Another Graduation Speech (09.27.11)

Audience is everything. That’s what I’ve told my writing students.  In the best tradition of gnomic utterances, I was cleaving to the truth in all senses of the word.

Content counts for something. Technical excellence counts for something. The writer probably counts for something, although you run into a variation of the Heisenberg Principle with writers: you can either know what a writer is writing or if he or she counts for something, but not both at once. A writer writing is a work in progress as much as an unfinished sentence on the screen.

In a life as well as in writing, a good last paragraph always shoots back through the whole of a piece, finalizing its context, and, if it’s really good, its audience. But without audience, none of these things means anything.

The 2008 class of the Pacific University MFA program asked me to deliver the faculty address at their graduation. These were not high school students on the brink of a new world full of new adventures. These were people who had sacrificed time and treasure and in some cases jobs and relationships to learn to write over the previous two years. They knew their future as writers and as human beings was uncertain. Life on the other side of an MFA is unknowable and unpredictable and good luck can turn bad in an instant. I wasn’t going to tell them that—graduation, after all, is supposed to be a happy occasion. But I wanted to give them the ability to stand outside their educations for a moment and look for a way to navigate the potholed road ahead.

So for my fifty-first blog, more baccalaureatana:

Commencement Address

Pacific University MFA Program

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Graduates, colleagues, and friends and family of graduates:

This ceremony marks a happy and hopeful occasion, but also a solemn one, and one that can be tinged by fear.

Receiving a terminal degree is a real rite of passage, one of the few we have left. You can get married—and unmarried. You can get a driver’s license but it can be taken away. You can vote but your vote can be taken away if you don’t have a driver’s license. Losing your virginity is reversible if you join a fundamentalist youth group. People currently trying to upload their brains into hard drives tell us that death is a minor matter involving the transfer of ones and zeroes, hardly worth a ceremony. Of course you can be born-again, which is a big rite of passage, but being born-again doesn’t always mean you stay born-again.

However, graduating with an MFA from Pacific University is permanent. Your degree means you are a recognized master of your craft. The font of wisdom, which you once may have located in this faculty, is now located in you.

That’s where fear comes in. Because probably you don’t feel like you contain a font of wisdom. It’s likely that your wisdom feels barely adequate to get you to the second page of your next story, or to the second stanza of your next poem.

I know that if I had been told I contained a font of wisdom at my MFA graduation, I would have applied to the University of Utah’s PhD program in creative writing, hoping that in another three years I would have enough wisdom for a font.

But my problem was not too little wisdom. It was too much. During the few short semesters of my MFA I had been hit with wisdom from all angles, most of it contradictory, and a good part of it obvious fabrication. I had read too much, learned too much, been told too much, and thought too much. No way could I put it all together. I felt like I’d been locked inside a kaleidoscope for two years. On drugs. With a bunch of monkeys.

Fortunately our MFA commencement speaker was my old girlfriend LaDawna Spiegle-Fenster, the best-selling author of I Think I Can, I Think I Can: How a Benign Universe Makes Writing Painless and Fun. LaDawna stood at the lectern in a chartreuse duster and bright pink cowboy boots and a sky blue cowboy hat—she was not in academic garb because she didn’t have an MFA—and told us that, no problem, we could take all the chaos of our new knowledge and make sense of it, poem by poem, book by book. Just like that.

And she was right. That’s the way it happened for me. Story by story, article by article, book by book, I figured it out. Except it was never painless. And the contradictions never resolved themselves. It was fun, but that was because early on I had learned to love pain.

I should tell you I didn’t really go to my MFA graduation. I spent graduation day trying to finish an article I had foolishly promised the editor of an airline magazine. It had gone so badly that I had called him up on the day it was due and told him I couldn’t do it. He told me to get it in by midnight or Luigi and Nunzio would be around to break every appendage I could possibly use to type with. So when Pomp and Circumstancewas playing, I was keeping cadence by pounding my head on my keyboard. Over the years, I have written a lot of articles that way, just so I’d have something to hand to Luigi and Nunzio when they came to the door.

You should also know I made up what LaDawna Spiegel-Fenster was wearing that day, and the title of her book. I got a real kick out of writing the phrase Benign Universe.

For that matter, I made up LaDawna.  I have no idea who spoke at my MFA graduation.

But you know how little kids have imaginary playmates? LaDawna was my imaginary girlfriend. We started dating my sophomore year in high school, but we broke up when I was twenty-four. I wanted to get married but she said she needed space to write. Then she went and married a hedge-fund manager and broke my heart. She got divorced and with the two million dollars she got from that breakup, she bought a little island off the coast of British Columbia where she writes her books.

I’ve kept track of her. She writes a book in an established genre, gets it published, and it sells well. She writes another book. Sometimes if I drink too much I call her up at 3 a.m. and ask her how she can waste her talent writing genre stuff. She asks me how much moneyI’ve ever made on writing. Then she says it’s late and she isn’t alone, she’s got a new boyfriend, he’s a plastic surgeon, he’s going to do over her whole body, bit by bit—how creepy is that?—and she tells me to renew my Zoloft prescription, and hangs up.

I’ve given up on LaDawna. But when I go to Barnes and Noble and look in the staff’s picks section, a couple of her books are always there.

You might intuit that when LaDawna left me, I lost a part of myself that would have made it easier for me to write. That’s true. She’s much more in tune with the publishing world than I am, much more at ease with the words she puts on the page, much more sure that her stories, books, and articles are her own creations rather than scary entities that are demanding to be born into this world.

That’s the biggest difference between us. My work scares the hell out of me and is never in control. She’s always in perfect control of hers and isn’t afraid of it, and has no reason to be.

I said earlier that graduating with an MFA from Pacific University cannot be reversed. That’s a good thing, because there will come times when you will be trying to help a book into this world, and you will be in agony, and you won’t know if that book—if it ever makes it—will bless you or curse you. You will wish then that you could be back before your MFA, before you learned how difficult and delicate and frightening writing could be.

But you can’t go back. You can only go forward, and chase words over a horizon full of mist and smoke and blood and fading light.

Here’s what Thomas Stearns Eliot has to say on the matter:

So here I am
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.  And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate.

If I only could have said that to LaDawna at 3 a.m., she might have said, “You’ve changed since you got that MFA. I like you now.  Maybe we could meet for a weekend and you could tell me more about these raids on the inarticulate.”

But here’s all I could have said back to her: “Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll figure out how to raid the inarticulate. But the inarticulate is well defended. You will take casualties.  Your mantra will be I don’t think I can I don’t think I can, and there will be times when you stop loving the pain. And the universe isn’t benign, and the things that you think can be reconciled are irreconcilable.”

And LaDawna would have decided she was right to leave me in the first place.

Along these lines, maybe you’ve thought that now that you have an MFA, nothing will ever be fun again. It’s partly true. The world will never be as simple or as easy as it was before you learned to write. But trying to write something great and failing at it is more fun than writing something you know you can succeed with, and your MFA will come in handy when you try to write something great.

Eliot didn’t have an MFA—he worked as a bank clerk, which was what MFA students did before MFAs were invented. But he took writing and failing just as seriously as if he had had an MFA, and he had his own definition of what was fun for serious writers. For us, he said, it’s not a matter of gaining or losing, winning or being defeated. For us, there is only the trying.

That’s what I’ll leave you with. There is only the trying. What you try is up to you, but if it involves increasing what is humanly possible in a less-than-benign universe, all the while telling the truth—even if you don’t do it perfectly, even if you screw up, even if you fail, it will still be good. And fun. So be good and have fun.

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