Yesterday I went to the Bennington Writing Seminars' 48th commencement ceremony (the program is celebrating 25 years) to watch my friends graduate. The last time I was in the Usdan gallery, listening to the rock band play as the faculty and graduates sauntered down the aisle, was my own graduation in January. Bennington's commencement is consistently the most celebratory and fun graduation I've ever been to. There's good music and dancing and the graduates always adorn the faculty they've worked with with some sort of necklace (this time it was strings of paper cranes). This year's commencement speaker was Sarai Walker, author of Dietland. She gave a funny, humble speech in second person addressed to herself preparing for it (the phrase "You will not put this in your speech" was, admittedly, overused). As Sarai gave her advice to be patient with yourself, be bold, and be proud of what you create, I felt a part of a literary community again.
I thought of the previous Bennington commencement speakers I'd seen, Justin Torres, Lisa Lucas, Alan Gurganus, Brenda Shaughnessy, and - at my own ceremony - Garth Greenwell. I think all graduation speakers should be writers. It makes their speeches more original, creative, smart, and, of course, well-written. While their advice may be familiar, I find myself needing to hear encouragement and validation every six months or so (or, you know, every day). It seems that I sometimes (often) forget the wise advice I've heard at these ceremonies, to celebrate your friends' accomplishments instead of envy them, to work hard, keep writing, find your voice and be your boldest self, rely on the literary community you've built, stay in touch. When I heard Sarai Walker saying these things last night, I had the realization that I'm doing everything I need to be doing. I'm finding my voice and figuring out how to use it, I'm working hard and writing just about every day. I've submitted 87 pieces since graduating. I'm getting rejections all over the place and (maybe?) learning to be OK with that and move forward, which is a common theme throughout these speeches - keep going, push yourself, lean on your friends, don't stop. The kernel that stuck most with me from Garth Greenwell's speech, "What It Means to Live a Writer's Life," was "the only form of failure that matters is not writing." That's something I keep telling myself so I'll show up to the work every day.
No one asked me to write a commencement speech, but here are a few of the things I've learned at the Bennington Writing Seminars:
Use your voice and use it proud.
Be bold and courageous.
Keep showing up. Keep writing.
You have important things to say. Say them.
Don't focus on accolades or prizes or fellowships.
Don't worry about what your words will become.
Celebrate your friends' accomplishments. Try to silence your envy.
Be a good literary citizen.
The world needs your voice.
Stay in touch with your friends and teachers. Help lift each other up.
Reading and writing can be a refuge and a tool of rebellion.
Read critically. Read everything.
We need art right now. Make it.
This is just the beginning.
Huge congratulations to all my friends who graduated! And to all the rest of us, as well - keep writing!