The following talk was delivered at the Bennington Writing Seminars Commencement Address on January 16, 2021.
Congratulations to you all, Bennington’s 2021 MFA graduates. It’s an honor to be invited to give this speech: an intimidating one for sure, but an honor I’m delighted to try and earn, in the hopes that I might offer you some words of if not wisdom, then personal (and not always very practical) advice for the future.
I’m speaking to you today from my couch, which is where I suspect you also are listening to me. I’ve spent a lot of the year on this couch; one could even say I’ve developed a possibly unhealthy relationship with it. Believe me, nurturing a relationship with a piece of furniture covered in wine stains, chocolate and dog hair was not how I thought 2020 would go. Like you, I had plans—in part, the last leg of a “reading” tour, events for an anthology I edited, school visits to classrooms around my state, and of course birthday and anniversary and holiday celebrations. I’d planned to visit The Grand Canyon for my wedding anniversary; and I’d been saving up for tickets to Patagonia, with a hopeful side trip to Buenos Aires, where I might spend a few days humiliating myself at tango.
Of course, we all know what happened. As more information about the pandemic spread, I—like you—retreated. I joined you as we all went into lockdown and began stocking up on sourdough starters and free weights and toilet paper. This year, we collectively gave up gym memberships, concert tickets and spontaneous nights out, we abandoned bookstores and handshakes, terrible bars and friendships with people who claimed we were overreacting to the pandemic. We got into our cars for our protest marches, we Zoomed our music lessons. We gave up therapy and haircuts and big box stores, we sat out the Christmas dinners with family members we can barely tolerate. Thankfully for me, we gave up hugs. Basically, we gave up all the activities that make our lives not just enjoyable but, sometimes, bearable.
I can only imagine the year you’d planned and what you’ve given up. I imagine that you accepted having to complete your MFA entirely online with as much grace as you could muster, but that, alone in your house or on your text threads, you still expressed (and experienced) profound disappointment with having to share your work with a dozen pixelated heads onscreen. Maybe the pandemic and its Inferno-esque rings of isolation it required us all to navigate gave you time to write more. Possibly you got lost inside one of those rings and finished hardly anything at all. Maybe you feel guilty for this, maybe you are resigned. I hope you don’t feel ashamed of yourself for however much or little you accomplished.
Or perhaps the pandemic worked a different kind of magic on you: not one that closed you off from the world but somehow opened up another door into it. Something that deepened your awareness of pleasure, that expanded your understanding of intimacy. During the first few months of lockdown and its surprising absence of city noise, I myself began to be aware of and enjoy the sudden explosion of raptors in my neighborhood. A wave of red squirrels had evidently invaded Utah, bringing with them an equally large number of predators: coyotes, yes, but also red-tailed hawks, peregrines and great horned owls and now, wave upon wave of amateur birders in their wake.
In the morning I hear the calls of fledgling Cooper’s hawks clumsily navigating our telephone wires and rain gutters as they learn to fly, and in the afternoon I’ve begun to gather in the dog park at the edge of our cemetery to watch pairs of adults hunt. I’ve learned about the mating habits of great golden eagles from the masked biologist down my block who one day patiently sat with me in the rain to talk, and I learned from some avid photographers that you can track owls at dusk by the sounds of magpies in the neighboring trees, shrieking to chase them off.Form is, of course, everywhere—from the shape of a sentence, to the logic of a paragraph, to the rhymes and rhetorical structure of a sonnet.
But outside of this new attraction to the natural world, the pandemic also pushed me into closer relationships with other writers—poets and nonfiction writers I’d previously only had casual conversations with at conferences or on social media. Suddenly I was learning about their children’s health problems. I listened sympathetically to stories about their marital strains and career frustrations, their publishing triumphs and failures. It may seem strange to you—as it now seems strange to me—that I’ve spent my whole life writing without being personally that close to other writers, but this was in fact the case.
The common commencement speech bromide is a reminder that your MFA peers will remain some of your closest writing confidantes. I hope this will be the case for you; it wasn’t for me. Mostly because so many of my peers stopped writing—or at least stopped publishing, which is a very different thing—and many others moved on to different careers. One or two became wildly successful in the exact ways our program had trained and hoped for us to become, but the rest of us learned to make our way in the arts in a manner that required we redefine our notions of success, that sometimes even required we redefined what a writing life itself would look like or be.
The pandemic gave me back a writing community, and for this, I am profoundly grateful.
But the pandemic also gave me time to think about the writers in my life I’ve lost—whether tragically, through death, or conventionally, through simply losing touch. People don’t warn you enough about how many people in your life you’ll lose. They also don’t remind you how many different versions of yourself you’ll lose, cycling through identity after identity as you get older, and with each iteration—or evolution—of yourself becoming a different kind of writer. As I said, a lot of writers I once knew stopped writing. Some became artists of a different kind entirely: some gave up out of disgust or boredom, some have merely paused. No one knows which writers will really “stick to writing” which, for me, means simply continuing to make literature a significant part of your emotional and spiritual life.
I’ve heard terrible stories of teachers who told students they were talentless nobodies destined for failure. In most cases, these stories were told by now fabulously successful writers eager to make their former teachers the butt of a cosmic joke. But I’ve also heard a couple of these stories told by people who’d stopped writing entirely after these pronouncements were made: it wasn’t a joke they were telling, but a reason why they’d been broken.
The truth is no teacher, no editor, no parent or friend really knows who’s going to “make it” and who isn’t. Sometimes your suspicions are right, but just as often they’re incorrect. What keeps a writer going is something outside of mere talent. It’s something people either innately possess in spades or that, with care and vigilance, they learn to nurture. I believe all people are capable of enlivening it, whatever “it” is. But I think we are often—quietly—encouraged to let that particular quality in us fade.
Sometimes that quality—let’s call it the quality of self-belief, which is different than confidence or self-assurity—sometimes that quality fades because, ironically, we get better as writers, and we look back with dismay at our first books and worry that, in fact, what we have achieved is a fluke. Many writers end up despising their first books and graduate theses, and we largely think this is because they’ve outgrown their juvenile style. That’s only partly true, however; often you can see in the first manuscript the seed of what that writer, in essence, is and will more fully become, and if that’s the case, there’s no reason to despise the first efforts. In fact, your first (and even second or third) books often become the key to understanding the obsessions you will work through the rest of your life. I think what frustrates writers about their first efforts, what threatens to fade that quality of self-belief, is recognizing the narrowness of the questions those first books asked. It’s not that the preoccupations themselves become less urgent as you mature, it’s that the questions around those obsessions deepen.
Your work moves outside of the immediate self’s conditions to ask larger, harder questions of your place in history: you begin to trace a genealogy of a psychic crisis, either by speaking more directly to the art and experience of others, or by understanding, finally, that your subject is less interesting than the form that contains and elucidates that subject. As you grow as a writer, you understand that telling us what happened is often less interesting—and less humanly unusual—than saying how that thing happened to begin with.
Form is, of course, everywhere—from the shape of a sentence, to the logic of a paragraph, to the rhymes and rhetorical structure of a sonnet. As writers, we are creatures of form, lovers of pattern. And of course, as writers, we also understand that the difference between innovation and imitation is the productive dismantling, even destruction, of pattern. It’s rarely the perfectly adhered-to sonnet that delights, but the one that upends—in meaningful ways—the form’s expectation. The poem starts with its structural container, but the poem comes to life once the container ceases to be what we perceive. As writers, we both create and destroy form all the time. And if there’s anything that may be creatively useful about this pandemic, it’s the fact we are made newly aware of how fragile form ultimately is. For what has this year done to us but altered the pattern—of intimacy, of employment, of creativity, of expectation, of joy?
So instead of looking at this year, or your thesis or your eventual first or second books with a mixture of dread and dismay, as maybe we encourage ourselves too often to do, you might start to regard them as merely a collection of the first questions you’ve asked—of yourself, of the reader, of literature. Now: do you believe you have it in you to ask something more?
I believe you do. And I believe it, because I know what my own thesis, and my own first books looked like. I believed that I would get better. I didn’t know how long that would take, but I believed it. And for me, believing that I would get better as a writer meant I had to seek out another form, a more profound question for my future work. Because knowing that I am not in charge of my obsessions, that I do not finally control all that I experience and feel, what would be the shape of the text that could allow me the deepest access to what haunts me? What is the problem that would help me unlock the structure of the essay, the story, the poem that I am just now feeling my way into?
When I was younger, like a lot of writers, I thought writing was finally a search for experience. And like a lot of writers, I had plenty of experiences—which may be why my classmates and I didn’t graduate our program with long lists of friends. My workshop—like many writing workshops, sadly—was filled with classroom rivalries and sexual jealousy, with drink-fueled spats and ill-conceived affairs, with lies and ruinous parties and dissolved marriages. Now that I have been a professor and writing program director myself, I see this particular thirst for experience as the self-destructive distraction that it is.
A decade ago, I witnessed the partner of one of my star students have affairs with not one, not three, but FIVE different people, breaking up four marriages, an engagement and even a book contract over the course of a single weekend. To this day, I’m still amazed the students in my program didn’t all come down with syphilis but that, my friends, is a different speech for a very different kind of commencement.The only thing to do now is to teach yourself the fine art of self-belief.
My point is that, if you truly believe in yourself as a writer, you will learn that experience isn’t enough. Experience is a time-suck. Experience will happen to you whether you like it or not: it’s not the declaration but the elucidation of experience—what shape it takes on the page—that finally becomes meaningful to you as you mature as writers. And the artful elucidation of experience requires skill, re-learning—and maybe more importantly UNLEARNING—the skills you developed in your program. The funny thing about delivering a commencement speech is that it suggests I have some knowledge about writing that you do not. But you already know what it means to be a writer.
In writing your thesis, you know what every mid- to late-stage writer like me also knows: each book is your first, and in the end, you do not plot but feel your way into the sentences that will crack your material open into something fresh, surprising, true. It’s a cliché that is, sadly, a fact: the lessons you mastered now will work only with the specific material you’ve already assembled. Once your material and questions change, these lessons become either meaningless or derivative. If you are really progressing as a writer, you will spend every poem, every story, every book trying to dismantle the skills of your previous, hard-won writing.
So. If you thought this would get easier, it won’t. If, over the course of your time here at Bennington, you ever found yourself hunched over your desk, moaning that you are a talentless hack running off the power of a single hamster’s last brain cell, that you would rather stick your hand into a whirring Cuisinart than type out one more word of this piece that will soon reveal to the world what an emotionally defective, self-deluding carbon sack you actually are, well my friends, those days will be back. I have written 10 books to date and each one of them has made me want to die. The only people who feel good about their writing are liars, egomaniacs or psychopaths. Everyone is scared. Everyone feels like a fraud. Everyone lies about their writing plans on their grant application all the time. No one knows what the hell they are doing until, suddenly, they do.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that you are now very well-prepared to be a writer. As I said, every book is pushing off into the dark. The only thing to do now is to teach yourself the fine art of self-belief. To remind yourself, over and over, that you too both possess and can nurture the kindness in yourself that will let you find the stranger, scarier questions that will make your writing get better. And you can do this, not just again and again, but over the course of a life.
So the best piece of advice I have to give you is how to prepare yourself for that. And my best piece of advice is this: cultivate curiosity. Protect it with your life. An intellectually open mind will never let you be satisfied: it will force you to read another book, write another draft, learn another language, travel to another country, engage in deeper and more intimidating research. I’ve literally had panic attacks doing the oral history work that went into writing my book, The Broken Country, but I did it because I had questions I could not get answers from any other way. Curiosity is difficult and frightening and it sometimes feels time-consuming, but it pushes you to do more and better. Strangely, I think the pandemic helps with cultivating curiosity, because if you can maintain even a shred of intellectual inquisitiveness in a year that would put Einstein himself into brain-death, there’s hope for you. Writing is an act of patient endurance; it is a spiritual pursuit, and curiosity is the god that oversees it all.
But, as much as I enjoy reminding you about the spiritual act that writing finally—and most importantly—is, I’m too much of a Capricorn to leave you now without also a few practical pieces of advice.
First: Read dead people. And read translated work. Writing is a conversation across culture and time, it is not a Twitter feed of the now. If you think your writing is wacky and formally inventive, you probably haven’t read enough medieval poetry. If you think you’ve done something fun with hybrid texts, you probably need to spend some time with Sei Shonagon and Frankenstein, and Tristram Shandy. When I say read dead people, I also mean read outside your comfort zone. Read science. Read history. Read philosophy. Read people you’ve never heard of, and read the ones everyone talks about, too. Canons and lists are, yes, problematic but they are also opportunities—to argue, to reinvent, to see yourself not reflected in but expanded by an ever-widening series of traditions. Every book you write will demand and assemble its own literary canon, and to ensure each book adds to, and does not simply reiterate, that tradition, you need to know as much as you can about the writers and books that preceded you.
Second: Get a hobby. There are poets out there who, according to their social media presence at least, appear to do nothing but poet. This, to me, seems both admirable and awful. Some of your best writing will come out of studies and interests that, on the surface, have nothing to do with writing at all. I just spent three years of my life researching and writing a book about the transcontinental railroad because of a commission. I thought this would be a waste of time: it turned out to be one of the most creatively enriching projects I’ve attempted, largely because I love research, but also because of the formal problems the commission inspired. This piece of advice is still about cultivating your curiosity, obviously, but it’s the practical way to ensure you’re doing it. So say yes to things that seem, on the surface, insane. Learn another language. Pick up a musical instrument. Try rock climbing. To believe in yourself as a writer, you have to believe you possess the skills and capabilities of an interesting human. Even if it never ends up on the page, you have made yourself an interesting human, someone other people would ideally like to host at dinner parties.
Third: At those dinner parties, ask other people questions. Learn to be a good conversationalist. Seriously. When we can all gather again, try this little experiment: at the next party, calculate how many questions people ask about you, or even other people at the party. Most people talk about themselves. But if you want to write about other people, you have to know what they think. So practice asking other people questions, and listening to the answers.
Fourth: if you can, save at least 10 percent of every paycheck; 14 percent if you are a woman, or come from a long-lived family. Save this money, invest it in dividend-paying stocks and never touch it. Trust me: one day, you will need it.There are few pleasures greater than this: to see yourself as part of a community who understand that literature is finally the writing of human memory.
Fifth: Writing is shockingly physical. By the time you finish a book, you will feel like you’ve lost an inch of height and gained ten pounds. Depending on how you sit and eat while working, these things may be true. Pick a sport, you don’t even have to be good at it. If you are a poet, and it is a ball sport, you will almost assuredly NOT be good at it, Terrance Hayes and Natalie Diaz withstanding. Pick something you enjoy enough that it forces you out of the house and moving. It will save your waistline, your mind, your spine. You will also, almost always, find the answer to your hardest writing questions while doing it.
Sixth: No matter what your mother said, vanity is not a sin. Good skin care, hair cuts and great shoes are NEVER a waste of time.
Seventh: Professional envy, as every writer throughout history has ever said, is the one true hazard of our profession. Envy, more than anything but cancer and actual death, kills careers. Over the course of your life, you will watch some of the worst minds of your generation be fabulously rewarded. You will learn to find this highly amusing. That, or your own heart will die. The good news is that, if you stick around long enough, everyone gets a prize, just not the same ones. You, too, might be one of our most lavishly rewarded writers. I hope so. But you should know that these rewards aren’t as heartening as the fact that you will also, one day soon, get to sit in a room again with other writers and listen to them read their work, and you will suddenly be overcome with the awareness—the joy—of knowing you are part of a world of people who have devoted their lives to making art. The fact is, there are few pleasures greater than this: to see yourself as part of a community who understand that literature is finally the writing of human memory, and all of you are writing it together.
Because, and not to be too snobby here, there’s a reason not everyone does what we do. It’s hard. It’s rarely fun. It makes you doubt yourself and it puts you at serious financial risk. But when it works, when you finally understand the problem you’ve been working, or you’ve been startled into an insight you didn’t know you possessed via the intense creative play that is your life, writing makes you feel more alive. When I write something I love, the rest of my day—my week, even my month—makes sense. Ours is not the only kind of life, of course, but it is one of the best ones—regardless of when or if or where you publish, when or if or where you are rewarded.
Writing is not, at heart, a profession, it is a practice: it is the practice of being human. I believe a life well lived is one spent attending to the things you most believe in and love, and words, literature, art, creativity, the life of the mind, these are all human things I deeply believe in and love. I don’t know what you believe in, or how you reconciled (if you did) your writing practice with the great human events we are currently living through together, but it seems to me that the pandemic is a good time to ask yourself some necessary questions. What new attention did the pandemic make you pay to the world? What kind of intimacy—with other people, and with your own curiosity—did it foster? I hope you found some answers to these questions during your time at Bennington. I hope, too, that from these answers spring even more mysterious, more life-giving questions.
Congratulations to you all, and best wishes for your future.