Faculty member A. Van Jordan spoke to the July 2015 graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. We are pleased to share his inspiring words here:
VP & Dean Garrett; our fearless leader, Deb; members of the faculty, proud family and friends, and, above all, graduates–the first thing I’d like to say is thank you: Ever since Deb contacted me about making these remarks, the weeks of nail biting and anxiety have kept me even more alert through this residency than if I had had an I.V. drip of coffee in my arm. As I stand before you here, I’m already fantasizing about the sound sleep that awaits me later tonight.
Okay, in all truth, I have wracked my mind and heart about what I would say today, and I thought about my time here as a student; in doing so, I thought both about what I was feeling 17 years ago when I was sitting where you all are now, and I’ve thought about what I wish I had known then. I have come up with two answers: On this wonderful day when we’ve gathered together to celebrate your individual success, I want to talk to you about the power of the community you’ve become a part of and the freedom it brings. This may seem like a paradoxical pairing, but bear with me.
Over time, it becomes increasingly clearer to me that we accomplish nothing without the help of others, which is why it always touches me to see the families and loved ones of the graduates at the graduation. We know we’re loved in this world when our loved ones support us, even when they don’t quite know what we’re doing. This cohort graduating today would not be here, were it not for their first community: Their families, partners, and friends with the support and love you all have offered.
I can say to you with confidence that the graduates today have entered another community that will continue to support them on this journey. In 1996, I entered this program as a student. I was living in DC and working as an environmental journalist there at a news agency. I’d spend my days on Capital Hill covering my beat, and, in the evenings, I’d stay late at the office working on my packets. In my last year in the MFA program, I quit my job, and, strangely enough, I quit after I had just gotten a promotion. And, even stranger yet, I had just gotten a promotion to a position for which I had been vying for two years to get. But I quit. I had gotten to that point where every conversation I had outside of Warren Wilson felt like an exchange of platitudes and clichés, everything from talking about who won last night’s game to what was happening in the news. So, I joined an Americorps program, WritersCorps, did some freelance film crew work, and focused on my writing. And, in what felt like no time, in 1998, I was graduating, but feeling a bit unmoored. Indeed, I can say honestly that I was scared.
And I want you to know that although this was a perfectly valid feeling, it was also completely unreasonable. Ellen [Bryant Voigt] probably won’t remember this, but right after the graduation—right outside of Canon Hall—she asked me what I was going to do now. I told her that I really didn’t know. I somehow got around to saying something about thinking about applying to a “PhD” program. Now, I should confess to you all today, that I was already a PhD dropout before I ever entered this program; of course, I didn’t mention this in my application, just that I already had a Master’s degree—which was something I earned “along the way.”
So, I mentioned the PhD, but I really just wanted to get Ellen’s general reaction to the idea. She said that if that’s what I wanted to do, that I could do it, but she made it clear that I didn’t need a PhD. “You just get your book out,” she said, “and you’ll be just fine.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Absolutely. You have everything you need; just get your book out, and you’ll be just fine”
Now, at that point, in my mind, getting “a book out” was just something that the faculty here did. So, although I liked the sound of it, I didn’t really have enough confidence to think that I’d be “just fine.”
In retrospect, I can say that my insecurity was valid yet unreasonable because I should have felt emboldened by the education that I had just completed here. Since 1998, I have taught at a number of institutions, and I’ve been tenured at UT Austin, The University of Michigan, and now at Rutgers University-Newark. I have visited many, many MFA programs all over the country, and I’m here to tell you now what I didn’t know in 1998: There is simply no program in this country where you’ll get a better education as a writer than here at Warren Wilson. And I can honestly say, that I’ve told my students at these other institutions that you all are the best.
But, let’s be clear, the craft matters of Creative Writing are no more important than what William James called the “technical matters” of Philosophy; what is important, as he explains in his book Pragmatism, “is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.” This is really at the heart of what writers study. And now you hold the knowledge that you have emerged with your degree, learning to hone your craft while living a full life, which means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive in the world while practicing your craft, studying “what life honestly and deeply means.” With that knowledge, know that you are free.
You may be wondering what I mean by this vague word: Free.
In 1968, an interviewer asked this same question of the jazz/folk singer Nina Simone: “What does it mean to be free?” In 1968, this was a tricky question: leaders were being assassinated; the country was burning. Simone, trying to side step the question threw it back to her white interviewer: “Freedom means the same for me as it does for you; you tell me!” But when the interviewer pushed back, she finally went on to say that freedom feels like “living without fear.” Then the interviewer asked, Well then, when do you feel free?” and she said that she only felt free a few times in her life, and those times came only while on stage, performing.
I didn’t always know how big my community was when I left here, and I certainly didn’t feel free. I don’t want that for you. My hope is that you all know what it means to be free, and that, if in your lives away from here you feel the need to find some freedom, some way to “live without fear,” that you not only find it on the page as Simone did on stage but that you also find it in your communities, old and new.
So, graduates, keep freeing one another, keep supporting one another, stay connected to the communities that got you here and write without fear; you’ll be just fine.