It’s always an honor to have the opportunity to take part in recognizing the achievement of the graduating students.

Deb is always good about thanking others; I’d like to take this opportunity to thank her, once more, for her extraordinary work during this remarkably challenging residency.*

In my comments on setbacks** earlier in the residency, I talked about the pressure we can feel, from outside voices, to write about some particular topic, or issue, or to write in some particular form. This afternoon I’d like to call on a few of the writers I’ve been reading over the past year, very different writers who have drawn on their own interests and concerns to write engaging, effective, and important work.

The German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck has said, “Growing up, I hadn’t learned that life is a competition, or that it was desirable to be famous, a star, as we are now told day in, day out…The only thing I’d learned was that life is boring if you’re not interested in something….It would be nice if the university weren’t just a gateway to a career, some sort of dues paid…but instead [gave you] time to learn how you live, to learn what matters to you…if the university could be the affirmation of one’s inner life…where those who are seeking have time to get lost, time to take detours…to get excited about something…and sometimes just to lie in the grass…and leave room for thoughts to grow.”

While you’ve worked hard in your two or three years here, and you may not have found many hours to lie in the grass, I hope this time devoted to your writing has in fact offered “the affirmation of your inner life,” and a chance to “learn what matters to you.” I hope you won’t despair, but instead revel in, getting lost. As Saul Bellow once suggested, “Perhaps, getting lost, one should get loster.”

Japanese novelist Yoko Ogawa has said, “Stories are necessary for us to be able to come to terms with our fears and sorrows…”

Only by having a story are people able to connect the body and soul, the outer and inner worlds, the conscious and unconscious, into one. In the form of a story, we are able to put into words the chaos of our deepest darkest places.

To live, then, is to create a story that suits each one of us.

To focus on “the chaos of our deepest, darkest places” is just one option—but in your poems and your stories and novels, I hope you’ll continue to connect body and soul, the outer and inner worlds, the conscious and unconscious, in ways that are meaningful to you.

Michael Ondaatje told an interviewer, “Very early on in my writing life I realized that if you’re going to write, the last thing you should think about is an audience. Otherwise you’re going to give the audience what they want as opposed to what you want to do or discover.

Andrea Lawlor, whose first novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, was published when they were in their 40’s, agrees: :”I definitely had people in workshops over the years say things like, Well, I felt left out. I didn’t get the references. And I was like, Well, that’s okay with me. I don’t need to explain everything to you. Who am I writing for? Ultimately, the door is open. Anybody who wants in is in. Am I maybe a little bit writing for a Gen X queer person who is happy to complain about how all the good music isn’t on Spotify? Maybe I am; maybe I am writing for that person.

“I think queer and trans writing is so full of joy. Many kinds of joys. We’re people who’ve struggled and fought and sacrificed in the service of desire, self-knowledge, liberation! I mean, what’s more joyful than that? What’s more enviable than that kind of conviction? What’s hotter or more romantic or more revolutionary in spirit?”

 My point is not that you should write about the plight of African refugees in Germany, like Jenny Erpenbeck, or about the dangers of authoritarian regimes, like Yoko Ogawa, or a celebration of queer life, like Andrea Lawlor. My point is that the books that move us, surprise us, are often books we couldn’t have anticipated; and they certainly aren’t the product of a writer dutifully responding to anyone telling them what or how to write.

While we’ve given you some requirements to meet, we hope we’ve also helped you gather the tools you need to do something we can’t imagine.

We’ve also given you t-shirts, we’ve given you tote bags, we’ve tried to sell you coffee mugs and environmentally friendly bottles. Today we give you a metaphor.

I know some graduates of this program actually use their walking sticks when they take walks. That’s great. That’s lovely. But—I hope Deb will forgive me—it’s beside the point. I know it’s bad form to explain a figure, but that walking stick you’re getting, it’s not a walking stick. That’s us. And while walking is good exercise—we recommend 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week—there’s a different journey we mean to accompany you on.

By “we” I mean the faculty and fellow students at this residency, yes—but also the other faculty and students you’ve known in this program, the people who have come here to be with you today, the people who wish they could be here, and the people responsible for your being here.

I want to take a moment to recognize all of the people supporting you. They tend to fall into three categories.

First are the People Who Get It. Maybe they read your work and talk to you about it, even make suggestions. Maybe they read some of the poems and stories and novels you do, and talk to you about them. If you didn’t have supporters like that before you came to the program, we know from your comments earlier today that you’ve found some here.

Second are the People Who Want to Get It. When they read your work, they think you’re a genius. They don’t know why you worry so much about revising. They may or may not read the stories and poems you read, but they know your work is better than those other people’s. Some days, we all need that kind of support.

Finally there are the People Who Don’t Get It. They either don’t read your writing or, when they do, they’re puzzled. They may not read much at all. They may worry that you should be spending your writing time doing something regular people do. They worry that you won’t make any money; they worry about all the time you spend alone. And yet—they support you, simply because they know this is important to you. My friends, I confess, there is a special place in my heart for those people, as theirs may be the most generous support of all. Do not take that support for granted, and do not mistake it for something less than it is: blind love.

In closing: I urge you to write from your passion—from your passion–and to draw on the love of those who support you. Tell us what only you can tell us. Whether it’s on Zoom, in person, or on the other side of the printed page, we’ll be listening.


*In addition to the usual residency challenges, this one saw a number of students and faculty forced to quarantine due to Covid, a record number of bear sightings (never mind a water moccasin sighting), a building on campus being struck by lightning, and a partial collapse of the ceiling of the Canon Lounge.

**As part of the Lifework series, faculty were asked to speak on the subject of Setbacks and Silences.

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College is pleased to announce its faculty for the winter 2022 semester:

Dilruba Ahmed

Debra Allbery (Director)

Dean Bakopoulos

Oliver Baez Bendorf

Liam Callanan

Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Daisy Fried

Jennifer Grotz

David Haynes

C.J. Hribal

Vanessa Hua

T. Geronimo Johnson

Sally Keith

Akil Kumarasamy

Sandra Lim

Heather McHugh

Pablo Medina

Antonya Nelson

Alix Ohlin

Michael Parker

Robin Romm

Marisa Silver

Anna Solomon

Daniel Tobin

Connie Voisine

Hello, dear Graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. And welcome, friends and family, to this afternoon and evening of celebration. 

Along with our stellar faculty, students and all who gather here today, I congratulate you, members of the Class of July 2021, for your accomplishments and for, well, hanging in over these past extraordinary semesters.  You have joined the ranks of alums today—At 45 years old, this year, the MFA Program is that much stronger because of you. 

Some thanks are due and first, always, to Ellen Bryant Voigt for her poems, essays, teaching, vision and leadership as founder of the first low residency MFA program for writers in the country. Huge thanks to Deb, Trish, and Caleb for bringing us together –without them, we would all be somewhere, but where?

“ I learn by going where I have to go,”  says Theodore Roethke in The Waking.  To the page is where we have to go, where we learn how to progress from syllable to syllable, word to word, stanza or paragraph to the next. The first utterance demands another and another. And we do not know where the page will take us, of course, because we have never written this poem or story or novel before.  But we are compelled to push ahead, and we have had the good fortune to slosh through uncharted territory with each other over the past two or more years. Let me repeat, with each other. 

This is your graduation day, yes. But you are not leaving our ever-growing community. This month, nearly100 writers are gathering for the 31st annual alumni conference, the 2nd to be held in Zoom Land, to present papers, facilitate discussion classes, attend workshops and manuscript reviews, give readings and socialize. For the past 30 years, our community has been lovingly supported by Friends of Writers which provides scholarships, fellowships and grants to students, alums, and faculty, thus supporting our ongoing work and play together throughout each year. National and regional events, newsletters, social media, and a dedicated blog trumpet our pre and post grad vitality. You’ve only to respond to calls for participation. 

 In the months before my graduation, I had a recurrent dream – I was driving along a narrow and winding dirt road. To the left, balancing on a forbiddingly steep green mountain, a flock of men and women, all drinking champagne. To my right, a severe drop that my car kept pulling me toward. And ahead, a friendly meadow into which I steered my car and idled. Night after night I had this dream – both anxiety provoking and calming. On the mountain, my cohort – celebrating. To my right, the drop off. I was leaving the mountain but refusing the cliff to enter that welcoming meadow which I would continue to mow, tame, and let grow wild going forward.

Those with whom I studied and those who are my students and colleagues today are beloved residents of my literary neighborhood. We meet in Swannanoa; we meet in tiny rooms on our computer screens, we bump into each other at bookstores, and cafes. Through social media, we meet on the campaign trail for state representative; we couch surf as we travel, we marvel at the treasures discovered on each other’s trips to the Grand Canyon, Race Point, the Appalachian Trail. We read a poem, a story, an essay, a book.

 Lucille Clifton says, “I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.”  And those questions might frighten us, trip us up, get the better of us. But we have learned, here, together to tackle them – we have learned that we are up to the task. And we have reached out to each other with our questions and concerns about our work. While the struggle is ultimately our own to wrangle with, we can often find relief from those who know just how difficult it can be to put word to page. This community continues to thrive because students, faculty, alums hold fast by continuing to read each other’s work, listen, and care.

So, whether you are writing, or in a dry spell, receiving honors or feeling like no one cares if you ever write again – this community can be counted on to  encourage,  congratulate, comfort,  and console you.

From James Baldwin,  “If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.” What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.” 

We have certainly learned that the effort is real. We may, at times, need to be reminded of that. Without the semester’s deadlines, residencies, exchanges—we can lose sight of what we came here for. Family, new homes, jobs or joblessness, an HBO binge-worthy series may keep us from our writing practice. But there is always a way to the writing room. Sometimes we can usher ourselves back. Sometimes, we need help — a nudge, if not a shove. Trust in yourself – and if that feels wobbly—trust your literary neighborhood to help you find your way to the page. You have worked so hard. You have earned every word.

Thank you, Class of 2021, for your achievement. And thank you, in advance, for all you will achieve.

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College is pleased to announce its faculty for the July-November 2021 semester:

Mia Alvar

Lesley Nneka Arimah

Sally Ball

Robert Boswell

Karen Brennan

Christopher Castellani

Sonya Chung

Daisy Fried

Brooks Haxton

David Haynes

T. Geronimo Johnson

Christine Kitano

Dana Levin

Maurice Manning

Matthew Olzmann

Peter Orner

Hanna Pylväinen

Martha Rhodes

Nicole Sealey

Debra Spark

Lysley Tenorio

Peter Turchi

Alan Williamson

Welcome, graduates! Welcome, friends and family!

I am so happy and honored to be here with you this afternoon, and I am beaming each of you whole-hearted congratulations on your degree, which represents years of honoring your practice through drafts imagined and reimagined; through community and correspondence; through absorbing the words and worlds of other writers, at residency and beyond. When I was a graduate student myself, I experienced many moments where I felt overwhelmed by the work ahead of me; at times, I wondered if I was up to the task of being a writer at all. Perhaps some of you have experienced similar restless nights of the soul during your own M.F.A. journeys. Your presence here today is a testament to your commitment to your art; to your ability to persist even when the work turned uncertain; to return to the humble yet profound task of making one mark and then another on the page. 

I also want to thank you for the outstanding and generous contributions you have made to this residency—from your absorbing and illuminating classes to your beautiful readings to the conversations generated at your thesis interviews. We have all been privileged to learn from you. 

To your beloveds, your partners, your families, and friends, I would like to extend the warmest of welcomes. You, too, are a part—an integral part—of the Warren Wilson community. Thank you for supporting these writers as they vanished into the forests of their own imaginations and thank you for being there for them when they emerged. 

Graduates, your achievement would, of course, be cause for praise and celebration at any time, but you did not undertake your final semesters at “any time”; rather you undertook this work in the second half of 2020, amidst an ongoing and escalating pandemic, a national and global uprising in resistance to state-sanctioned racial violence, and an election of powerful consequence. In her novel Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli writes: “I suppose that documenting things—through the lens of a camera, on paper, or with a sound recording device—is really only a way of contributing one more layer, something like soot, to all the things already sedimented in a collective understanding of the world.” Whenever writing has felt, for me, daunting, impossible, or even useless, I have found myself returning, again and again, to Luiselli’s notion of “contributing one more layer”—that to press on with our work in times of grief and terror and rage does not mean to abandon the world for the private sanctuary of the imagination, but rather to use the privacy of the imagination as a conduit for making meaningful contact with the realities we live in and through, with the hope of one day offering our own contribution to the collective understanding. 

This graduation marks both an end and a beginning. It marks the conclusion of your time in this program and the start of your post-MFA writing life—the “afterlife,” as I’ve heard Deb call it. While this new phase won’t come with reading lists and packet deadlines and green sheets, you are not undertaking this journey in solitude. The community you have cultivated here—from your former supervisors to your peers to the artistic lineages this program connects us all too—will journey alongside you. To that end, I encourage you to nurture the relationships that have been meaningful during your time in the program. Aristotle described friendship as “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” Remember those who have evoked that feeling of shared spirit. Write letters! Send Texts! Make phone calls! Nourish the seeds of deep friendship that have been planted during your time in the program, so that you may offer each other sustenance on the road ahead. 

As a few of you already know, boxing is, in addition to literature, one of the great loves of my life. And so, with that road ahead in mind, I would like to now share with you a little story about what happened when I sparred for the very first time.  

I had been training for some months when I joined a weekly sparring group at my gym, and I had big ideas about all the moves I was going to make once I was in the ring. I would whip out all the tricks I had learned from footwork drills. I would throw all the combos I had practiced on the heavy bag. I would slip and roll, bob and weave. In reality it was all I could do to not get hopelessly trapped on the ropes and to keep my hands up. After one round, I was gasping for breath and both my arms felt like they had been set on fire. It seemed I had forgotten everything I had learned during my training, and, to add insult to injury, apparently I wasn’t in as good a shape as I’d thought I was in, either.

At the end, I was not hurt; I was only exhausted, discouraged, and ashamed. 

“How can I get better?” I asked my coach after. “What should I work on?”

He said, “Come back next week.”

Later, it would occur to me that come back next week was perhaps some of the most useful instruction I had ever received as a writer, even if it was not offered in that context. But this is how books get written after all, this is how a life in the arts takes shape—by coming back next week, again and again, until the work is done. And then, when the work is done, we begin anew. Last year, I embarked on a new novel and when I inevitably hit that first stretch of feeling exhausted, discouraged, and ashamed by my lack of progress, I taped come back next week above my desk and, like a little lighthouse, that one sentence continued to guide me.

For me, come back next week has come to mean something more than a physical return to the page; it also speaks to the project of holding within the self a kind of rigorous openness; curiosity; and courage. It means that we keep showing up for our current and future projects with a wiliness to listen to whatever it is they are trying to tell us; we keep showing up for starting over; we keep showing up for ourselves as human beings; we keep showing up for our communities; we keep showing up for honesty in all its forms; we keep showing up for all that we still have left to learn; we keep showing up for the gaps in understanding and accomplishment that we can close gradually, with labor and with time and with greater alertness, and also for the gaps that will remain forever open.

Your time in this program has already taught you how to come back next week. Now you need only continue. Your Warren Wilson family is cheering for you, today and always. We can’t wait to see what you create. 

Thank you, graduates, and congratulations. 

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College is pleased to announce its faculty for the winter 2021 semester:

Dilruba Ahmed

Kaveh Akbar

Debra Allbery (Director)

Dean Bakopoulos

Liam Callanan

Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Carolyn Ferrell

C.J. Hribal

Vanessa Hua

Sally Keith

Sandra Lim

Heather McHugh

Antonya Nelson

Matthew Olzmann

Robin Romm

Jason Schneiderman

Rion Amilcar Scott

Marisa Silver

Lysley Tenorio

Daniel Tobin

Laura van den Berg

Connie Voisine


I want to congratulate the glorious Warren Wilson MFA class of summer 2020.  You have been through four semesters (or more) of very hard work in what is probably the most demanding graduate writing program in the country, and you are finishing at a time of worldwide pandemic and acutely needed civic unrest and demands for change.  Our gathering together in a virtual residency has been to me a technological miracle.  And we’ve done it in our way, so much so that throughout this residency I’ve woken up every day thinking we’re all on campus together in North Carolina and my life in my New York apartment is an illusion.

            I want to applaud and thank, especially, the guests here now who’ve supported the graduating writers.   Friends and partners and parents and loved ones and kids, families in all senses.  You’ve put up with neglect and obsession and crabbiness, references to texts and personalities and terminology you really didn’t want to hear about again, for the sake of someone’s passion to write.  You’ve believed in these writers, you’ve made room for them to keep at it, when ordinary life hardly made room for it, and they won’t forget.  None of us forget. 

            I started teaching at Warren Wilson in 1986—I haven’t taught straight through, I took a long break in the middle—but I realized how long ago that was when I remembered—in the first year I saved all my letters by using carbon paper. (There were xerox machines—it wasn’t the Middle Ages– but they were some trouble to get to.)  I know more now than I did then, but what I knew right away was that had comrades here, I was with my kind.  I made and am still making lifelong friends.

            When you leave here, you’ll have the great relief of not having to send any more packets and the new dilemma of not having deadlines you’re afraid to disgrace yourself by missing.  JoAnne Beard, a wonderful writer whom I taught with at Sarah Lawrence, gave as her parting advice to graduates:  You’ll feel better if you do the work.  So do the work.  One of my favorite directives.

Nobody has to tell you, the whole thing isn’t easy.  I stand before you as a writer who’s had a long zigzagging career.  I started out doing fine and then, after the first two books,  thirteen years went by when no one wanted to publish a book of mine.  I always call it my thirteen years in the desert—at the time of course I didn’t know how long it would last, when the hell it would be over if ever.  So I’m the example of you-never-know.  

I want to say—everyone should be cheerful looking at me.  Except that it could happen again.  A writer has to be prepared for everything, a person does.  That’s what we write about.  Those loops of fate.   

During my years in the desert, I did a number of things to distract myself.  I considered giving up writing , but it was sort of like saying, I’m going to go eat worms.  It wasn’t a freeing notion.   And I considered giving up the teaching of writing.  I had the perfectly good idea that I might learn American Sign Language and work as an interpreter.  I did take an ASL class and I was terrible at it, I was the worst one in the class—I’m not very visual.  My better idea, as a way to get out of myself, was to volunteer, and I was a Buddy for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which meant you showed up once a week to a help a person with AIDS—this was in the 90s, when AIDS was still very much a raging epidemic, and I ended up doing that for 17 years.

I was struck very much by what Amaud said in the tapes we all made of advice for you—he said it’s a lifelong apprenticeship—writing is.   I was definitely learning in those years of no book publication.   And as we’ve all learned again now, nothing causes you to adjust your perspective like the evidence of death around you.  It’s very useful instruction in the scale of things.  

I think in some underground indirect way it changed my writing, led me into deeper territory, though not in obvious ways.  I always took the process seriously but I understood things better by this time and I think I had a further sense of where a story could go.  

Everyone’s path is different.  Sometimes now I think that when I was younger—I wasn’t lacking in self-confidence, but I was always waiting to be another sort of writer, one who knew how to do it the right way.  It just took a long time to figure out what was my way.   

So each of you will be embarked now on some version of that process.   You have comrades with you, your fellow Wallies, who will understand your complaints and know how to cheer you on.  Nothing could make it clearer than our intercontinental electronic graduation how really quite easy and necessary it is to be attached to each other.  So I wish you the joy of those continuing attachments and long rich writing lives ahead.