Why do this horrible thing? My stab at a commencement address.

May 1st, 2017

Since we have separate ceremonies for undergraduates and MFAs, I ended up delivering it twice:

Graduates and honored guests,
I’m pleased to welcome you to the 2017 commencement of students in the Writing Program of the University of Pittsburgh. I promise to keep this short, even though it’s intended for two audiences, the writers and their families.

First, to the families: Your child is employable.

Put another way, your child has a future outside his or her old bedroom. In a MetLife survey, 97 percent of business executives rated writing skills as very important. And a 2015 study of 25 million job postings found that a high percentage specifically looked for writing proficiency. This is especially true as work becomes more and more specialized and workers in different professions and disciplines are increasingly unable to explain what they do to outsiders. We’ve all heard of doctors who can’t communicate with their patients; but they can’t communicate with other doctors, either, not if one is a neurosurgeon and the other a cardiologist.

The same thing is happening on a larger scale. Never in history have people had the capacity to broadcast their intimate thoughts and feelings to so many millions of other people, and never have they felt more voiceless and disregarded. We post and we post and we Tweet and we Tweet, and we are more alone than ever, and more strangers to each other. This is where we come in. Because if there’s anything a writer can do, it’s to explain things. We’re the RNA, the messengers that make one segment of reality intelligible to the others. I’m not just speaking of explaining how something happens—say how a doctor fuses two vertebrae or transplants a human face—I’m speaking of what such experience feels like from the inside. And it’s not just nonfiction that can do this: novels and short stories do it, poems do it. So your child will probably turn out okay.

But whom I really want to talk to today is the writers. First, because I’ve taught some of you, and have watched you thrash and struggle like fish in a net to tell that story or articulate that thought or even finish that sentence coherently, and if you work really, really hard, finish it aptly, beautifully, to give that sentence exactly the form it needed to emerge into the world. That is my struggle, too.

Beyond that, I’ve watched you try to figure out the meaning in what you do. To suggest what that meaning is, I have to touch on the politics of this moment. I do that reluctantly; I ask your forbearance for it. I feel like I’m talking about a stain on someone’s shirt. On all our shirts.

Last fall I taught a graduate class in which we read a group of texts that to me said something about the blurred line that separates nonfiction from fiction, poetry from essay, family memoir from private myth. Among the books we read were Primo Levi’s memoir of his imprisonment in Auschwitz and his essays about the practice of chemistry; W. G. Sebald’s novel of a walk along the English coast that takes him into the vast killing field of Europe’s past; Svetlana Alexievich’s heart-rending oral history of the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl, which began with ordinary, unsuspecting firefighters being sent to the melting reactor, hosed down, and sent off to hospital to die horribly.

As it happened, one of our classes fell the day after the 2016 election. That day we were supposed to be discussing Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a gorgeous, quirky, undefinable monster of a book that is at once memoir, criticism, and manifesto of queerness. But that day no one in the room had the heart to talk about it. We just couldn’t. Overnight that gorgeous, quirky book had come to seem like the relic of a lost utopia, like the Oneida colony or Atlantis. I don’t remember whether someone explicitly asked me what the point of writing was at this moment, or whether it was my own question, weighing on me so heavily that I had to answer it, maybe just for myself.

And I said that if we looked at the books we’d read over the past months, we could see how many of them were written with the aim of uncovering something hidden and how many of them looked at something in plain sight and asked new questions about it, questions that nobody had ever asked before. That nobody dared ask.

What used to stand in this clearing? Whose money built these monuments, and in what trade was it made? What happened to those other prisoners? If the person you love changes in some radical, fundamental way—say, from “female” to “male,” or from a childless woman to a pregnant one and then a mother—who is it that you love? Just who is a citizen of this country, and who decides?

That’s the work we’re supposed to do, whatever our genre, whatever our politics. God knows, there is so much that is hidden that needs to be revealed. There is so much in plain sight that needs to be questioned. Writers, this is what you’ve been trained to do, what you trained yourselves to do, with a little help from your teachers and peers at this institution. Go forth and do it now, whatever your genre. Show this beautiful, soiled world to itself, with love and pity.


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