Book Review: What Now?

whatnowHaving recently discovered Ann Patchett’s wonderful novels, I was pleasantly surprised to learn she had also written a stirring essay based on her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College.

Less than one hundred pages in length, What Now? can easily be read in one sitting. Using anecdotes from her own life, Patchett offers many simple truths and life lessons that will inspire anyone at a crossroads, not just newly-minted graduates.

As a recent retiree, I recall facing the What Now? question many times during the year before and after my official retirement. I could easily identify with the relief that Patchett experienced when she finally received a college acceptance letter. And I agree that having an answer to that annoying question was even more meaningful than the actual acceptance itself.

I was amused by the incident that led to an unexpected encounter and friendship with Alice Ilchman, the president of Sarah Lawrence College. And Patchett’s comment: “Sometimes circumstances at hand force us to be braver than we actually are, and so we knock on doors and ask for assistance. Sometimes not having any idea where we are going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.”

While Patchett appreciated the education she received from Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was also grateful to the nuns who taught her throughout her elementary and secondary years. So many wonderful descriptions: “Receiving an education is a little like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it’s in you but takes awhile to digest”; “I learned modesty, humility and how to make a decent white sauce”; “In a world that is flooded with children’s leadership camps and grown-up leadership seminars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following.”

The road to best-selling author is never a linear one. In Ann Patchett’s case, she “batted around like a shuttlecock after graduation” and when she ran out of money, took a job as a line cook. Getting fired, graduate school and more detours until she realized that “What Now is always going to be a work in progress.”