Faculty member Gabrielle Calvocoressi spoke to the January 2015 graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. We are pleased to share her inspiring words here:
It’s a real honor to be here talking to all of you today. Before another moment goes by I want to thank all of the partners and parents and spouses and siblings and children and best pals who are such an integral part of the life of this program. Without your support and sacrifice many of the writers sitting here today would not have been able to take that walk they just took. It’s glorious being a writer and it’s also lonely and hard. I always think the most accurate author photo would be a shot of me lying in a ball beneath my desk with my partner standing in the doorway, staring at me like, “Really? Again?” So I thank you, as I know we all do. I personally couldn’t have done my job without you.
I think I’ve written this talk about fifteen times. It started when Deb Albery asked if I’d consider doing this talk (Giant YES in all caps sent back immediately) and started again a few days later when I thought to myself, “Who am I to give this talk?”
Then it started again.
And again all the way until this morning when I sat next to a group of students and chatted about how the weather tends to get nicer on the last day.
If anyone needs a graduation speech I have 14 that are pretty much ready to go.
Enough about me. I want to talk to our grads.
You’re awesome because you’re really hard workers. I mean, seriously. I’ve been watching. You have worked your butts off. And that’s good because the life of writing is really hard work. It’s hard on family life and it’s hard on the heart. It will also quite possibly make you more fulfilled than anything you’ve ever done. But that will come because of all that work and all those late nights. I see the callous’ on you fingers and on your brains and I know you’re ready to go.
You’re awesome because you are kind. Every single one of you I’ve ever met is incredibly kind. Some people will tell you that’s not important to a life making art. You should suggest (kindly) that they go to bed. Kindness is essential. It’s how you keep not just yourself going but how you keep your compatriots afloat. Remember those hard times I was talking about? Who are you going to call? Who’s going to tell you it’s going to be okay? And who will tell you it’s time to move on? Other writers, that’s who. The people you’ve held up. Not just your closest friends but also the person sitting alone at supper at that residency or the writer who annoys the heck out of you but whose work, you know, is essential to the world.
For those of you who are thinking, “I’m totally not kind.” Maybe give it a shot. Variety is the spice of life.
And you are awesome because you are honest. Which is the twin and boon companion of kindness. In workshop and in our letters I’ve watched you push back and delve in as a means of helping your classmates and myself be our best selves our best minds. Keep that up. Your valiant honesty.
You’re awesome because you are balancing so many things. And it feels impossible a lot of the time. But look at you, right there, doing it. You’re better off than most grad students I know because you’ve always had to balance two or three different lives. Remember that when you feel like it’s all falling apart. You’ve been to the circus. You’re a freakin aerialist.
You are awesome because if I were to make some obscure literary reference at this moment, you’d probably know what it was. And if you didn’t know you’d go find out.
And then you’d annotate it.
You’re awesome because you’re willing to be yourself. I think that’s what I admire most about you. You take in all this knowledge and then I see you making work that so specifically and magnificently yours.
For my part the first 13 drafts of this talk basically stunk because I was trying to sound like someone else.
The draft right before this one was awesome.
On my third day as a grad student at Columbia University my teacher and future mentor Richard Howard walked into our classroom, looked around, and said, “Saying you are a famous poet is like saying you are a famous mushroom.”
I think over half of the class was pretty offended. What kind of person walks into a room and says something like that to, let’s face it a bunch of people so clearly destined for greatness.
But I thought, “That’s awesome.” And I think that every single day because that’s how often I remember him saying it. Because we’re all mushrooms and mushrooms are great. Around the 10th draft of this talk I found Mycologist Paul Stamets TED talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” Here are some things about us:
We make networks in the darkness that provide sustenance not only to our mushroom community but to all surrounding eco-systems. Some as far as 100 miles away.
We make our own fuel.
Remember when that giant asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago and all the dinosaurs and everything else died? Well, we survived. And for one shining moment we inherited the earth. (God, I miss those days)
Also, we can (apparently) cure the common cold.
You’re going to find yourself in lots of dark woods. There will be ice ages and years with no summer. It’s okay. You’ve got this. You’re a Lion’s Mane. You’re a Hen of the Woods. You are awesome. You are growing and surviving and making a world.