On Writing

Graduation Speech at The Warren Wilson MFA Program in Writing

July 12, 2018

Tonight we celebrate the achievements of the class of January, 2018. Thank you to the families and friends and partners who have helped the graduates reach this moment. We know there have been many sacrifices and we’re grateful for your belief in their work and your support of your graduate at moments of doubt and fear and tiredness.

There was much tiredness.

What I’d like to say to you is that it’s not over. This part is over, yes, but this is only the beginning. As you enter the free world, that is, a world free of packet deadlines, annotations, three week increments of productivity, you’ll take us with you. You’ll remember the words of faculty and peers and you’ll take with you our encouragement and the ongoing assistance of the friends you’ve made in this program. All of this is necessary because it’s not easy out there.

Writing is not for the faint hearted. But it is for the stubborn, the persistent, the driven, those with stories to tell, those who hear and see and believe in something true and have an inner language with its own rhythms that needs to be heard.

When I was a child, they read psalms at the morning assembly in elementary school. Starting the day with that strange Biblical language educated my ear: the valley of the shadow of death; my cup runneth over. Things like that. And then when I was in tenth grade we were assigned a Keats or Shakespeare sonnet to memorize every week. We blustered our way through: Then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone and think till love and fame to nothingness do sink. It was a good beginning and I’m grateful for it.

You who are graduating have a heightened relationship to language. You can do things with it that other people can’t. And it drives you to speak and speak and speak in the form of lines on the page.

When you leave us, don’t get lost in the clutter, in all of the distractions of our culture and this age. The Age of Enlightenment? No. Innocence? No. I believe we could call it the age of fear. The dark age. None of us can solve the issues that challenge us. Nuclear war, climate change, the rape of the natural world, masses of desperate people moving from one place to another in search of stability. We do the small things that we can do to help. We vote, we lend our support to causes we believe in, we stay informed, and we keep eyes and ears open. I suspect we are united in the realization that it’s dangerous to turn our backs and ignore the current state of affairs. But political action—in whatever form it takes—is not your primary job. Your primary job is to get your voices out there in the ways you have learned here, through fiction and poetry. We need your point of view, your images, your sounds, your imagination. You allow us to know more than ourselves, to go beyond our limited experience. Your work helps us to understand the person who is standing next to us, to feel empathy. Because, in the words of the British novelist, Ian McEwan, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than oneself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and it is the beginning of morality.” And as poet Maurice Manning told us this morning, “The self is found outside of the self.”

We are always in the process of becoming. We’re never finished. Nor is the world. The noun is misleading because the world is never static; it’s reshaping and reimagining itself always. In part, because of us, because of writers.

When I thought about what I wanted to say this afternoon I remembered a poem I first discovered in graduate school some 35 years ago. It’s one that I go back to frequently and always, the first line which goes… Even now this landscape is assembling… helps me to remember that nothing is finished, not even the past, nothing is completed, everything continues to evolve. This is true for all of us but especially the 11 people up front. You will leave here tomorrow with a substantial beginning towards a book. May that book grow and evolve because of your stubbornness and persistence. May you imagine. May you take risks. May you have courage and be outrageous and disciplined.

The poem is “All Hallows” by Louise Glück. I’m comforted by the sounds of the words, by the many verbs that build the images, and by the simple evocation of the human things we rarely talk about directly, but do always refer to in our work. Things like heart and soul and our connection to world around us.

All Hallows

Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

From House on Marshland; 1971

RECENT DISCOVERIES IN FICTION---------HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

June 14, 2017

Moshin Hamid, Exit West, novel
Maud Casey, The Man Who Walked Away, novel
Jeremy Gavron, Felix Culpa, novel
John Le Carré, A Perfect Spy, novel
Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, novel
Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone, novel
Cara Hoffman, Running, novel
Marisa Silver, Little Nothing, Mary Coin, novels
Magda Szabo, The Door, novel
Suzanne Joinson, The Photographer's Wife, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, novels
Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See, novel
Lucy Wood, Weathering, novel
Leonard Gardner, Fat City, novel
Justin Cartwright, Other People's Money, novel
Michael Parker, All I Have In This World, novel
Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things, novel
Aharon Appelfeld, Suddenly, Love, novel
Kenneth Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously, novel
David Bezmozgis, The Betrayers, novel, Natasha and Other Stories
Jim Shepard, The Book of Aron, novel
Marilynne Robinson, Lila, novel
Helen Humphreys, The Evening Chorus, The Lost Garden, novels
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, The Days of Abandonment, novels
Liam Callanan, Listen, stories
Jenny Offill. Department of Speculation, novel
Nathan Poole, Father, Brother, Keeper, stories
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries, novel
David Haynes, A Star In the Face of the Sky
Ian McEwan, Black Dogs, novella
Paul Harding, Tinkers, novel
Pat Barker, Border Crossing, novel
Alice Mattison, In Case We're Separated, linked stories
John Gahern, Amongst Women, novel
Jane Gardam, Old Filth, The Man In The Wooden Hat, Faith Fox, Flight of the Maidens, novels
Margot Livesey, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, novel
Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie, novel
Lan Samantha Chang, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, novel
Elizabeth Tallent, Time With Children, story collection
Pat Barker, Another World, novel
Pat Barker, Regeneration, novel
Michael Cunningham, By Nightfall, novel, Speciman Days, linked novellas
Liam Callanan, Cloud Atlas, novel
Michael Parker, The Watery Part of the World, novel
Kathyrn Harrison, The Seal Wife, novel
Eric Ambler, The Light of Day, novel
Shirley Hazzard, 3 novels: The Transit of Venus, The Great Fire, The Bay of Noon

March 27, 2011

THE INNER AND OUTER WORLD

AN INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN STAFFEL by Want Chyi
First published in Rain Taxi, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2010

Megan Staffel is the author of the new short story collection, Lessons in Another Language (Four Way Books, $18.95), a work that hauntingly describes the silences that unite us—however temporarily. In the title story, fourteen year old Nathan comes of age in an artist commune during the summer of 1967, while questions of trust plague the young protagonist in the novella “Natives and Strangers.” Throughout the book, Staffel explores our attempts to plunge into a “raw unorganized existence” where there can be “no facts at all.”
Staffel is the author of two novels, She Wanted Something Else (North Point Press, 1987) and The Notebook of Lost Things (Soho Press, 1999), and of the short story collection A Length of Wire and Other Stories (Pym Randall Press, 1983). She teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and lives with her husband on an old dairy farm in western New York.

Want Chyi has an MFA from Arizona State University and was the International Fiction Editor for Hayden's Ferry Review. She has taught composition and creative writing in Indiana, Arizona, Illinois, and Singapore and currently edits for the online literary journal Our Stories. She is working on a novel.


Want Chyi: Much of your writing features the environment as a central character. This is particularly true in Lessons In Another Language in which the ways people choose to interact with the natural world affect their fate. How important is setting to your work?

Megan Staffel: I live in a landscape-rich part of the country and take great pleasure in my surroundings. For me, place is more than location. It’s topography, climate, geology, flora, and fauna, as well as the economic and social institutions that arise from these elements. Two of the pieces in this collection, the story “Salt,” and the novella, “Natives and Strangers” are set in or near the fictional town of Paris, which is similar to the towns I live near, and is also the setting for my previous novel, The Notebook of Lost Things. My intention, in these fictions, is for setting to be not only the backdrop for my characters’ histories, but an element that shapes them as much as family and culture.
In contemporary fiction, the urban-suburban setting is often taken for granted, and although I have spent many years in cities and have an interest in the kinds of pressures that the anonymous life in a city places upon a character, I feel a particular calling to write about places where true physical isolation is a factor, and where ironically, anonymity can’t exist because people are known and always watched over. This more public but limited existence profiles the existential questions of our lives in a very different manner.

WC: There are several stories in this collection that focus on sibling relationships. What interests you about sibling relationships? What makes them a ripe topic for fiction—specifically yours?

MS: The sibling relationship, by its very nature, is filled with drama. Two people who have the same parents share the same house and the same general period of time, nevertheless are completely different human beings and have completely different memories and relationships with those parents. My sister and I are close and my son and daughter are close; we are for each other a witness to the very same troubles and mysteries . And yet, despite that common territory, a huge chasm separates us. These relationships interest me because they contain these contradictions. (more…)

March 27, 2011

CLOSING REMARKS


I was the keynote speaker at The Alfred Literary Festival, held at Alfred University on May 2010. It featured readings by poet Jim Shephard and fiction writer Rahul Mehta. My reading was the final reading and these are my introductory remarks:

In 1927, in his seminal work, a collection of lectures on the novel called Aspects of the Novel, writer EM Forster said, “In daily life, we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal, they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy being one of the conditions of life upon this globe.”


In 2010 I don’t think novelists want to reveal all of the secrets of their characters. We know that it’s important to withhold almost as much as we reveal. In this way, we create surprise, build tension, increase narrative momentum, those aspects of the novel that keep the reader turning pages.

But also, we have a different relationship to life now. We know we can’t know it. We know how very small we are, how very insignificant. We know that life is time and that time never stops. When Frank Sinatra, having left Ada Gardner, gazes down at the naked body of Lana Turner reclining in her bathtub in Jim Shepard’s poem, he says, “Nothing stays the same for very long.”

And because nothing stays the same for very long, we need literature. (more…)

photos by Peg Prisco