This past weekend, I had the great honor and pleasure of giving the commencement address at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts / Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA in Creative Writing graduation.
Writing the talk gave me a chance to think about what sustains me as a writer. I opened with a brief quote from Mary Oliver’s poem “Stanley Kunitz.” Here’s the talk:
the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience—
That ratio of “years of patience” to an “hour of fulfillment” seems unfair, doesn’t it? But I have no doubt that Mary Oliver knew what she was talking about when she wrote that line. All the more reason to stop and mark the rare, brief hour of fulfillment.
Cynthia, Iris, Marie, Jackie, Bob, Chels, Kim, Roz, Gina: you did it! All those drafts and revisions, the close reading, the intense conversations: your years of patience culminate in today’s “hour of fulfillment.”
Congratulations to each of you. I’m looking forward to hearing you read from the work you’ve spent the last few years creating. Thank you for the honor of inviting me here, to be part of your celebration.
It’s been more than a dozen years since I graduated, but my own MFA experience still feels very near. The fact that I’m still paying off my student loans may have something to do with that…
I want to begin with a poem by May Sarton:
Now I Become Myself
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before—“
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time, and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
Sarton captures that elusive sense of power that comes with literary creation: “O, in this single hour I live / All of myself and do not move. /I, the pursued, who madly ran, Stand still, stand still and stop the sun!”
She shows how “making” – a poem, a novel, an essay – is a form of wholeness, even if temporary.
I’m sure that each of you made sacrifices to be here, to write the work you’ll read to us soon. You’ve each taken risks of one kind or another, you’ve mined your intellect, your imagination, your life.
And because of that personal investment, it might be tempting to equate the result of that investment with yourselves. But I want you to know, because I wish I’d known it much, much sooner: You are not your work.
The master furniture maker puts all her effort into crafting an elegant, perfectly balanced table. And when it’s sold and someone takes it home, she doesn’t think it’s a piece of herself that they are now eating dinner on.
At some point, the work belongs to your readers. And you move on.
Paradoxically, the more deeply personal your work, the more others are going to take what they need from it, to make what they need with it, despite whatever it was you intended or thought you were creating.
And when the work fails, as it must sometimes if you’re stretching yourself and risking in new and meaningful ways, you are not a failure.
You give yourself to your work, but you are not your work. As Sarton put it, “the ripening fruit falls but does not exhaust the root.”
I sent my poetry manuscript out for more than 8 years, to something close to 100 presses and contests, before it found its publisher, Blue Begonia. I revised and reconceived it again and again during those years, and I have to tell you, I’m grateful it wasn’t published prematurely. (I probably started sending it out a good five years too soon. I was impatient for the legitimacy I imagined book publication would confer. )
When it finally came out, my book didn’t win any prizes or get reviewed anywhere “significant.” But when a person comes up after a reading, hands me a copy of my book and says, my daughter or my husband or my friend needs to read this, will you please sign it? Or when a woman I’ve never met before says to me, your poems are about my life, in those moments of connection, I feel the value of what I do alone at the desk.
I wish for you the prizes, the big bucks, the fellowships in fancy places. But here’s the thing: even if all that comes to you, stay focused on what really nourishes you as a writer, as one of the lucky humans for whom language is a form of freedom, an instrument of transformation rather than mere transaction.
Thanks to the Facebook/Twitter/blogosphere, it’s never been easier to know what everyone else is up to. Never been easier to be inundated with messages about what you should care about, pay attention to, have already won or bought or seen or done.
I urge you to define “success” for yourself, and in ways over which you can actually exert some control. You decide how many places to submit your work, but you can’t control whether or not the New Yorker accepts it.
Don’t calculate where you should be based on your age or where your classmates are or some other external measure. Don’t discount, or let others discount, the things that you have decided constitute “success.”
Tune inward. Find and defend your quiet places.
Now. Let’s talk about self doubt. That voice that says “what makes you think you’ve got anything to say, that your voice on the page matters?”
I’ve learned the hard way that ignoring self doubt doesn’t work. When I do that, I stop writing. Suddenly my oven is suspiciously clean, all the filing is done, and the kitchen drawers are lined with fresh shelf paper.
The Permanent Fragility of Meaning
Why persist, scratching across the white field
row after row? Why repeat the ritual
every morning, emptying my hands
asking for a new prayer to fold
Nothing changes, no one is saved.
I walk into the day, hands still
empty and beg
to be of use to someone. I lie down
in the dark and beg to believe
when the voice comes again with its commands,
Unfold your hands. Revelation
is not a fruit you pluck from trees. This is the work,
cultivating the smallest shoot, readying your tongue
to shape the sacred names, your mouth already filling—
I lie down in the dark.
I rise up and begin again.
When I finally turn to confront the doubt, to engage with it and dig underneath it, sure, there’s fear there. Fear that my best efforts will be inadequate or, worse, boring and foolish. But when I confront my doubt I’m also faced with the depth of my desire to make something astonishing, a poem that will startle me into new awareness, a poem with the capacity to provoke or nourish, to help someone grieve, or maybe even begin healing. Self-doubt is intimately connected to the desire to go further, risk more.
Self-doubt is just part of this writing life. Find a way to tolerate it. Befriend it if you can. At its best, self-doubt keeps us from becoming glib and complacent. Just don’t let it have the last word. Don’t let it silence you.
My point is: persist. Bring all of yourself to the lifelong task of honing and deepening your work. Have patience.
As May Sarton reminds us: stand still, be here. Feel your own weight and density.
Your do this for more than yourself: Someone needs to hear what only you can say.
I’ll conclude with one more poem, one that came directly out of a period of self doubt and what felt, at the time, like silence:
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
It’s time. It’s almost too late.
Did you see the magnolia light its pink fires?
You could be your own, unknown self.
No one is keeping it from you.
The magnolia lights its pink fires
daffodils shed papery sheaths.
No one is keeping you from it—
your church of window, pen, and morning.
Daffodils undress, shed papery sheaths—
gestures invisible to the eye.
In the church of window, pen, and morning
what unfolds at frequencies we can’t see?
Gestures invisible to naked eye,
the garden opens, an untranslatable book
written at a frequency we can’t see.
Not a psalm, exactly, but a segue.
The garden opens, an untranslatable book.
You can be your own, unknown self—
not a psalm, but a segue.