I've just returned from the residency for Fairfield University's MFA in Creative Writing Program, where I teach fiction writing. It was held, as always, on Enders Island in CT and it was, as always, an amazing experience. I delivered the faculty address for the graduation of the 5th cohort of students to receive their MFA degrees, the class called by Daisy Abreu, the student speaker for the event, the "blizzard cohort," since they first arrived on the island in the midst of a huge storm.
Here's the address I gave for the graduates, on January 4, 2013. It includes my wishes for that particular group of wonderful writers, but really, it is what I wish for all writers.
Graduation Speech: Fairfield MFA, January 2013
Graduates, families, friends, faculty, and staff: It’s an honor to speak to you tonight, in this beautiful setting, on this joyful occasion.
But, really, I’m not a speech-maker; I’m a storyteller. And many of you know about my interest in fairy tales, in their ancient and contemporary forms. So perhaps the best way to start the story I want to tell you, as you prepare to leave this program, is the oldest way: Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, all of you, from your separate parts of the world and discrete and distinct lives, came to an island. The forces of fate and choice—and perhaps even magic—brought you to this, Enders Island, where your lives and your words and your art intertwined with the words and art and lives of all of these others. Just think about that for a second: how extraordinary that you all ended up here, at this place, all at the same time. How extraordinary that, within those first hours and days on this island, you found a whole new set of lifelong friends and teachers and mentors. Somehow, you found yourself joining a whole new—but strangely familiar—family. A family of writers, a family in love with words, with books and stories and poems and essays and scripts. How extraordinary that you fit in, as if you had been a character in this amazing story, all along.
Although, maybe, when you really think about it, none of this should be a surprise. Because, all along, islands have been places of magic and of power. In literature through the ages, writers have known that: islands are enchanted, and enchanting. Think of Calypso’s island, in the Odyssey, where even the wily Odysseus is bewitched, bothered and bewildered. Think, even if you prefer not to, of that terrible island where boys become beasts, in Lord of the Flies. Think, if you must, of that classic: Gilligan’s Island. A three-hour cruise….
I think of two of my favorite literary islands, in two of my favorite works: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare’s most magical of plays, The Tempest. What I wish for you, dear graduates, is that you take from this place some of the qualities found in both of these works.
Let’s start with Crusoe: Once upon a time, there was an ordinary man—a bit greedy, disobedient to his parents, arrogant, headstrong—in other words, just like all of us. And he was shipwrecked and spent nearly 28 years alone on an island. There, at first, he was fearful, often terrified, utterly lonely: but he survived. And he learned. And he became, through the magic of necessity, a craftsman and a creator. He made what he needed: clay vessels to hold water, candles, a garden, a hat, eventually after great struggle: an umbrella. Crusoe, that ordinary man, became an artist. And he wrote about it. He became an extraordinary chronicler of his own achievements and failures. Here he is, writing about his first failed attempts to create a clay pot that he could cook in: “It would make the reader pity me, or rather laugh at me, to tell…what odd, misshapen, ugly things I made.” And then, when he succeeds at last: “No joy at a thing so mean a nature was ever equal to mine, when I found I had made an earthen pot that would bear the fire.” What I wish for you to take from this island, like Crusoe, are these things: self-reliance; the ability to bear, cheerfully and productively, your own company; joy in solitude and joy, too, in finding a friend, your very own Friday (even if he or she is a cannibal). Creativity. The wonder of making what you need, out of nothing. The necessary experience of failure, the ability to smash all of your misshapen pots and begin again. The utter joy when something you make bears the fire. And the wonder of writing it all down, never knowing whether anyone will read a word you write: writing for the joy and comfort and pure need of writing. Keep Crusoe in your hearts.
And, then, now that you’ve graduated and are ever more sophisticated, as readers and writers, I wish that you all are tossed into a magical tempest and that you land, blown by the winds of chance, on Prospero’s island. And then, I wish for you to become all of the characters that Shakespeare created, that you take something from each and every one: be, like Prospero, a great magician, one who took into his banishment nothing but 24 books. And who learned his arts and gained great powers through those books. Be Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, a child of isolation and perfect innocence, who falls in love with the first man she ever sees, and sticks to him. Be, even, like Caliban, the monstrous offspring of a witch, who is taught words, so that, as he says “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse.” Shakespeare, of course, loved a good curse, but remember that in this play, Shakespeare allows even Caliban—that “howling monster, that drunken monster”--to speak in perfect poetry. But mostly, dear graduates, be like Ariel: Ariel is a magical spirit, cursed by the witch Sycorax and imprisoned inside a pine tree for a dozen years. Ariel is a spirit, set free from that terrible fate by Prospero, then enslaved once again by Prospero’s demands. But Ariel is a strong and shifting being: he is at times, invisible. He appears as a winged harpy, he appears in glittering robes. He makes magic every time he speaks, every time he uses language. Magic with every word : “I drink the air before me, and return/Or ere your pulse beat twice.”
And, remember that, because of the magic he has wrought, Ariel is freed at the end of the play, told by Prospero: “Then to the elements/Be free, and fare thou well.” I always imagine that the last we see of him, he is streaking away from the island, heading into the dark sky over the sea, completely free. I love to think of Ariel this way and I love this poem, written by a contemporary Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan. It’s called “Ariel, Freed”:
I lifted my wings at midnight.
Moonlit pines, empty paths,
broochlike lagoons dwindled below me.
Oh, I was electric: my wingtips
winked like stars through the real stars.
Cold, brisk, tingling that journey,
voyage more than journey, the night
had waves, pressures I had to breast,
thrust aside, I had a figurehead or
perhaps I was a figurehead with
dolphins of the darkness as companions.
Only to have no shore, no landfall,
no runway, no eyrie, no goal and no fall!
So, as you leave this island, this magical Enders, be Ariel. To the elements, be free.
But take some elemental things from this island with you: Take the sea for constant flow and patience with the changing of tides. Take the sunshine for light; the bonfires and hearth fires for warmth. Take the wind for speed and for inspiration. Take the gardens for growth and for understanding of cycles. Take the rain and the snow and the salt and the stone. And mostly, take this: something you can hold in your hand, something you can touch and see, as you write. Take a piece of granite and be like the stone: solid and sharp and speckled with pieces of light. Make your words solid and weighty and real. Make your words sharp-edged; let them cut. Make your ideas light up with unexpected facets. Make your words last, like stone itself. And when you’re discouraged and weary—as you will be—hold that piece of granite in your hand and squeeze. Remember where it came from—right here, on this magical island—and remember that you are Crusoe, and Prospero, and Miranda. And Caliban. And Ariel, free. Remember that you are the tempest itself. And that we, all of us, are the winds that lift each other up and the winds that set each other down in safe harbor. And, ever since we entered one another’s story, we are bound together. The thread of story has entwined us; we are inseparable, held forever in the same tale.
So for all of you, I wish that you live and work and write—write, write, write—happily ever after.