VCFA Graduation Speech

grad speech

I teach in the legendary kidlit-writing program at Vermont College, and this year I had the terrifying honor of delivering a graduation speech.

Here it is. Huge and happy congrats to the grads.


Let’s talk about names, and the naming of things.

Rites of passage are often marked with new names. Graduate high school, go on a road trip, ditch your old nickname and become Will instead of Willie. Decide what, if anything, to do with combined surnames after the wedding. Choose a name and use it to move through the world.

There is a whole huge mess of folklore about names, and similar sorts of magic in fantasy novels. Learn the true names of dragons to gain a little power over them. Learn your true name to come into your own power and sense of self.

For those of you who don’t know (if there is anyone present who does not already know) each graduating class of this program–those who earn a master’s degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts–choses a name for themselves, a name that relates to our craft, a name based on a glorious pun.

Shakespeare also enjoyed puns.

There is a theory that writing owes its very existence to our ability to pun.

Most languages started to write themselves down through pictures. Pictograms. Draw what you see. Draw what you want to say.

Wherever and whenever that happened, we always ran into the same problem. Small, stylized pictures work really well when we are trying to represent things, solid things, and not so well when we get more abstract. Draw a pictogram for “cow.” Easy. Now make one for “theme.” Or “life.” Less easy. But in Sumerian, apparently, the word for “life” and the word for “arrow” are pronounced the same. So the written word “life” became a stylized arrow.

It’s a pun. We get metaphor, the symbolic logic of poetry, the written word itself from our impulse to pun, from the sparks thrown off by friction between excessive, overlapping, contradictory meanings as they scrape against each other. This has always been a game, a play on words, a little picture of an arrow, a way to draw something that we can’t see or touch.

When the graduating class of 2016 took on this venerable tradition of punning while naming themselves, they became the ThemePunks.

[Edited to add: During the ceremony the graduates made me an honorary ThemePunk. Oh yes. I AM A THEMEPUNK. This is how it will be from now on.]

Let us savor the name that they chose.

It’s a play on Steampunk, which is either:

A) fantastical and richly anachronistic reimaginings of our relationship to history,

B) a great big costume party for which one glues the inside of clocks to the outside of clothing,

C) a weird obsession with Victorian England,

or D) what happens when goth kids figure out that they can wear brown as well as black.

Depends who you ask. For our purposes I’m going to go with the anachronistic, anarchic relationship to history: a way to play with broken clocks and punk time itself.

This sensibility gives us fleets of airships, Victorian androids, and primly proper vampire-hunters in space. It also gave us Hamilton. It is a way to collapse the distance between then and now, to tear down barriers between ourselves and the stories that we tell about ourselves and how we got here.

We do this, we all do this, we have to do this, whether or not we write about primly proper vampire hunters in space, because we are adults who write for children. We are therefore time travelers. We have to be. We need anachronistic and anarchic relationships to our own histories.

Virginia Hamilton said this: “The past moves me and with me, although I remove myself from it.”

Ralph Ellison said this: “The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.”

Susan Cooper said this: “There are ways, imperfect, partial, fleeting, of looking again at a mystery through the eyes we used to have. Children are not different animals. They are us, not yet wearing our heavy jacket of time.”

There are ways. Some of those ways you knew already, and they brought you here. Other methods of time travel you learned while here. You are capable of remembering, with visceral immediacy, without nostalgia or the tiniest shred of condescension, what it was like to be the children that you aren’t anymore.

Keep that. To honor it fully is a shoot-the-moon ambitious calling.

About Joan Aiken, China Miéville said this: “If that kind of writing hits you at the right time when you’re a child, the impact is like nothing else ever.”

Margaret Atwood said this: “Stories read with such enthusiasm at such a young age are not so much read as inhaled. They sink all the way in and all the way down, and they stay with you.”

Children, adolescents, young adults are always on the cusp of becoming something else. That is terrifying. They need, they always need, pressure valves, escapism, escape, doors to any kind of elsewhere. And in order to become something else, in order to make themselves, they will always need new raw material. Resources, examples, possibilities, impossibilities, vicarious experiences, roles to perform, masks to try on, new shades of hair dye, new voices–new voices–with which, and against which, they can come to know their own. They need this in order to sort out who they want to become, who they want to avoid becoming, and all of the tangential, sideways, temporary identities in between.

When we write what they need to accomplish this, the impact is like nothing else ever.

That is also terrifying.

It may help to remember that all of this writing business started out as a joke. A pun. A doodle of an arrow that was also a word that may or may not ever hit what it was aiming for.

All of this is still a wildly irreverent game played with words and time. We take the smashed-up clockwork pieces of our own histories and glue them onto top hats for fun. We make all the clock towers dance to new rhythms. Serious work. But it only works if we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Now, about those new rhythms.

This is one more terrifying thing about graduation: The rhythm of your lives, as writers, is about to change. The monthly beat of packets, the twice-annual pattern of residencies, gave shape to what you do, and that is ending. It is time to find your stride without it.

But you are not alone in this.

Thanks to everyone gathered here today, physically and electronically, who made it possible for these graduates to combine the exacting rhythm of a master’s program with the contrasting beats of every other aspect of their lives.

Thank you all.

Graduates. Remember that you have help. You are not alone in this. You have a community, this nurturing and challenging community. You have the ThemePunks within it, a community that you created, forged in yet another naming ceremony as absurd, ridiculous, and silly as the goofball backstage warmup rituals that forever bind a theater troupe together. That rite of passage, and this one, will continue to keep you together. You chose that name. Use it to move through the world.

It can be very isolating to feel out of synch. But it is powerful to step out into your own march, your own parade. Celebrate that. There is a power to finding your own shared, steady rhythm, and there is power in a rhythmic shift.

Lin-Manuel Miranda said this: “Hamilton’s found his way out… The image in my head is of Harry Potter finding out he’s a wizard. Everything suddenly makes sense.”

Octavia Butler said this: “Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.”

Remember that. Remember that. Habit will sustain you. The regular beat of habit, of personal ritual, will sustain you in the world outside Hogwarts.

Ursula K. Le Guin said this:

Prose and poetry—all art, music, dance—rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms. Once we get the beat, the right beat, our ideas and our words dance to it, the round dance that everybody can join. And then I am thou, and the barriers are down. For a little while.

Keep going. Keep moving. Keep time. Make time. Make the time to write. Before we had clocks, before we measured time outside of ourselves, we thought that time was created by motion. We wrote not of finding the time, or of taking the time, but of making it by moving.

Make time. Break time. Punk time. Smash ornate pocket-watches and teach their pieces new rhythms to please the ear. You already have. You already do. You are already gleefully releasing word-arrows that fly up and over the moon, drawing pictograms of the things that we cannot touch but need to see on the underside of the sky.

Do not stop.

Please don’t stop.