Sunday, August 17, 2014

One of the Lucky Humans

Nine of us sat in the front row of seats at the Coupeville Performing Arts Center last Saturday. We wore wrinkled black robes.  Tassels draped over the left side of the black mortarboards perched on our heads. On the stage, faculty, staff, and board members of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts wore similar regalia. Behind us, family and friends held cameras ready for photo opportunities. We were all there that warm, August afternoon to mark the milestone of completion of a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing.

Nearly a year ago, the Class of 2014 began the process of selecting a graduation speaker. We were delighted when former guest faculty member Elizabeth Austen accepted our invitation. We had no idea that by the time the ceremony rolled around, Elizabeth would be Washington State Poet Laureate. 

Lucky us.

Elizabeth’s address, “The Hour of Fulfillment,” is posted at the Washington State Poet Laureate website.  Elizabeth reflected on some of what she’s learned in the dozen or so years since she completed her own MFA.  She began with this advice:

… stay focused on what really nourishes you as a writer, as one of the
lucky humans for whom language is a form of freedom, an instrument
of transformation rather than mere transaction.

On this day of celebration of our accomplishment, Elizabeth urged us to define “success” for ourselves:

Don’t calculate where you should be based on your age or where your classmates are or some other external measure.  Don’t discount, or let others discount, the things that you have decided constitute “success.”

Tune inward. Find and defend your quiet places.

Iris & Elizabeth Austen
in full regalia
I felt as though Elizabeth was reading my mind as she talked about her struggles with another element of the writing life—self-doubt:

  When I finally turn to confront the doubt, to engage with it and     dig underneath it, sure, there’s fear there. Fear that my best efforts will be inadequate or, worse, boring and foolish. But when I confront my doubt I’m also faced with the depth of my desire to make something astonishing, a poem that will startle me into new awareness, a poem with the capacity to provoke or nourish, to help someone grieve, or maybe even begin healing. Self-doubt is intimately connected to the desire to go further, risk more…At its best, self-doubt keeps us from becoming glib and complacent. Just don’t let it have the last word. Don’t let it silence you.

Fortunately, Elizabeth hasn’t let self-doubt silence her. She shared this poem from her book, Every Dress a Decision, that again seemed to speak directly to all of us.

 The Permanent Fragility of Meaning

Why persist, scratching across the white field
row after row? Why repeat the ritual
every morning, emptying my hands
asking for a new prayer to fold
and unfold?

                    Nothing changes, no one is saved.

I walk into the day, hands still
empty and beg
to be of use to someone. I lie down
in the dark and beg to believe
when the voice comes again with its commands,
its promises—
                                Unfold your hands. Revelation
is not a fruit you pluck from trees. This is the work,
cultivating the smallest shoot, readying your tongue
to shape the sacred names, your mouth already filling—

I lie down in the dark.

I rise up and begin again.

After our thesis advisors draped velvet hoods over our shoulders, we each walked across the stage to receive a hand-carved walking stick.   
One of the lucky humans

Once we returned to our seats, we switched the tassel to the right side of the mortarboards while the President of NILA, Allan Ament, waved a glittered star wand.

That day, I had no doubt that I’m “one of the lucky humans.” My thesaurus lists these synonyms for “lucky”—blessed, fortunate—even better words for how I feel about being a writer.


  1. Beautiful post, Iris. Thank you again for inviting me.

  2. Thanks for reading, Elizabeth. I’m still feeling the glow of ceremony.