MATTHEW OLZMANN – Graduation Remarks; January 12, 2023

At various times, I’ve had an odd fixation or interest in the last things famous or infamous people say before they die. Whenever I heard “So and so’s last words were—,” I would tend to remember those words, and on multiple occasions, I’ve tried to insert them into poems, stories, essays, conversations, and now: this little commencement speech. 

For example, when hotel entrepreneur Conrad Hilton was asked if he had any last words, and he said, “Yes. Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”

Karl Marks’s last words were “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”

Sentenced to death by firing squad, convicted murderer James W. Rodgers was asked if he had any last requests. He thought about it and said, “Bring me a bulletproof vest.”

When Voltaire was dying, a priest stood above his bed yelling something like, “Do you denounce the devil?” and Voltaire looked up and said, “My good man, this is no time to be making enemies.”

Somewhat relatedly, comedian Steven Wright, who is still very much alive, once said, “I wish the first word I ever said was the word quote, so right before I die I could say unquote.”

I suppose beginning with all these last words might seem a little morbid. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say on this momentous occasion, what words would be both uplifting for those whose achievements we’re celebrating, but also welcoming and accessible to their friends and family, I said, “I know! I’ll start by talking about death! That’ll win everyone over!” It’s a choice I might be regretting at this moment, but I assure you, there was an unimpeachable logic behind this decision. I’m not trying to imply that those of you who have just mastered all the Fine Arts are in some way “Dead To Us.” It’s quite the opposite. However, you are very much entering the ephemeral space my fellow graduates of this program have long referred to as “The Afterlife.”  If anyone has wondered “Is the afterlife real?”  I can now confirm that it is, in fact, very real. The Afterlife can most simply be described as everything that follows your time in this program. And I have good news: I can also confirm that the afterlife is 100% better than life inside this program. The food is tastier, the mattresses are more comfortable, and the dancing is more awkward than you can imagine. But there’s another reason why The Afterlife is preferable, and (to me) that reason is far more profound. 

I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, before I forget, I want to take a moment to thank some people: the families and friends of our graduates. On behalf of this program, you have our unrelenting gratitude. These writers would not be here without you. You’ve given them time, encouragement, patience, and, in some cases, food, shelter, and money to do this. They would not have made it to this point without you. Even if your beloved graduate did this only to piss you off, that still means that they’re kind of here because of you. And for that, you have my sincere thanks and appreciation. However, in addition to gratitude, this program also owes you an apology. Some of you are under the impression that you’ll now get this loved one back, and you will get them back, kind of, but the person we’re returning to you, I hope, will continue to behave the way they have for the past two to three years. I hope they will continue to practice their art exactly the way they’ve practiced it to this point where we now find them. You’ve supported them this far, but they’ll need that support even more in the days and years ahead. The work they’ve immersed themselves in isn’t the work of an academic program. It is exactly what artists have always said: “the work of a lifetime.” And if these graduates haven’t told you that yet, please forget everything I just said. I’m sure they were planning on telling you soon and you all have some fun conversations to look forward to at dinner tonight. 

Graduates, here’s the other reason why The Afterlife is better than what you’ve just completed: whatever dream drew you into this art—that is what’s waiting for you out there. You became a writer because there was something in this art that you loved, and whatever it was that you loved is what you must now move bravely toward. You simply need to do the work to pull the dream into reality. The work is substantial and sometimes might seem impossible, but it’s the work you’ve been training to do. 

In telling you about The Afterlife and describing it as work, I worry that it might sound, well, a bit mundane. For those expecting emerald gates, trumpets, and fire, I assure that you this afterlife is every bit as grand, enchanted, and mysterious as the afterlives of any other tradition. There will be angels and demons and Gods and ghosts. Most will be of your own creation, but that’s beside the point. There will be rivers you’ll need to cross and ferrymen you’ll need to pay off. The price will be steep, but you have what it takes to get this done. 

If I have any cautionary notes, it’s this: at some point, you’ll realize there are many different roads winding through the afterlife. Your peers will be over there on some other amazing road, and you’ll be on one by yourself. Don’t panic. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. An MFA program creates the illusion that we’re all moving at similar speeds in similar directions. You’re in your first semester, then the second, then there’s the essay, then the thesis, then it’s onward into fame and glory. But in the real world, every writer’s path is unique. People enter this MFA program at very different points in their lives. We traveled from different corners of the planet. We’re teachers and parents and lawyers and mechanics. Everything about our lives before here was different and that will be true in the years that follow.  One of you might sign a seven-figure book contract in the next few months. Another might spend a decade revising and revising. The novelist might decide to write stories. A poet might devote themselves to a memoir. You might decide that your real passion is studying the mating habits of moray eels, collecting lawn gnomes, or making murals out of mayonnaise. Whatever path you choose, it will be yours alone, and I have full faith in your ability to make that path and your art spectacular. 

As an instructor in this program, I am in awe of all you’ve accomplished. 

As a graduate of this program, I am so proud to count myself among your ranks.

Welcome to the afterlife, my friends. I wish you all the luck you can handle.

Thank you and congratulations.

— Matthew Olzmann