Faculty member Brooks Haxton’s memorable closing remarks from the summer 2012 MFA residency:
It’s a pleasure to celebrate with you the accomplishment of this graduating class, and we all appreciate it that the families and friends of graduates have traveled so far to join us. You visitors, who have been there for these writers with support in spirit and in substance for a long time, now, by being here, help the rest of us to appreciate what this work involves. Thank you for coming.
Writing is a mysterious business for the people who do it, and for the people who watch it from the sidelines, it looks even more mysterious. Most of us as writers spend long hours alone, mumbling to ourselves. We mumble, some of us, without moving our lips. Many of us, I can see, are mumbling now. Without making a sound, we mumble. It’s worse than that. We listen to what we’re mumbling. We go into a little trance; and we write out what we said. Then, we ask people to believe we were inspired, and to make us believe it.
But when we read these same pages over to ourselves alone, we cannot believe that any self-respecting person wrote this garbage. So, we start mumbling the revisions, and, despite recent experience, we listen to ourselves again, as if we were the oracle at Delphi.
We were just hearing from Dan what Coleridge said about imagination. He called it the esemplastic power. I can hear the mumbling in the audience. Esemplastic. You’re thinking: SM, S & M, plastic, black latex: esemplastic. Please, I’m trying to get a little intellectual elevation up here. What Coleridge meant by esemplastic involves what Tim O’Brien tells us, in his fiction about Vietnam, that we cannot be free except by choosing, and we cannot choose until we can imagine the world in which our choice is possible. O’Brian could not refrain from going to Vietnam, which he felt was a mistake, because he could not imagine for himself a plausible alternative. He has dedicated himself as a writer to the work of the imagination, because imagining is fundamental work. It matters as much as any work the mind can do. It is the ground of any work the mind can do, the predicate of freedom, in thought and in action.
If you believe this, and I really am asking that you do, this talk is halfway there. My job now is merely to persuade the students’ families and loved ones, before we send them as graduates back into the world, each of them mumbling softly and carrying a big stick, that there’s really nothing wrong with writers. It’s OK. This is just the way we are.
If you’re visiting here for the first time, after having heard reports from your supposedly grown-up child, friend, spouse, or parent, about the life-altering experience of being here, and doing this incredibly difficult work, I can only imagine how things look from where you sit.
Seeing you makes me remember the first time I was here. It was 1922. Thomas Wolfe was graduating. He read a tiny fraction of his thesis, Look Homeward, Angel , and his reading lasted seventy-two hours. It was unmercifully hot, and the audience was melting in their seats. Tom got his walking stick, and he was headed home, to his mother’s boarding house in Asheville . But first he hugged every single person on campus. I can see him. He was wearing a white linen shirt, impeccable, but when he came around for his big hug, there was this candy bar in his shirt pocket, a Baby Ruth bar. It was melting, and the poetry student, I think it was Hart Crane, who had slipped the candy bar into Tom’s pocket after his reading, quoted Milton. He said: “Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth.” [You had to be there.]
I joke about hugging, but the friendships we make here look to me as important as anything we do. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote : “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”
It seems as though Blake plunged his mind into the cosmic fire and felt things taking shape in there as words. He wrote another version of the point Debra was making this morning. He said: “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.” To my mind, this is a faith any writer might do well to live by. “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.”
As far as I can tell, Blake had no knack for friendship. I admire Blake as much as I do any artist ever. And he had a few admirers when he was alive, though not enough. He had patrons, though not enough. His wife was gifted too, and she had the wisdom and the generosity, like some of you here, to use her gifts helping him with his. They lived poor their whole lives. Blake had a handful of followers in old age, but not a friend. What he called friendship might have been the society of visionary souls in their eternal quest. Some of us prefer the company of people who make us laugh, and that’s good too.
Friendship is a gift, like writing. Both flow easily, when you are doing them well. The gift is the capacity, the imagination, to learn the art of entering that flow. You have to learn it, and you have to keep learning it all the time. Nobody can teach you how to make friends, or how to write as well as Blake did. But some people, somehow, learn these things. We all learn from each other things impossible to teach. We come here because we learn better in the company of generous people who share their gifts, and we keep sharing our gifts after we leave.
You are an amazingly gifted group of writers, graduates, and others, as amazing as ever.
Please, everybody, join me in congratulating our new crop of masters, and in wishing them the mastery that endures, because it keeps finding the world more and more wholly mysterious. Congratulations.