Though her family sometimes received food stamps and occasionally had their utilities cut off, Marcie Alvis Walker’s parents led her to believe that they were an average middle-class Black family. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d achieve them. The small catch was that Walker’s dream was an elusive one for any cash-strapped and undereducated Black woman: being a New York Times–bestselling author. Now, as a published non-bestselling author, she wishes she’d had a backup plan.

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Well, look at you. You’re all so brand spanking new, shiny, and gleaming. The world was made for the likes of you as you are now. Young. Supple. Idealistic. Yes, even the goths with their cloaks of (imaginary? performative?) sorrow, black as their black kohl-rimmed eyes. Yes, you are hopeful and just as starry-eyed and dreamy as the sunshiny ones that you scorn as vehemently as Dracula despises daylight. But you’re here too, wearing a robe and a ridiculous hat with a tassel. The truly sinister-at-heart, antiestablishment marauder wouldn’t be caught dead among such living. I’m not saying you’re a poser; I’m just saying it takes a lot more than memorizing Ginsberg to truly be one of the disillusioned, walking dead. Here’s my message to you: maybe you should truly live within the illusion of a tax-paying regular Joe before you disavow it. How can you disavow what you don’t know?

But I’m not here to speak to you. There’s a cache of literary giants, military heroes, and late-night talk show hosts booked especially for you—the privileged, wearing your birthright like a hair shirt. So don’t you worry: a prestige-stuffed, accolade-fluffed, Mr. Big Important Somebody will step up to the podium to warm your entitled fingers and toes, just as soon as I’ve finished speaking. Spare just ten minutes for me to have a genuine moment with the have-nots. I promise, your life-giving words are coming—though we all know you’ll forget their words, full of pomp and circumstance, the minute you move your tassel to the left. And that’s okay, because your legacy admission has fed you well, and the last thing you need is another amuse-bouche morsel of words to eat. So sit back and relax at your bountiful table while I serve up some pocket crumbs to the least of these.


My dear poor-in-spirit-and-in-bank-account Sallie Mae babies: I’ll be fifty-five in four months, and I still have $20K (more or less) in student loans. I rent a beautiful, vintage, walk-up condo with its original wood molding and exposed-brick walls in a swanky neighborhood in Chicago. My fifty-one-year-old white and British partner, a graphic designer, is still carrying around $40K (more or less) in student loans. Combined, we bring in about $150–200K, which means we do all right but not great. We’re rarely more than a day or two late with rent, and we get most of our groceries from Whole Foods—although we don’t vacation much. Probably someday we could maybe buy our rental, but neither of us really knows how to go about getting a mortgage or finding the right plumber. So renting suits us. Yes, I said we’re over fifty.

And why do you need to know anything about my income, today of all days? Well, I wished someone had told me when I left college (yes, left—I didn’t graduate) that this whole experience was about more than just getting a degree so I could someday have a high enough credit score to get a lease on a decent car or dream apartment.

I know for the past four or five years, you’ve had plans—big gorgeous plans—that have less to do with the outer shell of life and more to do with the tender meat of it—your purpose, your heart song, your raison d’être. And for far too many of you sitting here today, I know your greatest desire is to become a bona fide, gifted, brilliant, best-selling, award-winning writer like one of these guys sitting behind me about to take the podium in just a few minutes. Well, at fifty-four years old, let me just say: me too.

And let me tell you—it hasn’t happened. I don’t know why, but it hasn’t. Partly because I didn’t realize just how poor my family was when I was a student, I mistakenly thought my American “bootstraps” perseverance, grit, and dogged determination—paired with that oh-so-American dream of a word “merit”—were my ticket to the sunny side of a very expensive, gorgeous, tree-lined street in an invisibly gated neighborhood.

Please listen to me: here’s something the gilded-picket-fence-deed-owners sitting behind me on this stage won’t tell you: merit is a zero-sum game that’s been about as useful in their lives as a dangling participle is in a sentence. They know if they edited it out, nothing would change for them. They know that merit can’t exist in a vacuum, at least not in these hallowed halls. They know it needs to be submerged in a tall glass of privilege to make it grow. But you, my darlings—the last of the diversity admissions of our lifetime—don’t you fret about it.

My dear aspiring ones, merit or privilege do not a life make. Of course, they’re not totally useless, and if someday you find yourself ladled in meritocracy and Benjamins, by all means, bask in the deep waters! But I have to be honest: for most of you—the starving yet overly educated—life won’t go that way. It certainly won’t go that way for those of you who want to be enshrined as one of the literary giants of your time.

So, how are you poor, unfortunate ones truly going to live? Where’s your yellow brick road? Where are your ruby red slippers? Where are your bootstraps? Well, a guaranteed good life isn’t part of the infrastructure for your kind. Your equal opportunities weren’t built into the foundation, so your prosperity won’t come in the form of material gains that can be bought and sold.

Don’t look so sad. All is not lost. You already have your precious ring of power, a greater power than privilege: someone who believes in you.

Now, I’m not talking about belief in yourself. That’ll never work. It’s not sustainable. Life’s too volatile with emotions and feelings. One day youthinkyoucan youthinkyoucan youthinkyoucan, and the next day you’re convinced you’re a hack. But having someone in your corner who believes in you even more than you do? Well, that’s a belief that pays innumerable dividends.

So, I want you to think of that one person in your life who’s always believed in you. I don’t mean some Pollyanna enabler of your far-fetched fantasies—so probably not your mom. Think of that one person who, despite knowing your weaknesses, tirelessly believes in you, wants everything for you, expects you to do great (and even impossible things), and doesn’t need a thing from you.

And I’m not talking about some distant, inaccessible icon. I want you to think of someone who has actually looked upon your face and given life. So unless Kiese Laymon, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, or Neil Gaiman have actually called you by name, none of them apply.

You need to think of a person like Maya Angelou’s Mrs. Bertha Flowers. In Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in the space of a single conversation, Sister Flowers gazed upon a young Angelou and cured the future best-selling author of her selective mutism brought on by horrific trauma:

Mrs. Flowers, a lady in my town, started me reading when I was about 8… I was already reading, but she started me reading in the black school, and I read all the books in the black school library. She had some contact with the white school, and she would bring books to me, and I would just eat them up.

When I was about 11 and a half, she said to me one day—I used to carry a tablet around on which I wrote answers—and she asked me, “Do you love poetry?” I wrote yes. It was a silly question from Mrs. Flowers; she knew. She told me, “You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it. Until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.” And I ran out of her house. I thought: I’ll never go back there again. She was trying to take my friend…

She would catch me and say, “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.” I’d run away and every time she’d see me she would just threaten to take my friend. Finally, I did take a book of poetry, and I went under the house and tried to speak, and could.

All her life, Maya Angelou was empowered by Mrs. Bertha Flowers’s words, so much so she shared them verbatim when she sat down with Terry Gross for a Fresh Air interview. For nearly fifty years, Mrs. Flowers’s words had carried Maya Angelou.

So that’s what all us aspirers need: enduring words laid upon us by someone who wants us to want it more.

My dear, wretchedly-plebian-born souls, let me be your Sister Bertha Flowers. For whatever it is that comes after this, whatever comes next down the dream road to forever, here’s my advice: Every time you punch a clock, working some nothingness job—no matter if it’s at Walgreens or Random House—if you took the job because, like Angelou, you made a selective decision to silence yourself rather than live out loud. Wake up! Don’t waste time silencing your dreams. Time never pauses. It only trudges on, and before you know it, you’re fifty-four. You gotta trust me on this! It’ll be here sooner than you think.

So, for godsakes, don’t waste your time being intimidated by these pampered, mollycoddled, legacy-admitted, generously accommodated have-it-alls. Go and write the book. Christ! Self-publish if you must. Hell, build your own damn publishing house.

My legacy-inverse orphans, I see the hunger in your needy little eyes. Please don’t expend your energy longing for some words of wisdom from these fat cats behind me who never once doubted they’d be a success. The world was made for the likes of them. So let them have it. Move that tassel to the left, trudge forward, and go! Write! Write a lot and sometimes even well. But don’t you ever be like me, a fifty-four-year-old spinning Tardis of empty daydreams. Remember what Mrs. Bertha Flowers told Maya Angelou: open your guts and speak.