Pacific University MFA Commencement Student Speech

Today I had the honor of giving the student speech at the 2009 Pacific University commencement ceremony. Here is the text of that speech.

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Standing at the podium. Associate Provost Wilkes, Dean Hayes, Vice President Akers, Ms. Washburn, faculty, staff, graduates, alumni, family, and friends — good afternoon. Today we celebrate our completion of the requirements for Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree, and a milestone for each of us in our ongoing education as writers. This also marks the fifth year of this MFA program’s existence. And if any program has earned the right to act its age, this one has. If memory serves me, this involves spontaneous tantrums followed by graham cracker cookies and a nap. At least, that’s what I liked best about being five. It was also the age when I dictated my first poem to my kind and patient mother. It ran seven pages. And, although I have learned a lot since then, today I would like to be brief in simply reminding us all of some truths about this program, and about writing, we all already know — but might want to hear repeated.

The behaviorist B.F. Skinner was fond of the saying that, “education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” And so, in some sense, the real test of our education begins now, as we start to forget. Fortunately, through the unique grace of this program, we have been educated in the truest sense of that word, which shares a common root with the word “educe” — that is, we have had our writerly selves evoked from within. And so, more than any specific, received element of craft — immensely helpful though they all have been — we have learned, most importantly, to live in the world more like writers. This doesn’t mean we all moved in to our basements and stopped showering. Those would only be the outward signs of a being a writer.

Ours has been, if anything, an inner transformation — toward a greater awareness of what Paul Eluard meant when he said, “there is another world, and it is in this one,” and, hopefully, an experiential understanding of what our own Marvin Bell points out when he reminds us that, “in art, you’re free.” This experiential understanding of what it means to live through the eyes and ears of a writer can not be inculcated through lectures, workshops, or assignments alone. There is something about good writing one simply has to catch. And the privilege of spending time with mentors who are talented but unpretentious, wise with a sense of humor, and generous almost to a fault — is a rare and wonderful gift.

Teaching writing seems to involve a curious sort of dance, and the faculty here are all fleet of foot — instead of rattling off answers, they have stood next to us, in their humility, and marveled at the beauty of the questions. Instead of pounding us into conformity with their own style, they have opened doors into rooms full of gifted writers, each with something in common, something to teach us, and made introductions. Instead of telling us what to write, they pedal fast downhill, no hands, and shout, “catch me if you can.” And through this, the faculty have changed — not only our writing, but our writing lives — for the better.

Truly, I can not thank the faculty and staff enough for creating and sustaining this remarkable culture of generosity. In my two years, I watched faculty and students mix easily, talk honestly, and work hard not to take themselves too seriously. And so we have learned, by example, that brilliance doesn’t require pretension, that sincerely need not lack toughness, that there is no more wonderful pursuit than Czezlaw Milosz’s definition of poetry, and which I think applies to all forms of writing — “the passionate pursuit of the real.”

Stepping into this lineage does not begin or end with a ceremony. It happens every time we sit down to write. We have practiced the fine art of introducing the seat of our pants to the seat of the chair for two years now, forging habits, redefining comfort zones, wearing in new neural pathways like breaking in a stiff pair of boots. And because we have laid claim to the lineage through practical experience, it can not taken away from us by any external force. What challenges our awareness, and understanding, and commitment to explore what William Stafford called “the whole unexplored realm of human vision,” is not war, tyranny, imprisonment, floods, or any other natural or man-made difficulty — because writers have continued to write through every one of these circumstances — but forces instead far more insidious — like complacency, laziness, and pride. Our own honorary prose faculty member Anton Chekhov once quipped that, “any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.” And it is true, because, in our day-to-day lives, we are not always so free.

And yet we have, each of us, in unique ways, committed to writing against the odds. It has been humbling to study alongside the single mother who would steal away a precious few minutes to write late at night, in the bath, when her kid was in bed — straining from exhaustion to keep the notebook out of the water. It has been remarkable to watch fellow students face down dark corners of their past with tenacity, honesty, dignity, and grace. We are teachers, and parents, and grandparents; computer programmers, and journalists, and students fresh out of college pulling espresso drinks for tips. We are just like anyone and everyone else. Except that we have committed, over the last two years, to develop and sustain a practice of writing — writing when tired, cranky, uninspired, and even when we just don’t feel like it — and, by persistently tapping away at the blocks, we eventually crack open rich inner worlds, by abandoning ourselves on the page time and time again, we eventually discover a little more about who we are.

It takes courage to come here, courage to stay here after that first workshop where you realize, in fact, just how far you have to go. And perhaps the greatest test begins now, as we step out into a world that needs great writing more than ever, and yet has been somehow dissuaded of that fact. Writing well is an act of defiance, not only against the conventional wisdom that favors a tangible product over a life-enriching process or experience, but defiance of the sound-byte, get-it-now consumer culture, and mind-numbing political-speak. Good writing defies neat categorization, defies polarization of “right” and “wrong,” and challenges us to understand our lives, ourselves, and our language — a medium we take for granted by its constant use — in new and unexpected ways.

I have been away from the program for several months now, having completed the course requirements in January. One week after my final residency, at my company’s all-staff retreat, the chairman announced that the global financial crisis had finally caught up with us, and that the company was in financial trouble. One month later, I was summoned to the board of directors’ meeting. I got up early that morning, just as I had for for over two years, and wrote a poem. In that meeting, the chairman announced that, in order for the company to survive, it would have to lay off forty percent of staff, including colleagues I had hired, and trained, and nurtured as a team. Breaking the news to them was one of the hardest things I have done. I kept the poem in my pocket that day, a token of defiance against the tidy conclusions I was tempted to make — about them, or me, or my superiors — and about the financial institutions that precipitated the storm that had now become ours to weather.

The truth is that none of us have been promised a simple life — security, and certainty, and plenty of uninterrupted time to write — and an MFA degree provides little, if any, added assurance about what lies ahead. Instead, we might do better to wake up each morning deeply impressed with the reality that there is truly no telling what today will bring. That might encourage us to close down the email, and sign out of Facebook, and write something — anything, for better or worse — right there, right away. What is that timeless adage? I believe it was Socrates who said, “Life is short, eat dessert first.” Instead we might print our own bumper stickers — “Life is uncertain. Write something.”

For two years, we have practiced the art of focus in a world of increasing distraction. It is not enough to say “keep writing” just once. Therefore let us go on from here as a community, and a family — to swap work, trade books, and above all encourage one another — a sacred, forgotten art revived here with a passion — encourage one another to keep writing, no matter what. It does not suffice to just say it once. And so, to get us started, I will say it three times, like Dorothy calling for her home out of the strange Technicolor world into which she was whisked by a tornado — let this be our mantra, our incantation, and every time we meet, let us say to one another: “Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.”

Congratulations, and thank you.