Yesterday, August 8, as Board Chair of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, I had the privilege of addressing the graduates of our Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. I used this opportunity to muse on why we write, or at least why I think we should write. Below is a slightly edited version of my comments.
Few people, less than 8% of the population have done what you have – earned a master’s degree. Fewer, I guess, have demonstrated the creativity, artistic endeavor, and yes, word-smithing, in doing so. In your program, you have, as Pablo Picasso, so aptly put it, “learned the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
So why did you go through all the hard work and late nights to reach this day? Certainly not for the money, although it would be nice if that happened. Then you could pay your student loans, make big contributions to your alma mater, and maybe even treat yourself and your family to a vacation. Stephen King, who has certainly figured out how to earn some money from writing, perhaps said it best. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates. . . or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well.”
We humans are a story telling species. From the cave paintings of our prehistoric ancestors to the emojis, texts, and 140 character tweets of today, we use story to tell each other who we are, where we are, what we think, and what we feel. Some of what we say is mere verbal noise, often unnecessary or even annoying. Even then, however, we feel the urge to share.
As writers and graduates of a Masters of Fine Arts program, you have a special responsibility – to use the power of story, in whatever genre you choose, to fulfill the mission of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, to use your writing “to frame the essential questions of existence, experiment with answers, and record the struggles of all people to understand.”
Write to entertain us; to teach us; to provoke us. Make us think. Make us feel. Make us angry. Make us happy. Make us sad. Take us to places we have never been and perhaps do not want to go. But go we should. Make us cry. Make us laugh. Maybe especially, make us laugh. As the late William Zinsser, journalist, professor, and past executive editor of the Book of the Month Club, is reputed to have said, “I want to make people laugh, so they will see things seriously.”
When you write, write with confidence, with pride in the skills you have honed and creativity you possess.
It is said we teach what we want to learn. My wife, who was trained as a journalist and can therefore say in five sentences what it takes me, trained as a lawyer five pages to say, will attest what I want to leave you with is certainly a lesson I need to learn. From one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Seuss:
It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.
And that’s why your books
have such power and strength.
You publish with shorth!
(Shorth is better than length.)