Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently received an honorary degree from Williams College and was also the College’s commencement speaker for the 2017 ceremony.
The author gave an inspiring speech about her journey into becoming an acclaimed writer and how luck played a role.
I think luck is important, and luck has played a role in the success that I have achieved as a writer. I’m not saying this to practice that kind of false modesty in which one coyly refuses to claim one’s success. I am instead acknowledging that there are writers out there in the world, who write as well or better than I do and who have not had the same success that I have.
I was fortunate that an agent took me on and her words to me were, “I will take a chance on you.” I was fortunate that my first novel was published 15 years ago at a time when the American publishing industry was going through a new kind of flexibility and openness.
But the thing about luck is that you have to be prepared to meet it. its just one ingredient out of many. Sometimes, you have to nudge fortune a little, sometimes, barge at fortune, and keep trying because luck is never enough.
Writing is what I love. Writing is my vocation. Had I not have a good fortune of being published, I would be somewhere completely unknown, but I would be writing and I would also be doing the two things that I consider the essential corollaries of writing; reading and dreaming.
But I made the decision to be published. I did the research. I wrote and re-wrote stories, I sent out manuscripts, this was in the late 1990s before email became common and I spent a lot of the little money I had buying stamps for self-addressed envelopes and each time I went to the mailbox and saw my own handwriting on the thick envelope, I knew that my manuscript had been sent back and I would feel sad, and I would give myself a bit of time to be upset and then, I would dust myself up and go look up more literary agent addresses in the library and send off a new batch of manuscripts.
I got rejection after rejection, but I kept sending them out and then I got lucky, which is to say that my determination and my hard work and my ambition met with fortune. Yes, ambition. And to all of you, particularly, the women, because so many studies have shown how unfairly American societies judges women who are considered ambitious, I want to say, please own your ambition. Ambition is not a bad word, the desire to be better and to do better is not a bad thing.
I was also writing short stories and sending them out to journals and for each story, I sent out that was rejected, I knew that it was either that the story was a bad fit for the particular journal or that the story was just bad.
Maybe the characters were flat, maybe the prose was limp, which is to say that it’s very helpful to be clear-eyed about your own work, to be able to hold in your hand, the possibility that you might not have done your best.
Watch the video below.