On the Importance of Writers to the World
Posted on January 8, 2013
Our daughter Emma just finshed her MFA program here at SNHU and was one of two student speakers at this weekend’s graduation. For any of us who love literaure or harbor secret or not so secret hopes of being a writer, I think her talk will resonate. So with her prmission I’ve shared it below.
Southern New Hampshire University MFA Graduation – January 2013
There’s a common myth about writers, that writing is in our blood. Most of us, graduating today, have been writing for a very long time. We like to imagine ourselves in the womb, skinny alien fingers tapping out stanzas on the uterine wall. Culturally, we share this image of the writer, driven intrinsically to write, itching to write, waking up in the middle of the night with novels unfolding in their head. I tried that by the way – letting the novel unfold in my sleep – Diane wasn’t impressed. It’s a fantastic image though, this born writer – the introverted youth, sneaking off to write in her notebook while all the other less complex little children play sports and get dirty, and the soulful adult, disheveled, shirt untucked, hunched over the typewriter with a bottle of whiskey, a model I think a few of our graduating class have tried to emulate too.
But we are, beneath this glorious image, a deeply insecure group. Writers seem to alternate between a soaring vanity – an irrational pride in constructing a coherent sentence – and a deep, all-consuming self-doubt. We sit there in our chairs, at our desks, staring blankly at the glowing white screen, and realize we’re never going to be the next Faulkner, we’re never going to finish this novel, we’re never going to write another sentence, we’re never – really – going to be writers.
But today, we are writers. We have earned it. We have earned the right never to suffer quite the same depths of self-doubt. We will continue to have the occasional days – or weeks – where we sit in the chair, or lie on the floor, unable to summon another word, unable to even look at our manuscripts and we will continue to get rejection letters from agents and publishers, and more rejection letters, and probably more rejection letters, and we will have to work hard, as hard as we’ve worked to get here, harder maybe, now that we’re out on our own without those cruel, relentless monthly deadlines, the tirades and hugs from our mentors, but throughout all of that suffering – and it is a very picturesque suffering – we will be writers, and we will know, really we will know, we are writers. Because we’ve done the hardest thing already. We’ve learned that no matter how hard we dream at night in our sleep or how much whiskey we drink, inspiration doesn’t come from anywhere except for ourselves. We’ve learned how to sit down and start writing. We’ve learned to keep writing, and editing, and deleting, and rewriting. We’ve learned that writing is like ballet – from the audience’s perspective, that of the reader, we on stage look graceful, elegant, weightless, and that’s the point. but they can’t see how hard we’re working, that we’re sweating, that our muscles ache, that every time we leap or pirouette – or finish another sentence or a scene – we’re never actually sure we can do it but we hold our breath and we keep trying. That is what makes us writers. It’s not because we have now have MFAs – though that is pretty fun – but because we worked to earn these titles. We all submitted theses. We’ve all written a book. We are writers because we write. Pascal said that if you want to become religious, pray five times a day. Go through the motions, and the piety will come. We wanted to be writers so we sat down and wrote.
So what does that mean to be a writer? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and much to the dismay of people who do real things, doctors, engineers, plumbers, mechanics, I’ve concluded that we, in fact, writers, are what keeps the world working. As I said – our self-doubt is followed by great vanity.
I just started a degree in Anthropology, and I’ve been thinking about what makes us human. What is it that we, as Americans, sitting in this ballroom in New Hampshire, really have in common with the Hoti, a tiny, isolated Amazonian tribe, or Papua New Guinea Highlanders, with their elaborate rituals of constant warfare? What is it that distinguishes all of us, humans, living in society, making meaning out of our world, from our forebears, foraging for berries and plucking nits out of their armpit hair? The difference I think, that which makes us human, is language. Not just language itself, because we know that lots of animals communicate, but the use we put language to – telling stories. Humans are the only species that tells stories, and without stories social existence isn’t possible. Consciousness isn’t possible. We tell stories – whether newspaper articles or fairytales – to make sense of the world. Trees, rocks, dogs, the sunrise, babies, death – they don’t mean anything until we give them meaning, and we give them meaning by telling stories that have morals, that have good and evil, and suddenly we can know what good and evil are. Stories are what unite us, what tell us who we are, what our values are, who we want to be, and where we’ve come from. Stories are what let us live, meaningfully, in a world that is otherwise chaotic and frightening. Whether fiction, poetry, or essays, whether Native American creation myths or the Koran or the Bible, whether steam-punk adventure novels like Jacob’s thesis, or Adam Sharp’s intimate memoir about illness and independence, we need stories to make sense of our world and our selves in it. We read stories to our children, to introduce them quietly, subtly, slowly into the world. In moments of great tragedy, the stories we tell, the stories we seek out, help us to survive. How many of us would have survived high school without Catcher in the Rye? How many of us would have fallen in love, and fallen in love quite the same way, without Romeo and Juliet? Could we understand power, politics, and the state without 1984? Could we understand injustice without To Kill a Mockingbird or the Grapes of Wrath? Would we, communally, be as human without Hamlet? Without the Big Friendly Giant or Heart of Darkness or Anna Karenina or Suttree or The Man With the Golden Arm? Everyone in this room can remember stories that changed them, that made them different, better, wiser, stronger, braver. We come into this world empty, blank, and we feed on stories, that fill us, build us, shape us – make us subjects in the world, with desires, fears, feelings, strength, and humor.
Now that we’re writers, and we’ve earned the privilege of calling ourselves writers, of always knowing that we’re writers, we must consider our new responsibility. We are the guardians of our collective humanity. We are the ones who must write human possibility – human love and grief and courage – into being. JG Ballard said he wrote to rub the world’s face in its own vomit. We might write for more uplifting purposes – to show the world its mysteries or its pleasures or its comedies or its contradictions, but no matter how we write and what we write about and for whom, we do so with the weight of the world’s humanity on our shoulders.
So, to my fellow graduates, I’d like to say, enjoy this evening off, of celebration, let your writer’s vanity run wild, but be ready to sit down again tomorrow and resume the work of keeping our humanity alive. Ours is a great responsibility – greater still in the context of our wild world in transition, at this moment of globalization and technological development and constant change – but I know we can do it, because our mentors have taught us well, and we know we have each other, fellow keepers of our stories, and we know we can do it because we already have begun.
Thank you, and congratulations.