John Waters, author of 'Make Trouble,' appears at Pen America/Free Expression Literature on May 5, 2014. PEN American Center

Iconic filmmaker shares wisdom to art students in ‘Make Trouble’

What makes a successful commencement speech? Perhaps the most crucial component is the speaker. Usually, the speaker must come from a background that meets the interests of the majority of the graduating class: while an 80-year-old litigator might excite pre-law students, biology majors might end up staring at their phones during the entire duration of the speech. With a student body that is more homogeneous in terms of its interests and majors, finding the right speaker might be relatively easier. But at any school, if the speaker is able to understand the set of values and aspirations the student body has, then the speaker will have no problem appealing them.

Tufts seems to have settled on media personalities as having a broad appeal, at least for the past two years with actor Hank Azaria in 2016 and “Black-ish” (2014–present) producer Kenya Barris this year. 

The above reasons are precisely what make Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) choice to have John Waters as the commencement speaker for the 2015 graduating class genius. In fact, the speech was so popular that Waters, a filmmaker, actor and general Renaissance Man, recently published it in book form under the name “Make Trouble” (2017).

RISD students (or any student pursuing a degree in the arts) are inherently idealistic, as they seek to contribute to society by utilizing creativity. Waters is in agreement with this goal, as his career can be interpreted as an attempt to better society by challenging its norms.

The filmmaker, who self-identifies as “prince of puke” and “the people’s pervert,” has defined queer culture with his collaborations with drag queen Divine, contributed to the mainstream-ization of drag with his movie “Hairspray” (1988) and pushed the notion of filth and humor to the extreme for over four decades. Waters is creative enough to inspire a batch of art students, popular enough to interest parents and provocative enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

The result, simultaneously witty and inspirational, has the potential to top the best commencement speeches of all time. Waters’ “Make Trouble” is accompanied by illustrations from artist Eric Hanson, and will include highlights and charming aphorisms from Waters’ famous speech. The book will touch on many life lessons from Waters and celebrates creativity, self-expression and art.

Waters’ speech has a very conventional structure: he starts off by talking about his own career, then proceeds to give advice to the graduating class and addresses the parents in the audience as well. Yet because Waters’ career is not ordinary, his speech ends up pretty unique too. When referencing his own success, Waters is quite humble:

“The final irony — a creatively crazy person who finally gets in power,” he writes.

He is, after all, perceived to be an anomaly as an outcast embraced by the mainstream. Waters, however, opposes the idea that he is the exception to the rule, insisting that the times have changed. He considers students today to be very lucky because they are encouraged to practice creativity.

“Today, you could possibly even make a snuff movie in college and get an A+,” Waters jokes. “Who would have ever thought a top college would invite a filth elder like myself to set an example to its students?” 

The speech includes many life lessons in the form of aphorisms — sometimes hilarious and off-topic (“Don’t hate rich people!”), sometimes insightful and — questionably — more mature (“Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully”). These lessons will surely be useful to students preparing to enter the real world.

“Make Trouble” is only 72 pages long and it takes 10 minutes to finish it. Its average reader is probably someone flipping through it while waiting on the checkout line of a museum shop, rather than someone who actually owns it. Yet it still makes for a great read. With simple, imaginative illustrations, it inspires all outsiders who strive to change society one brushstroke, word or shot at a time.

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