The following is a commencement address I delivered to the granduating class of MFA students in creative writing at Goddard College in Port Townsend, Washington, last week. I thought it might also speak to you.
Well, Graduates, you're officially wordsmiths now. Never mind your pens, PCs, and laptops, the real tools of your trade are those ephemeral units of language comprised of vowels, consonants, syllables and thought. I hope in your time here at Goddard you've gained new appreciation for these magical tools. But it occurs to me that right now you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. So many words, so little time. What's a writer to do?
The simple answer is, use your words.
Many, many years ago when my sons were little boys, that phrase bounced around our household like an India rubber ball.
You want a cookie?
"Use your words"
Too tired to walk by yourself?
"Use your words"
He stole your blocks?
"Use your words"
I don't know if the phrase is still a fixture in today's young families, but I do know that it's stuck with me not only as I've watched my boys become increasingly articulate young men but also as I've worked with students stretching themselves as writers.
Using our words is what we do here. We use them to tell stories, to write plays and screenplays, to compose poems and essays. But as you, graduates, write your way out from Goddard and back into the wider world, you're bound to bump up against the persistent question, why?
This question always nudges me back to my own childhood, to the uses I believed my words should have when I sought perfection from that wider world.
If the world were perfect, I thought back then, my words would always be heard. They would fall on sympathetic ears and, even if they failed to produce the anticipated reaction, they'd be received with empathy. Through my words I'd be understood, and in return, I'd come to understand others.
Alas, I discovered early that the world is far from perfect. Regardless of intentions, even the very listeners who urge us to use our words tend to be preoccupied people. When I was young, work, moods, drink, money, marital strife and family crises competed for their attention. Today, add YouTube, unemployment, FaceBook, Real Housewives, Twitter, and Hulu to their distractions.
(Sure, I know the new social media are supposed to make us feel as if more people are listening to us, but that's like saying rush hour is a great time to drive in LA.)
In the world as it is, listeners have their own agendas. They also have their own truth, which may convince them that our words are wrong, offensive, or not worth hearing.
Fortunately, you all know better. You must, or you wouldn't be here today.
Maybe you are among those few fortunate souls who have always felt heard, even as a child. (Lucky you, and bless your extraordinary family!)
Or maybe your words worked just well enough to stoke your faith that language was one, if not the only, tool you needed to express yourself.
Or perhaps you were just obstinate, damn it, and whether or not anybody listened, you were determined to raise your voice and tell your truth -- precisely because nobody else was telling it!
Whatever gave you the initial impetus to place your faith in words, however…you're going to have to keep stoking that faith, or it will fall prey to doubt. I don't have to tell you that doubt is a serious occupational hazard among writers. When it looms, it not only commands us not to use our words but, worse, it does so by taunting us with the world's distractions. If no one's listening anyway, doubt harangues us, why even bother writing?
Always remember: Self-Doubt is the biggest liar and bully of all.
It's just as important for you to use your words in today's imperfect world as it was for my sons all those years ago -- and for pretty much the same reasons, though I'm going to let some guest experts step in here and give their own special spin to those reasons --
Extra credit: See if you can identify these experts by their words before I name them.
Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it…I have to say the words, describe what I'm seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted I'd be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present…Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I'll never know what's happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.
WE MUST USE OUR WORDS TO COMPREHEND THE EXPERIENCE OF LIFE, Annie Dillard tells us.- Seeing
Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it... I have no other marshal but fortune to arrange my bits. As my fancies present themselves I pile them up; now they come pressing in a crowd, now dragging a single file. I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is.
--That's Michel de Montaigne reminding us that WE MUST USE OUR WORDS TO OWN OUR THOUGHTS AND MOLD THEIR MEANING FOR OTHERS[Of Books]
Nothing is shared in the abstract. Like bread and love, language and ideas are shared with human beings. …You start by writing to live. You end by writing so as not to die. Love is the marriage of this desire and this fear.
The wisdom of Carlos Fuentes is that WE USE OUR WORDS TO TOUCH EACH OTHER'S SOULS.[How I started to Write]
A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one's art...Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.
So Jorge Luis Borges urges us TO USE OUR WORDS TO TRANSFORM SUFFERING INTO HOPE [Blindness]
But to that end, there's also a drumming need for us -- especially as writers -- to USE OUR WORDS TO EXPLORE THE TRUTH THAT OTHERS WOULD HIDE OR DISTORT.
We can't wait for the undamaged to make our connections for us; we can't wait to speak until we are wholly clear and righteous. There is no purity, and, in our lifetimes, no end to this process... I know that in the rest of my life, every aspect of my identity will have to be engaged…The poet who knows that beautiful language can lie, that the oppressor's language sometimes sounds beautiful. The woman trying, as part of her resistance, to clean up her act.[Split at the Root]
That woman, Adrienne Rich , is confronting the ultimate source of a writer's doubt -- that the words we need most are often the very words that others would silence. Writing is an act of defiance and not for the faint of heart. But for that very reason, writing keeps the human spirit alive. What would we do without it?
Yes, the world is an imperfect place, and that's why you must go forth and use your words to make it more mindful, more expressive, and more understanding. Never doubt that your words matter. They always have, and they always will.
So use them with all the pride and passion that is in you.
Let your purpose guide your way with words, not the other way around. Use them to construct meaning and wisdom; to raise alarms; to make waves; to change the world and transform lives -- beginning with your own.
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Causes Aimee Liu Supports
PEN USA, Academy for Eating Disorders, Women for Women, UNICEF, Amnesty International