosity and shows that a person is interested in learning more. The person has become engaged with the subject.

For fiction writers, the “I wonder” often leads to the germ of the story they decide to tell. By pondering, what would happen under certain circumstances, they come up with characters and a plot.

Similarly, seeking the why or what if often is the catalyst for a protagonist, in Christopher Vogler’s A Hero’s Journey parlance, to leave his “ordinary world” and consider “the call to adventure.” What might be possible? Is this a challenge I should accept or decline? Where will it take me?

(3)       “Couldn’t we at least . . .?” Dean Ryan says this question shows progress. Not only has the person become engaged, but he’s beginning to care about the people and process involved.

At this point in a story, the protagonist has crossed the threshold. He may not be all in and he may have obstacles to face, but he’s not going to retrace his steps back to the beginning. He’s signed on for the journey.

(4)       “How can I help?” For Dean Ryan, this question indicates the person has developed a relationship with the subject. Even more important, the person’s beginning to insert himself into the mix.

In a story, this question pervades during the midpoint through the climax. The protagonist is committed; he knows the goal and he’s going to help obtain it. He’s preparing to face the ultimate struggle.

(5)       “What truly matters (to me)?” For an individual, this is the answer to the “why” or “what if?” Dean Ryan says it explains the purpose in life and reveals the person’s heart.

For the protagonist, this is the reason the story began, the true basis for his existence, the challenge he must face.

(6)       The bonus question: “Did I get what I wanted out of life even so?” For Dean Ryan, this is the evaluation. In essence, was it worth it?

Whether the protagonist wins or loses, was the struggle a significant and valiant effort?

No matter how a story might be perceived, a writer can only hope the reader can find some level of appreciation and meaning in the outcome.

So graduates and writers, as you go forth into the world after reading this post (and hopefully the two referenced links), take these questions with you, seek out your path and that of your characters, and I hope you find the most satisfying answers possible. Thanks, Art Taylor and Dean James Ryan, for the inspiration!


  1. Ha! I'm not sure my graduation talk to Dash's pre-school class deserves to be in the same conversation as this fascinating speech at Harvard (!) but I'm glad to be here. Thanks for the fun and insightful post!

  2. Enjoyed how you related the points to writing fiction. Well done and worth remembering.