Commencement speech for January 2017 SHUWPF graduation.
What Will Your Verse Be?
In 1855, a writer named Walt Whitman published a poetry collection titled Leaves of Grass. He would go on to spend the majority of his professional life writing, re-writing, and re-writing again, pieces of the collection.
He revised it until his death, until the original collection of twelve poems ended up as a compilation of over 400 pieces.
Now, Whitman was clearly on the more literary side of things where working on a collection or a novel even until one’s death is not all that unusual. In the field of popular fiction, however, we’re expected to produce more than one great literary masterpiece, but there’s a lot we can learn from someone like Whitman, someone who was dedicated, perhaps overly dedicated, to his work.
But the concept of writing and re-writing, even when we probably could send the work off and at least see what happens, is a scenario a lot of us can relate to. We strive for perfection because it is hard, sometimes, to maintain that kind of distance and detachment from our work, to reach the “good enough” phase. Writers tend to obsess over one sentence, one word, and so on. Perfection, however, is rarely an option for us, which is why we chose this field.
We are contributors to a craft where there are always new challenges. And hopefully even when we get stuck in those phases of oh, just have to rewrite the third chapter for the tenth time and then I’ll send it off to markets, well maybe I should add more to the ending or this death scene, this love scene, this scene with the aliens or robots or wolves. We most likely won’t end up like Whitman, revising the same work over and over until we die, but in the same way perhaps it wouldn’t surprise a lot of us if we were to end up being that writer.
There is a well-known movie starring the late and immensely talented Robin Williams called Dead Poets Society where the character John Keating quotes Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!” which goes:
“O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”
Now, Whitman’s verse, and I’m using the term “verse” loosely here to mean more than a literal verse of words, but perhaps a line, a collection, a book, and something beyond writing too, because Whitman’s verse that he contributed to the very life and identity he mentions is a verse of what was considered scandal at the time. Leaves of Grass delighted in being human, in being a part of nature. It was candid and sensual, thus making it nearly unheard of at the time.
People didn’t know what to do with Whitman. His verse was to seize the rolling drumbeat within his veins and bones until he was able to build and create life onto his pages. His verse contributed to the very humanity of writing. He dared write what many others would not because sometimes as writers we must listen to the inner need to pull from our hearts and souls, and then bleed onto the page. That is what Whitman did, that was and is his verse, and that’s why his influence sticks with us.
Whitman tells us that we too may contribute a verse. So what will your verse be? What words will you contribute to our craft, to humanity, to life? We all are here, earning this degree, because we have a love affair with words, because we have a need to write, a will that cannot be extinguished even when we hit that low point where it seems the words have left us. We will rise above those dark moments though because the need to write will never completely leave us. Even when the darkness grows deep, we will rise above. Even if we hear the maddening cackles of one Mike Arnzen or one Scott Johnson in that darkness, we will push through.
We are also writers because we have been given the gifts of empathy and sympathy. If you want to be a great writer, be great at emotion. Otherwise you will never properly be able to inhale the oxygen of the world around you, and then breathe the air back into your words to grant your book life. So yes, let your verse be one of words, but do not forget your gift of empathy. Be present in the physical world as you craft your verse; be active in the causes you believe in more than in something like heated Facebook debates.
We are beyond lucky to have a tribe of supportive writers here, so take advantage of that. Listen to the concerns, fears, doubts, successes and challenges of your friends and of those who are your complete opposites; otherwise, you will become as stagnant as static characters who refuse to change.
So how will you contribute to this changing world? In Whitman’s “Laws for Creations” he asks, “What do you suppose will satisfy the soul except to walk free and own no superior?”
I invite you all to satisfy your souls with your writing and words, to be free in your works because one of the reasons we write is to have that freedom in the stories we create. We have no limits or bounds within our works except for the ones we set for ourselves. Let us learn to walk free and own no superior.
Let us continue studying popular fiction and all other fiction no matter the genre or if it’s in the literary canon or on a bestseller list; let us offer escapism in our work but not be afraid to be raw.
Whitman’s poem Song of Myself, was one of the pieces he revised several times. One of my favorite sections from the poem goes:
“Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is every where on water and on land.”
Your dreams and goals are within reach. Successful writing is not easy. We all know the frustration that comes with our passion because many of us have had to answer questions like: Why are you doing this? What purpose does creative writing really serve? What are you actually going to do with your life?
Luckily for us, we have the most incredibly encouraging group of writers in this program. So concentrate on that support when you are writing your words and when you are contributing your verse, whatever it may be, and wherever it may be. Whitman tells us we must travel this road ourselves, and he’s right. We have solid support along our winding, rocky paths, but in the end the willpower and dedication is solely up to the drive within our own hearts to create the best stories, to contribute the best verses that we possibly can.