Warren Wilson Commencement Address 7/14/17
To our amazing class of graduates, and to their devoted, forbearing, patient and generous parents, children, spouses and friends, I want to begin by saying how privileged I am to be up here to officially congratulate you all on this happy day of celebration. This achievement surely belongs to all of you. Think back, beloved graduates, to the day you announced to your families your intention to pursue an MFA, or even further back when you revealed to them your passion for writing. In my case, I was sixteen years old when I let slip to my parents that I intended to make my way in the world as a poet. I come from a long line of MD’s, not doctors, but meat dealers. You can imagine how my parents took the news. My father said, “A what?” as if I’d just announced plans to become a shepherd or a male belly dancer. “A poet.” I said. I want to write poetry for a living. Was I joking? Was I trying to disprove the stereotype that all Jews make money? Didn’t I realize I wouldn’t make enough to buy a pair of slippers. I said something to the effect that making enough isn’t what I want from life. My dad shot back, “Then be a lawyer for god’s sake, you’ll make more than enough!” Your families, I’m sure, weren’t quite as nonplussed as mine. For here they all are, today, not just to applaud your achievement, how far you’ve come, how hard you’ve worked, but to give you hope and courage for the marathon you’re about to run.
The undeniable and irreducibly unique abilities that got you accepted to this program in the first place have now been challenged, cajoled, goaded, and “annotated” into what I think of as the two ingredients indispensable to a writer’s life: humility and arrogance, humility that acknowledges the need to never stop learning, and the arrogance that assumes you’ll always be smart enough to learn anything that someone else is smart enough to teach you. Above and beyond refinements of craft, this program has taught you that writing is itself a life long non-degree conferring program from which there is no graduation, and that the longer you work at the art we love, the more of a beginner you become. As graduates of Warren Wilson, you have now officially entered the Ground Hog Day Academy of the writing world, in which everyone’s a permanent freshman and every day’s the first day of class.
The curriculum of Ground Hog Day Academy is pretty simple; all classes teach the same two things: corrosion and distrust of big ideas, of categorical thinking and any and all predetermined or habitual modes of seeing and feeling. Moreover, your teachers, the best and most useful of whom are dead, expect and demand that each of you cultivate an acute even panicky awareness of how much there is ahead of you to learn and how little time there is to learn it. In my years and decades as a first term first day freshmen, I have found that students who thrive here somehow manage to stay uncomfortably open and unsettled, hungry and restless. Some come already knowing while others have to learn the hard way that the psychic conditions for imaginative growth have nothing at all to do with awards and publications, NY Times reviews, New Yorker profiles, big advances, movie deals, or Broadway musical adaptations—Those who thrive here learn, sooner or later, that these forms of recognition don’t mean anything (except to everybody), and that hustling and competing for attention in the literary world is, as I said the other day in class, like bald men fighting over a comb. They learn that rewards like these can’t nourish or sustain you—that like cotton candy they look ample and tasty from a distance but dissolve on contact to a briefly sweet sticky sickly nothing. What you’ve always known in your heart of hearts is what you’ll go on learning from here on out: that the feeling of inadequacy that has stuck to you like burrs to a pant leg only tightens their grip the more you try to flick them off, that sooner or later you have to just stop flicking.
In my case it has helped to think of inadequacy and failure as a low rent Ground Hog Day Academy provided service dog—annoyingly high strung, not entirely house-broken, unable to obey or learn the simplest trick or command because it can’t stop yapping about the stories and poems I haven’t read or written, the languages I haven’t learned or the experiences I’ve never had. The only thing it has assured me of is that what I write today I’ll hate tomorrow, and that tomorrow’s work by next week will just embarrass me, because (and this applies to everyone) the better you get at writing the better you get at imagining getting even better, so the discrepancy between the writer you are and the writer you want to be only widens as you improve. And because your little anxious best friend of a service dog won’t give you a moment’s peace, except of course when you’re actually writing, you’ll seek writing out for the best and most sustainable reason—because it makes you happy to do it, because those hours at the desk are free of distraction and noise and hustle, and even apart from any question of quality the writing itself is its own reward, at least while you’re lost in the doing of it. And for a little while after, in the after glow of those hours of what Elizabeth Bishop calls that self forgetful perfectly useless concentration you emerge back into the world happy, alert and tired, even if what you’re writing about is misery and pain; you emerge grateful to your family not just for giving you that gift of time and solitude, but mostly for being intimately part of a vitally creative life of attachments and affiliations that still makes room for quiet soul-making work like this. If Ground Hog Day Academy had a motto it might be this: despite the undeniable complications and uncertainties writing introduces to a life, despite the injustices we more and more must write about, the outrageous stupidities, and unspeakable horrors that define this moment in our history, writing is a way of being happy, a way of being both at home in the world and astonished by the world.
So, let me be the first to welcome this incoming freshman class of Ground Hog Day Academy. Your older fellow freshmen have been eagerly awaiting your arrival. It reassures and fortifies us to know you’re in this with us now, side by ever growing side, in the same uncomfortable little desks inside this ancient world-wide school, doing the same work that belongs to each and every one of us, even as it remains distinctly yours. Welcome to the perpetual first day of your enrollment in a school you can’t accumulate enough credits to ever graduate from. You’re all now in this for the long haul, pencils poised above the notebooks, as obliged and (I hope) eager to help us continue learning as we are you.