VCFA Graduation Speech—June 6, 2012
Video by Dan Seltzer
When you hear the excerpts from our work in a few minutes, you’ll know that VCFA educates us. But it also changes us profoundly. This week I asked dozens of my classmates what that quintessential VCFA quality is, and the word “magic” kept coming up. Ironic that a group of us who are supposedly masters in verbal skill all revert to the vague and supernatural to describe what that occurs on this campus. But that’s because an experience like we’ve just completed is so, so rare.
During our time at VCFA, the imprint of our personalities at their most elemental is a gift we give to our peers, beginning that very first day. We offer ourselves in our readings and our manuscripts and our late-night conversations, our frightened but brave performances at the talent show and renegade readings. We see each other in a way that transcends boundaries of age, region and lifestyle. Here at VCFA, for instance, a Secular New York City 20 Jewish girl and a Southern Christian mother of two chose deliberately to live together every single residency. They rehearsed readings, shared insomnia, worries and hopes, and took joy in each others’ triumphs.
The magic of VCFA happens when we realize we belong here, or as a classmate said to me in line for burgers, “we’ve found our tribe,” a fellowship of devoted thinkers and artists who have nestled into our hearts, woven themselves into the story of our lives.They see us as writers and they always have; and so with them as our mirror, we see ourselves that way too.
When we get back from residency, our friends and colleagues, partners, parents and kids—all of you here and not here—ask us what we did up there. Often instead of hearing about us huddled over desks churning out pages of work, we tell you stories of plunging into Curtis pond, eating maple cremees in a pasture ringed by mountains, sitting at picnic tables on the lawn, watching politicians and puppets parade down main street. We tell you about the ghost stories—both actual and metaphorical—that we’ve heard. Then we mention the dance party and the talent show and finally we get to the lectures and workshop. We joke all the time that perhaps you, our loved ones, who have sacrificed so much to allow us our time here, wonder—why am I giving this person up for twenty days a year so he or she, supposedly a fully-grown adult, can recreate summer camp?
The answer is that we are doing all these things as writers. We are writers swimming, writers barbecuing, writers dancing, writers talking, talking talking—always talking in class, talking in the dorm hallways with toothbrushes in our hands, talking on the van to and from the airport, talking in town as we shop for groceries, talking at the threepenny taproom. Our coexistence here makes each other better at what we do. We rush back from workshops and readings having seen our comrades break new ground in a piece and dizzy with inspiration, we edit our own work frantically. We grow generous, too: we exult when our classmates’ truths and talents make themselves known through words, surfacing through language to reach us.
To those who have come to see us get this degree, thank you for letting us spend these months and days here, for giving us this chance. We owe you more than we can ever repay. To those who will stand on this stage in the future, you know this already, but it’s worth remembering that silliness and earnestness and spontaneity are hard to find in most places, but they exist here in abundance. Take advantage of every second.
And to my fellow graduates, our challenge is threefold: to keep writing, to maintain those soul-deep friendships, and lastly, to not say goodbye to the selves that we have created here. We need to bring them into the world. The world needs to be more like VCFA.
We will return to our bills, our jobs, our cares on Monday—without these things, we’d have no material after all. But for now, let’s walk into the afternoon and walk far beyond that, as the people we are proud to be on this campus, the writers that our classmates see here, the writers we now know we are.
Update: here’s the entire video of VCFA graduation, thanks to ORCA media: