Here is the transcript from my graduation speech given on July 14th, 2012 at the Commencement Ceremony for the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. In my two years in the program as a fiction writer, this was one of the most honest things I’d written.
Thank you, associate provost, members of administration, faculty, family, friends, and fellow students.
The last time I gave a speech was at my eighth-grade graduation. I considered using that speech as inspiration for this one, but I didn’t think I could convince you that high school is going to be great.
It’s funny that I’m standing here today about to graduate from a masters program in creative writing because I’ve spent most of my life so far trying to be something other than a writer.
It wasn’t the long hours, piles of rejection letters, carpel tunnel, or the low pay grade that was discouraging, it had just never occurred to me that I could be a writer.
The names on the fronts of the books I’d read were like the names across movie posters. To me, writers were stars—untouchable, magnificent people who were swarmed in public. I never dreamed I would meet one, much less become one.
So, I tried to be other things.
As a child, when adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “I want to be a ballerina and a doctor”. When the adults asked me to clarify, I said, “I want to be a doctor, so I can pay for my career as a ballerina.”
It didn’t take long for me to understand that I might not be able to be a doctor and a professional ballerina at the same time, and that being a doctor, in particular, required working with bodily fluids without throwing up.
I decided I’d try a different career path. I would be a physical therapist. That way at least the bodily fluids would still be on the inside of the body when my patients came to see me.
Those things I thought I wanted to be all required things I wasn’t good at: science and math. I should have known I might be a writer.
But still, I didn’t believe it. I loved writing, but I couldn’t be a writer, could I?
Riding the bus from the dorms to the Stonehouse my first semester was like boarding the yellow bus on the first day of kindergarten. We asked one another, “Who is your favorite author,” but what it felt like we were asking was, “Do you want to be my friend?”
Here was a whole community of people whose favorite movies were films like “Wonder Boys” or “Dead Poet’s Society.” These were people, who like me, still read for pleasure.
Being with my Stonecoast peers was the first time I felt like a writer.
As I worked my way through the program I wrote at night because I worked at a “real job” during the day, and something started happening. A guilty feeling formed somewhere in my brain, or my gut, and it spilt me down the middle. I started to feel like I was leading a double life.
I asked my fellow students if they had a similar problem, if they ever tried being something other than a writer.
My fellow students, who are much wiser than me, had already figured out what I am only just beginning to understand. One student told me that he’d tried being a rapper once, but he quit because money is evil. He told me, “I like writing poetry because no one makes any money and everyone is pretty nice.”
Another writer, who in her double life has had many impressive occupations, told me that being a writer is such an impractical thing that she found herself guided and then distracted by the far more practical career choices.
She said, “Oddly, now that I’ve finally embraced my need to pursue the impractical career, the day job has become just that. I’m happier and still hard at work. It’s just that now the energy goes to the writing.”
Over the past two years I’ve returned from these residencies to my day job in tears, overwhelmed with what felt like insurmountable stress and frustration from realizing I’d spent most of my day doing things I didn’t really want to do. Every time I wanted to pull my hair out after a bad day at work, or even quit my job, I found if I went back to my writing desk, I felt much, much better.
Coming to Stonecoast—seeing other writers, and hearing their stories, reminds me that I’m not alone.
That good feeling I get when I write has convinced me that I had been a writer all along. It was trying to be something else that was the problem.
If there’s anything that I could offer my fellow graduates and students in the Stonecoast program, it is this. Being a writer is a risk. As a fiction writer, we impose tough choices on our characters all the time. As a writer, we must ask ourselves, what tough choices are we willing to make in order to put writing first?
In a few days, we will return to our lives after Stonecoast, with dirty dishes, taxes, and utility bills. We may also have to return to our jobs in technical support, education, or marketing, but we will do these things as writers. Let us try not to forget.