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

photos by Peg Prisco