You Have to Embrace the Doubt Before You Can Claim Your Authority as a Writer
From Poet Jennifer Grotz’s Bennington MFA Commencement Speech
Although I wear many hats, including teacher, translator, and arts administrator, the most important one, the oldest one, and the one I cling to most closely is that of being a poet. Ever since I was a little girl growing up in Texas, I knew I wanted to be a poet. Or to be perfectly honest, what I wanted was to be either a pastor or a country and western singer.
Being a poet, it turns out, was a nifty way to combine those two. But when I was invited to give the commencement remarks for the Bennington Writing Seminars, I was made aware that of the nineteen MFA graduates in this 2023 class of writers, none were poets. Would what I might summon to tell you even be of interest?
What I am confessing to you here, this sense of inadequacy, the anxiety about rising to the occasion, is the perennial crisis we call literary authority. Every writer has contended, I think, with this baffling question—or sometimes it feels more like a mirage—what does it finally take to count oneself as a writer, when and how does one assume that authority?
Is it writing the first thing that makes you proud? Is it publishing the first poem or story? Is it a piece of paper or degree, an MFA? Is it the first book published? Is it when a certain reader or writer treats you as such? And why do we carry such searing doubts about whether we’re capable of being a writer in the first place?
As a teenager, I worried I couldn’t be a writer because I was from Texas. I thought I couldn’t be a writer because no one in my family wrote or even read books. But I have a friend who is the daughter of a writer who felt she couldn’t be a writer because her parents wrote. She thought she couldn’t be a writer because her house was full of books. I have a friend who thinks he can’t be a writer because he’s Polish. I have another friend who thinks she can’t be a writer because she has a Ph.D.
But in fact, one’s doubt at the possibility of being a writer is the necessary and therefore precious precondition to being a writer. It’s the way in which you solve the dilemma, the kind of literary authority you claim and the way in which you claim it, that makes you one.One’s doubt at the possibility of being a writer is the necessary and therefore precious precondition to being a writer.
There is no one way to do this, and this is why the teaching of writing is notoriously difficult to codify. Robert Frost described the ideal teacher this way: “He would turn from correcting grammar in red ink to matching experience in black ink—experience of life and experience of art.”
That matching of experience of life and experience of art, is what you have undertaken together with your teachers and peers these past couple of years at Bennington and it is what I too am here today to do. What I am about to share is a story of an experience of life and experience of art that I now find quite humorous, but I should quickly add that it’s predicated on an event of tremendous sadness, which is the death of my brother Eric that took place in 2006.
I was in Krakow, Poland, when I got the phone call. I was at an international poetry seminar that I myself organized with the poets Adam Zagajewski and Edward Hirsch. We were halfway through a heady week of thrilling conversations about poetry and its role in the world. Nobel Laureates Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Seamus Heaney, and other luminaries such as W.S. Merwin or Jorie Graham, among many others, were some of the attendees those summers.
This seminar held no workshops—we spent the days asking lofty questions about literature and its role in history and politics on a world scale in panels with ambitious titles like “Poetry and the Holocaust,” or “What Did Poetry Accomplish in the Twentieth Century?” Because of its own tragic history, Poland—and thereby Polish poets—had felt charged with responsibility to address their cultural moment in a way that we Americans, especially since 2016, now also urgently feel.
I learned an extraordinary amount from these conversations. I dare say they were life-changing. My head and heart were exploding with wonder and possibility and earnest poetic ambition when I answered that phone call.
After my mother told me the details, she asked if I would write a poem for the funeral, which was five days away. Bewildered with grief, and knowing I’d never been a poet who could write well on demand—occasional poems, we usually call them—I told her I didn’t think I could. She was clearly disappointed. “Then surely you can find a poem by someone else to read.”
“Let me think about it,” I said.
I agonized on the long flight home. I had just passed the comprehensive exams in poetry for my PhD, and so I had fresh in mind a whole host of extraordinary elegies from the English literary canon. But I was hardly about to read “Lycidas,” or “Adonais” or passages from “In Memoriam” at my brother’s funeral. I thought of modern American elegists—Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost, Robert Hayden, or Elizabeth Bishop—poets I treasured.
But I realized they couldn’t speak to my family, or for my family. And I haven’t mentioned to you yet how he died: drunk and high, he’d been arrested by the police for public intoxication outside a mall. He died later that night in a jail cell. He was thirty-three years old.
I had written poems about my brother, but they were dark and troubled, because he was dark and troubled, and that was a source of misery and mystery to me that only poems helped me think about. But I couldn’t fathom standing up and reading one of them aloud either.
But when my plane landed in Texas, I learned my agonizing had been unnecessary. “I found the perfect poem for you to read,” said my mom.
“Can I see it?” I said.
“No, I have to play it for you on the computer.”
“You have to play it?” I said.
When we got home, she queued it up and clicked play. Center-justified sing-songy quatrains in Comic Sans Serif font—literally and figuratively purple—scrolled up and off the screen like movie credits while animations of a swooping bird, or a squirrel twitching its tail, or a puffy cloud floated by one after another. The speaker of this poem was a deceased person up in heaven wanting to let the people he left behind down on earth know that they shouldn’t be sad because he was happy now and playing with the birds and animals. It was called “When Tomorrow Begins Without Me.”
I was appalled. The disconnect between the content of this poem—to anyone but my mother I would have called it doggerel—and the reality of my brother’s death was incomprehensible. An animated bunny hopped across the screen at the end as the sun rose on a new day. I looked over at my mother as tears streamed down her face. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. “You’ll read it, won’t you?” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “I will.”
In that moment, I felt disturbed and humiliated and utterly failed as a writer. But after it all sank in, I could admit it was also a little hilarious. I had to hand copy the poem—you can’t print a YouTube animation!—in order to read it. The author of the poem, I then noticed, was anonymous. “I’d sign it anonymous if I’d written it, too,” I thought but did not say aloud.
All the next day, my mother pestered me. “Shouldn’t you practice? So you won’t cry when you read the poem?”
“Don’t worry, Mom, I got this,” I told her. And the next day I stood up and read the poem solemnly and respectfully. And then I sat down, thinking my private humiliation was now complete. Not quite. Afterwards, family members from far and wide came up to congratulate me.
“Now we know why you’re such a famous poet,” an uncle said with wet eyes, assuming I was the poem’s author. “Which of your books is that in?” asked another.
Whenever I start to feel uncertain about this enterprise, of what literature is, what it can or should do, who we write for and why, I think back to this moment of failure and chagrin. But I also remember what happened after that. After, when everyone had dispersed and I entered the long stretch of unspeakable loneliness where real grief begins. Then I wrote elegies for my brother. Five of them ended up in my following book The Needle.We are living in a cultural and political moment where it feels impossible and irresponsible not to consider how our writing may be of use.
Others have continued to come since then. On numerous occasions now people have written letters or come up after readings to thank me for those poems or to say how they helped them in their own grief. In the end, I did succeed to speak in some way that gave solace or spoke some recognizable truth to others, but not the group of people who surrounded me—and not at the moment when they asked it of me—it was years later by then, and the people my poems spoke to were largely self-selecting strangers.
We are living in a cultural and political moment where it feels impossible and irresponsible not to consider how our writing may be of use. Aside from the question of literary authority I began with, this seems to be the question most pressing for emerging writers in this moment of climate crisis and war and jeopardized democracy. Some of us come to art to find or make beauty and to seek refuge from these existential threats. Some of us want the art we make to be taking part in the larger questions our world must address.
There is no fixed answer to this dilemma or to this moment. But as you go forward in your life as a writer, I encourage you to keep a space of freedom, patience, ambition but also kindness toward what you make. The trajectory of how every poem, story, or novel comes into being is unique and unpredictable. And the usefulness of what we make is ultimately determined by the reader, not by the writer’s intention—though our intentions do matter.
And there is much in our world that intentionally seeks to estrange us from ourselves, and to alienate us from each other. There is much in the world that doesn’t want us to make art at all.
Which is why today is such an achievement, a marker of the years you’ve devoted in such a world to acquire your literary craft, a moment to celebrate the work you have made in your time here, and the friendships, and all the promise of what is to come. It is a day to acknowledge the literary authority you have already summoned to get this far and the occasions in the future you will go on to assume it anew. It is now time for you, dear class of 2023, to take these achievements and go forward to write the work that only you can make.