When I first showed up at the Stonehouse, I, maybe like some of the writers in this room, thought all I needed from this program were a few nuanced suggestions from professional writers. Some tips on characterization perhaps. Possibly some pointers on dialogue. Or maybe a bag of plot tricks to dazzle my reader. After sitting through these neat and tidy lessons I could accept my degree, drive home, sit at my writing desk, and craft a story ready for next month’s New Yorker. Then I entered my first workshop run by Rick Bass. I promptly learned that what I needed was not mere linguistic puffery—I needed to change my entire perception of what it means to be alive. His challenge to us was to be artists. I won’t go into the gory detail of that first workshop or what Rick suggested I do with my manuscript—there are children here for God’s sake—what I will tell you is that his comments set me on fire. After, of course, they stopped making me want to withdraw from Stonecoast, dig a hole, and crawl deep within it.
One of the greatest gifts Rick and the other faculty at Stonecoast have given me—given us—is the clear vision of living an artist’s life. Demanding of ourselves the will to look at the raw world we live in and report what we see. To not shy away from the uncomfortable moments on the page or in our lives. To know that the urgency we bring to a story or a poem or an essay can cause third degree burns, but that you shouldn’t leave the flames, not even when the smell of burning flesh hits your nostrils.
Art is work. There’s another lesson of the artist’s life. It is work to fill those pages every day. To come back to the fire despite the broken toilet or sick child or the feeling that nothing worth a damn is going to come out of you as your fingertips graze soiled computer keys. But you have to show up. Clock in. Sit down. And get back to work. Because that’s what artists do, and that’s what you need to be, an artist.
Now that I’m at the end of this program, it has dawned on me that for the past three semesters my mentors were all giving me the same advice. They used their own phrases, pointed to different moments in my stories, but what Aaron Hamburger, Sarah Braunstein, and Scott Wolven were telling me was to make a mess on the page. Of course, when I made that mess someone in a workshop would comment, “This section doesn’t fit” or “This wouldn’t really happen.” So I resisted making a mess—maybe I was still gun-shy after that first workshop with Rick Bass. I don’t place blame on my fellow workshopers for inhibiting my artistic desire to get messy on the page, I too called them out for taking chances. Barked at them when a story veered from its clear path and wandered into the wilderness. If there’s one thing we do at Stonecoast it’s learn and follow the rules.
But now, my fellow graduates, it is time to break the rules. It is time to shed the rigid skin of workshop. To be born forward into the artist’s life that awaits us. By sitting in those seats, in this auditorium, donning this graduation garb, the institution that is Stonecoast has decided that you know the rules of your genre. You are now proficient. It is time to break the rules. Time to make a mess. To go out and find what Henry David Thoreau calls the many more lives you have to live. In your life at Stonecoast you were a rule learner and a rule follower. In your next life you are an artist.
The poet Marvin Bell, who taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop for forty years, said, “Much of our lives involves the word ‘no.’ In school we are mostly told, ‘Don’t do it this way. Do it that way.’ But art is the big yes. In art you get a chance to make something where there was nothing.” Now it is time to accept that ‘big yes.’ To practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry called it. To get messy.
Maybe making a mess is where you marry those rules learned at Stonecoast with your own genius. Where your art is not created by the rules, but by you choosing which rules to obey and which to toss out the second story window of your writing space. In a workshop, Carolina de Robertis once told us, “There is a book inside you that no one else can write.” You are an artist, and you will write that book, and it will be messy and damn good.
I’ll end with a quote from Raymond Carver I often think about while revising my work. “That’s all we have, finally, the words,” he wrote, “and they had better be the right ones.” So to all my fellow graduates, current students, the faculty, and to all writers here tonight, that’s what I wish for you as you go forth, that you find the right words as you make your mess.