I'm going to cut and paste my speech to the Summer 2008 graduating class, because a few people have asked to see it again and this seems like the best place to post it.
COMMENCEMENT - VERMONT COLLEGE OF FINE ARTS - SUMMER '08
I’d like to thank all of you for coming today, for helping us celebrate at this particular residency not only the graduation of a stellar group of students but also the reality of our newly independent Vermont College of Fine Arts.
The occasion is an august one, a ceremony of shape-shifting for both these students and for the college itself, so I take my task seriously. I am a serious person. Seriosity is my strong suit. Ask any of the graduates up on this stage, they will tell you – Julie is very serious. That is because I am a poet. A poet is a master of deep thoughts, a master of clarifuscation.
So. Seriosity and clarifuscation. I am their advocate. They are the opposites of sillyosity and confusilation, which have NO place at this podium.
Of course, I’m being goofy, as is my tendency. But only because I’ve thought long and hard about why I am standing before you today. I am confused. This place at the podium is generally reserved for speakers who will send you out into the world with your engines roaring, your wheels spinning, your inner clocks ticking like time bombs. That’s what an inspirational speaker does.
The difference between a motivational speaker and the speaker you have chosen to speak to you today is the difference between a Nascar driver and the character of The Dude in the movie, The Big Lebowski – one has his foot on the accelerator and maneuvers skillfully past the flying pieces of wreckage left by other less skillful drivers; the other wanders his local supermarket in a bathrobe and flip-flops. I will leave it to you to decide which one of those categories I fall into.
When I learned in January that I was going to be up at the podium this July, I got busy. I believe in fulfilling my obligations with panache. I would make this the Mother of All Speeches, I would quote every great thinker from Aristotle to Einstein, and you would soon be telling Cynthia Leitich Smith in an online interview not only about your new best-selling novel, but about the pivotal golden moment of inspiration that the poet Julie Larios provided in July 0-Eight that made all the difference.
To begin my work on the Mother of All Speeches, I made a file and titled it “Mother of All Speeches” and put the file on my computer so that I could fill it with wise quotations as they floated to me from January through June. Nicely polished with a few thoughts from me, these gems would set you on the road to success.
When I looked at my file about a month ago, it had the following single item in it: “Henry James thought the two most beautiful words in the English language were ‘summer afternoon.’”
That’s it. So – how do I craft a motivational speech from that? Maybe I don’t. Maybe I just let Hank’s words hover in this room: “summer afternoon.” Beachside docks, inner tubes, bandages, bare feet, tidepools, barnacles, sunburn, some of Kathi’s grandmother’s peach ice cream and all the people you love gathered together in one lovely spot – “summer afternoon” – I could leave you with those two wise words.
But I’d like to offer up some advice. Before I do that, I want to make a full disclosure about this advice I give you. Here it is: poets like to play. We make up words like seriosity and clarifuscation. We are the true row-boaters in the summer afternoons of the writing world, we chafe at the idea of speedboats. We are suspicious of the joy of forward momentum, because sideways momentum is SO bizarrely satisfying.
Needless to say, asking graduates to consider the joy of moving sideways is not the typical theme of commencement speakers. But I believe writing is a way of being in the world. You start with intellectual curiosity, and you proceed like a thief in the night, spying on everything and making mental notes. Stealth, yes, writing requires stealth – the direction of it is horizontal, you see what you get closest to. Speed, on the other hand, is vertical, speed is a race. Speed is a trickster, one that asks you to honor quantity over quality and the quick fix over the hard work. Speed, pointed in the direction of what we call, for lack of a better term, “success,” can be dangerous - to be involved with the rush of it, the hunger and gluttony of it, the competitive nature of it, the exclusive nature or it – who it leaves out, who it leaves behind. We think of who is above, we think of who is below, we think NOW NOW NOW. There is a danger to both our souls and to fine craftsmanship that speed and a focus on the traditional definition of success can present. Because success is not about status. Success is internal and personal and doesn’t belong in the world of measured time.
Clearly, hurtling forward at an intoxicating speed is what one longs to do after being held in check by the requirements of a masters degree program. We hear a demonic little voice telling us, “Enough with the getting ready, enough with the stacks of books to read and the line by line revisions. LET SUCCESS COME FAST NOW, FAST AND EASY.
But the hard fact is this: as a writer, you are never unfettered from the demands that careful craftsmanship and a kinship with your fellow writers make upon your forward thrust. Note that I’m not saying be lazy. You should never stop asking the very best of yourself, you should always work hard. But also, be generous. Generosity is the polar opposite of status anxiety. Generosity is fluid – you couldn’t keep it vertical if you wanted to. If you are generous spirited, there is no who’s on top, who’s on the bottom. I urge you to keep your priorities straight, don’t measure success vertically. Enjoy the parallel successes of your friends, and let the pleasure you take in writing be the measure of your success.
I admit to being very big on pleasure and happiness. What makes life as a writer happy isn’t fame and isn’t a list of dozens of published books, good reviews, big awards, nice sales, an invitation to speak, it isn’t even a lovely teaching position. I honestly believe that what makes the life of any artist good is simply pleasure in the act of creating art. I’ve been an advisor to quite a few of you that are on this stage today. You began your graduate work at the same time I joined the faculty. No one told me I would feel the way I feel today, watching you graduate. You know I can be a cynic, I can rave and rant and foam at the mouth about sentimentality in your work, I crack wise about Big Poetry Moments. But today while I look at you, I’m feeling sentimental. Someone get me a doctor.
I’ve been an advisor to quite a few of you that are on this stage today. You began your graduate work at the same time I joined the faculty. No one told me I would feel the way I feel today, watching you graduate. You know I can be a cynic, I can rave and rant and foam at the mouth about sentimentality in your work, I crack wise about Big Poetry Moments. But today while I look at you, I’m feeling sentimental. Someone get me a doctor.
I will avoid sentimentality the way I usually avoid questionable things, by renaming it. I’ll call it Burning Feelingfulness. It is something which takes control of me only one or two days a year. Today, I think, is an appropriate day. I know how hard you’ve worked. I’ve seen bright bursts of perfection. And I think I’ve done my job, added my voice to many other voices you listened to in the last two years.
Often, with your stories, I’ve asked you to take it easy, to slow down, to open things out, give us the details, not to be in such a rush, to let the story unfold in a less anxious way. It doesn’t need to be a dizzy dive over
That’s what I wrote in the margins of your creative work if I thought it was heading somewhere too fast. Today, instead of applying that metaphor to your stories, I’m applying it to your lives as writers. But what I’m saying is the same: Slow down, open out, don’t be in a rush, let things unfold in a less nervous way, trust the story not only of your book but of your life. Eventually, all will be revealed. Meanwhile, don’t forget to stand still from time to time in the clear water of the river.
Invite your friends to join you. Yes, you’re moving out on your now, and part of your job will be to learn how to trust the idiosyncrasies of your own voice – not only to trust them, but to move them front and center. As Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet, “something of your own is trying to become word and melody.” So keep your friends close at hand. They will encourage you to keep singing. They are kindred spirits, and the intimacy forged here in our program should not be lost.
I want to give you one last nudge, as an advisor: that you leave
You can trust this advice from me, because I only metaphorically (thank goodness) wander the grocery store in my bathrobe and flip flops.
Rilke tells the young poet, “All my good wishes are ready to accompany you, and my faith is with you.” I feel the same way. All of us here today feel this way. Our faith is with you, absolutely.