Here’s the text of the speech I gave yesterday at VCU’s English Department December graduation:
Thank you to Kathy Bassard and the VCU English Department for inviting me to speak at this graduation ceremony. I’m honored to be here. And, as have many speakers before me, I suspect–especially those, like me, who aren’t wildly famous–I wondered what I might be able to talk about, what I might be able to say that could inspire. My first thoughts hovered around a discussion of the much-maligned humanities, a strident defense of the liberal arts, in which I am a firm believer. But as a writer, I toil in specifics and not in generalities, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to engage you in that philosophical discussion–a fact for which I think you are already grateful.
I’m all about story. So, , I’m going to tell you a story titled My Literary Life— or Why All That Time You Just Spent in Hibbs Will Turn Out To Be One of The Greatest Decisions Of Your Life.
Once upon a time…when I started school, my mother bought me one of those personalized keepsake books, the kind with a plastic spiral binding and pockets for report cards and school memorabilia, “Patty’s School Years” it was called. For each section, there was a place to paste the school picture, list teachers, classes, and new friends, and for the elementary years, what you wanted to be when you grew up. In my book, from first grade on, the box next to “school teacher” is checked (I had a momentary lapse in kindergarten when I thought I might want to be a nurse). From my vantage point now, I can tell you that I always wanted to be an English teacher specifically, though when I played school at home with a two-sided portable chalkboard, for some reason I drew math problems on the board. Not sentences or words, not phrases or quotes — math problems.
I’m not sure why.
Except math has clear answers and the problems could be written simply. I didn’t know how to write on the board the kinds of investigations I was most interested in, or how to phrase the essential questions that engaged me in school, even from that very young age. And I think maybe that when I was playing at teaching–my stuffed animals sitting dutifully in rows on my bed–I thought that teaching meant knowing all the answers and the answers I was sure of came in the form of math problems.
In real school English classes, there were small epiphanies: In 10th grade, the revelation that we could “read” movies the same way we could read a book, a lesson learned watching On The Waterfront with our teacher’s careful guidance. In 11th grade, the word “ephemeral” and my teacher’s obvious disappointment that none of us had looked up the word, integral as it was to our understanding of a text; And in 12th grade, the realization that setting, too, could be a character, a discovery made with Hardy’s Return of The Native. There were, of course, all the human characters: George and Lennie, Scout and Jem, Holden Caufield, Pip and Miss Havisham, the unlikely friendship of Reuvan Malter and Daniel Saunders in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. I was drawn to literature and to stories and those glimpses into the human condition that I couldn’t have explained back then. But I was also drawn to language, and a recent perusal of that School Days memory book revealed early successes with writing–a short story award in junior high, a couple of stories I wrote in a creative writing elective in 11th grade. Still, I never imagined I might become a writer; I didn’t see that as a choice I might be able to make. Teaching was a clear choice, and through my subsequent years of teaching, I wrote–sometimes during free periods, sometimes before or after school. Often, I took workshops in summers.
One summer, I was lucky enough to study writing with Grace Paley at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. And as it happens in a lot of summer writing workshops, a few of us were teachers. One teacher got to complaining about her students and how lazy they were. “Oh no,” Grace said, emphatically. “They’re not lazy.” She shook that famous head of wild, white hair, her dark eyes serious. “They’re not lazy,” she said again. “They don’t yet know how great they can be.”
Fast forward some years when life circumstances were right for me to head south to VCU, to enter the MFA program where I could finally learn what I needed to know to become a writer. I was considerably older than most of my MFA peers, coming to this dream late in life. How I cherished my time in the program, but three years flew by all too quickly. Somewhere in the back of my mind lingered those words from Grace Paley–they don’t yet know how great they can be. It’s a difficult thing, chasing a dream. And maybe because I came to this point in my life with so many years of teaching already behind me, I had a tough time shedding my identity as a teacher. I always saw–and still see–myself as a teacher first and then a writer. Still, my writing dream was nourished deeply here with Bill Tester, Marita Golden, Elizabeth Hodges, Tom DeHaven.
At VCU, after completing my MFA and while teaching full-time in the English department, I answered an email request to help admit students into the Literary Arts Department at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology in Petersburg. What fun, I thought, and when I walked through the door, I had that feeling that this was the high school I always wished I had gone to. What if, I kept telling myself, I had known all those years ago that becoming a writer was possible? What if, alongside the box for “school teacher,” there had been another one marked “writer?” What if, in my imagination, I had been able to see a clear pathway that might lead me to Writer-hood? And what if, now, I could help other kids find that path much sooner than I found it? And maybe, I told myself, I could lurch forward on that very same path along with them. Maybe, I thought perhaps a bit too hopefully, teaching and writing wouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I told the Department Chair—a fellow VCU MFA alum—“If you ever have any openings, give me a call.” She did, and I have been there for seven years.
Now before you despair, before you think: great, the whole point of this story is that teaching is what I can do with an English degree don’t worry, it’s not–though clearly I can imagine no other life for myself. I am one of those people who, when parents ask: “What can she do with a major in English?” answers —anything at all. And here I’m going to quote writer Verlyn Klinkenborg from his op ed piece in the New York Times, “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” He writes: “What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”
What drew me to reading and writing all those years ago, what draws me still is that a life spent reading and writing is a life spent wide awake. I don’t mean that in the literal not-asleep-in-a-bed-sense, but in the fully engaged with what is around me sense. We think of these activities as solitary–and they are—but writing requires a clarity of vision that only comes when you are awake to your own existence. Even in her solitary life, no one was more fully alive than Emily Dickinson, a fact revealed through her poetry and the deep focus with which she regards both the life around her and inside her own head. Reading, I argue with my students now, requires engagement. You can’t be a passive reader the same way you can be, for example, a passive television watcher. Reading forces you to grapple at least with the words on the page. It’s how we make meaning from texts. I despair less when I know young people are readers.
A literary life–whether teaching, or writing, or continuing a lifelong engagement with literature– is a life worth living. And here in Richmond, VA, if you choose to stay in this area, it’s easy to live a rich literary life. The offerings are many: The James River Writers, VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, the VCU Visiting Writers Series, the U of R Reading Series — all right here, all free and open to the public.
And as for me — I’m still writing—nonfiction, some short fiction, still trying to get a novel out into the world. I hope I’m helping my students see themselves as writers. I hope I’m giving them the opportunity to envision themselves and their future in ways I could not conceive at their age. May you all realize sooner rather than later how great you can be. Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg asserts, “is much more than a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.” Developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you. I don’t know what could be better than that.