Robert Krulwich—radio genius, science writer, journalist extraordinaire—delivered one of the most impressive Commencement speeches I’ve ever read to the Berkeley School of Journalism in 2011. It’s the kind of address that’s inspiring but not to the point of blind sanguinity. British science writer Ed Yong posted the full text version, plus a link to the video, on his National Geographic blog, “Not Exactly Rocket Science.” The speech centers on Krulwich’s belief that to be influential, a young person would do well to stop standing in the line for Opportunity. “Horizontal loyalty,” he says—as well as a religious dedication to one’s writing—is the way to effect change. My favorite line, though, comes toward the end of the speech; Krulwich writes:
“But in a world like this… rampant with new technologies, and new ways to do things, the newcomers… that means you… you here today, you have to trust your music… It’s how you talk to people your age, your generation. This is how we change.”
The phrase “you have to trust your music” refers to the idea that each generation brings with it new waves of pop music, of side-street hip-hop or jazz, of Indie flavors couched in guitar strums, of revitalized classical melodies… and so on. As young people, we have to protect each other’s music—that is, we have to protect our values, our core beliefs, our internal guidance systems. We have to listen to the music of our time, whatever that means. In this way, writing is an act of listening. Journalism means tapping into—and trusting—new voices and new timbres.
When I was a freshman in college, my comparative literature professor left me a note at bottom of my first paper. “Try writing more like Mozart and less like Reger,” he wrote. I didn’t know who Reger was at the time, but I did know Mozart. My professor didn’t know until I emailed him a few weeks later that his comment completely revolutionized my understanding of academic writing. To be fair, not all writing should be academic or Mozartian; but still, the analogy made me see writing as a force to be reckoned with. Your words will refuse to serve your purposes unless you step back and see them for the shape you really want them to take and the sounds you really want them to make.
All of this is to say that, in style and substance, we can each find our own Mozart (and we don’t have to wage severals wars to do so). As a result, we can finally sort through all the Reger-esque commotion that we’ve inherited over the years and extricate whatever Mozartian details seem most promising to our time and to ourselves.