At The End of the Fall Semester, Part II

Of all the sections of Intro to Creative Writing that I have taught at this university, you are, as a group, among the three most talented. You arrived in this room with unusual aptitude for language, for empathy, for taking risks: three things no writer succeeds without. And most of you worked hard–some of you worked very hard–to improve. For that, I am grateful to you.

You are also, collectively, one of the most inconsistent sections–in terms of attendance, promptness, workshop participation–that I have taught. I say this not to criticize, to make you feel bad–if you are the kind of person who feels bad about that sort of thing, you already do–but because it’s my job, technically speaking, to teach you how to succeed in our creative writing program.

Though writing is a solitary endeavour, a writing workshop is a community. It requires of its members what any community requires: dependability, accountability, engagement. It requires showing up. Above all, I think–at this historical moment, I especially think–it requires good faith.

What is good faith? It’s assuming the people around you are doing the best they can. Even when you think maybe they’re not. Even when what they do or say or write makes your blood boil, makes you feel like you’re under attack. I think this is particularly hard for us, given the last year in politics and social life, given the way we increasingly interact with each other as pixels on a device rather than as flesh and blood.

“I live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends; subjected thus, / How can you say to me I am a king?” asks Richard II in Shakespeare’s tragedy. He’s asking, in this scene, to be seen as a man, not as a monarch, treated the same way we treat everyone else. In 2017, it’s hard to imagine a person in power being granted that request. It’s hard to imagine them deserving it. Our historical moment may well be remembered as the era of accountability: the period when we stopped making excuses for abuses of power, when we started requiring more of those in charge. That’s a good thing.

What’s not good, though, is forgetting that there are very few kings, and that none of them are enrolled in our creative writing program. Sitting in those uncomfortable chairs, every one of you is somewhere, somehow, in some way, the same. Don’t forget that, even when it’s hard.

For some of you, that means remembering to treat the work of your peers with the same care that you treat your own.

For some of you, that means remembering to treat your own work with the same care that you treat the work of your peers.

For all of you, it means: keep showing up. Show up for yourself. Show up for your talent. Most importantly, show up for each other. Writing is hard. Writing is hard. Forgive your own mistakes. Forgive those of others. In this way, we all go forward together.

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

Go where those others went to the dark boundary 
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize 

go upright among those who are on their knees 
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust 

you were saved not in order to live 
you have little time you must give testimony 

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous 
in the final account only this is important 

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea 
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten 

let your sister Scorn not leave you 
for the informers executioners cowards—they will win 
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth 
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography 

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power 
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn 

beware however of unnecessary pride 
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror 
repeat: I was called—weren’t there better ones than I 

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring 
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak 

light on a wall the splendour of the sky 
they don’t need your warm breath 
they are there to say: no one will console you 

be vigilant—when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go 
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star 

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends 
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain 
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly 
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand 

and they will reward you with what they have at hand 
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap 

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls 
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland 
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes 

Be faithful Go

--Zbigniew Herbert