Stonecoast Graduation, Winter, 2018

This is the speech I gave to the assembly at the graduation of the Winter 2018 class of the Stonecoast Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of Southern Maine.  As I note in the speech, I am (semi)retiring from Stonecoast to spend more time writing -- and working on my webpage!  I will teach at this summer's residency but will no longer be mentoring students during the semester.  My future at Stonecoast?  I'd love to keep some ties, but I appreciate that the administration needs to serve the needs of the students, not the semi-retired faculty!  But I am pleased with the current arrangement.  

 Way too serious!

Way too serious!

Dean Tuchinsky, Winter 2018 graduates and their honored guests, my colleagues on the staff and faculty here at Stonecoast, I believe tonight we have a first.  The first time the graduating speaker is graduating with the graduating class.  Just so the families and friends know, I’ve had the privilege of serving on the faculty since 2005 and am now easing into semi-retirement.  Which means that I know all too well how my friends in the caps and gowns feel.  We all have a mixture of pride in our accomplishments, relief that we made it through, regret that our Stonecoast adventure is coming to an end.  Because when we adjourn tonight, there will be no more packets for you, no more letters of comment for me. 

What are we going to do with all that time?

Me, I intend to write.  I hope that’s your plan too.  And if I can offer one last snippet of advice, it is don’t wait.  As hard as you’ve worked over the last few months to whip that manuscript into shape and to learn the arcane magic of thesis formatting from Wizard Matt, don’t rest on your laurels.  No extended vacations.  Get back to the writing -- asap.   

I’d like to say a few words to your family and friends.  Hello.  We know how marvelously you’ve been supporting your writers; that’s how they got here in the first place.  But now you’re going to have take over at least some of the nurturing that we’ve been doing here at Stonecoast.  Just because they’re not in the program anymore doesn’t mean that you’re going to get back all that time they spent writing their packets.  They will want to keep working and you will want to help create the psychic space they will need to do that work, as they explore their evolving identities as writers.  Because those identities may still be fragile.  Before they came to Stonecoast, calling themselves writers was a huge leap of faith. It certainly was for me, back in the day.  You tell someone a writer, and, if you’re lucky,  they ask what you write.  And you can say:  memoir, novels, sonnets, essays, plays, films.  But the conversation all too often goes on from there.  Are you published?  Have I read something you’ve written?   Do you know Stephen King? Can you make a living writing that kind of stuff?   Believe me, those are questions that can cause internal bleeding in a new writer.  And now your grads may face a new question.  So you got an MFA, how’s that working out for you?   Your writers are going to need you to believe in them.  But now it’s not only because you love them and want them to find their bliss.  Now you can believe in them because we do.   

In a few minutes Dean Tuchinsky will speak words of power to all of us.   Warning: spoiler alert.  He will announce that these fourteen have been duly approved by the Board of Trustees for a Masters Degree of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.  Then he is going to say something that has always puzzled me.  Twice a year for thirteen years I’ve heard a dean say that our graduates are entitled to their degree with all honors, distinctions and privileges.  I’ve always wondered what those honors, distinctions and privileges might be.  And now as I get ready to leave Stonecoast myself, I think I know. You see, sitting right behind your grads are a clutch of writers who have sold books and books and shelves of books and who know fine writing when they read it.  So they and I – we proclaim now to everyone in this hall, and to all the world, that we’ve read those impeccably formatted theses and they are by writers.  Not aspiring writers.  Not wannabe writers.  That is the distinction we want you understand, friends and families.  We honor them because they are truly writers.  Never doubt it.

Now graduates, back to you.  You are very, very different people than you were before you came to us January of 2016.  And I’m talking different right down to the cellular level. You may have heard it said that the human body totally replaces itself every seven years.  Think of it, a brand new you, every so often like clockwork.  Actually, that’s not exactly right.  Yes, your cells are dying and being replaced all the time but different parts of you are replaced at different rates.  For example, the cells lining your digestive system come and go every few days, so each of you have grown a completely new stomach lining since you arrived here, maybe more than one depending on how many times you stopped by the Broad Arrow.   And life is tough on your skin, so snakelike you’ve grown an entirely new hide since Christmas to shield you against unwanted literary criticism. Blood cells come and go every few months, so all that blood you sweated writing your prefaces?   No big deal. Those poor corpuscles were doomed anyway.  And did you know that you grow a new skeleton every ten years?  So start stiffening those backbones so you’re ready for encounters with feisty editors

But the problem with the notion that you are an entirely different collection of cells than you were, once upon a time, is what’s up here, in your brain. Chances are very good, if you’re over twenty-five that you’ve got all the neurons in your cerebral cortex that you ever going to have. But although you’re pretty much stuck with the brain cells you’ve got, you can change the way they connect. Neurologists call this capacity for rewiring yourself brain plasticity.  And that rewiring is what we’ve been doing to you for the past two years.  This program isn’t only designed to pour some literary encyclopedia into your heads.  It’s not about whether you can define free indirect discourse or understand the correct use of serial commas or explain the difference between a dactyl and an anapest.  This program has changed the way you think about writing and to do that we have changed your brain.   Possibly the most critical rewiring we accomplish here is to create a habit of writing.  It may be that before you came to us, you wrote when inspiration struck.  Maybe you indulged in binge writing, cranked chapters or poems or essays out and then, exhausted, laid low for a few weeks. Or months.  But that’s not the way it worked here, was it?  There was always a packet due every month, and when it wasn’t the packets, there were the submissions for the residency.  Over and over and over.  When would it stop? 

Well, it stops now.  You don’t owe us any more writing.  From now on, you owe it to yourselves.  All the work you did here more than justifies the prodigious efforts you put into it.  But I believe that, going forward, creating a habit of writing may be the most important legacy of Stonecoast to your careers.  And I’ll say again what I said at the outset, because it bears repeating.  You should get right back into it.  Come February 1, I’m hoping you’ll feel good and antsy if you’re not getting regular keyboard time. 

And why is it a good thing, this habit of writing?  Well, because it gets the work done, that’s obvious.  But let me share a controversial opinion I’ve formed over some thirty years working with writers.  Talent is overrated.  Since I first came to Stonecoast there has been lots of new research in the science of expertise that attempts to document how we master difficult cognitive skills like playing the violin, excelling at chess or writing a masterpiece.  And the research all shows whatever contribution talent might make, if it even exists, what really counts in mastery is practice and feedback.  Regular practice.  Over and over and over.  Packet after packet after packet.  Of course, you can’t look to Stonecoast for your feedback anymore.  But that’s because it’s time to send your work to editors.  Time to publish.  You’re ready, believe me.  Don’t worry about whether you’re talented enough to submit to this market or that.  Talent is overrated. When I read work by a writer I really admire, who -- let’s not put too fine a point on it -- writes better than I do, I don’t get all discouraged because I got shortchanged at the talent bank.  I just indulge my writing habit and keep practicing.  Over and over and over.  So should you.  

I’m afraid it’s time for us to move on, graduates. Like you I loved – love Stonecoast, but there is a season to everything. Like you I want to thank Justin and Matt and especially Robin, in my case, who has watched out for me for all the thirteen years of my time here. And we graduating Stonecoasters want to thank the faculty for changing our brains, and our lives.  But before we go, one last assignment for you.  There is a saying that goes something like this. “It is a poor teacher whose students do not surpass him.”  I tried looking up who said that on the internet, but couldn’t find a definitive attribution.  Some sites claim it was said by a Zen master like Dogen Zenji, others assigned it to Leonardo da Vinci or  Will Rogers.

It is a poor teacher whose students do not surpass him. 

All of you who have worked with us have written evaluations of what we do here at Stonecoast.  But I put it to you beautiful writers, soon to be graduates, soon to be masters, that you have not yet submitted your final report on our teaching. 

Because it is a poor teacher, whose students do not surpass him.

Go out into the wide world, my friends, and make us look good.