This is the commencement speech I gave at my graduation ceremony earlier this January when I received my MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast, the University of Southern Maine’s low residency graduate program.
Before I begin, I’d like to add a quick author’s note: This is not a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are not the product of the author’s imagination but a part of his experience at Stonecoast. Any resemblance to actual Stonecoast persons, living or dead, is entirely true and entirely intentional.
A lot of you will may well recognize this tale. That’s okay. In the words of the writer Jeanette Winterson, “Trust me, I’m telling you stories.”
Allister, like many young writers, was beginning to get very tired of sitting by himself in front of his computer and having nothing to do. Once or twice, he had peeped into other writers’ lives and discovered that they had decided that while making daisy chains did have its pleasures, sometimes having an MFA in creative writing was worth the trouble of getting one’s backside out of one’s writing chair.
When suddenly, a white envelope with a pink stamp arrived in his mailbox. There was nothing so remarkable in that: he received mail most days. And neither was it very much out of the way to see it was addressed to him (when he thought it over later, though, it occurred to him that there was something very unnatural about the bulk of the letter).
At this point, to cut a long story short, the envelope contained his acceptance letter to Stonecoast. “Oh, dear, oh dear,” said Allister (In the original text, the white rabbit says this, but Allister doesn’t own a rabbit), “I never expected this!”
And what surprised him even more was that he had to decide whether to drink the old fantasy potion labeled Popular Fiction or eat the mushroom stamped with the serious words Literary Fiction. He wanted to nibble both, but were such things allowed? Surely it was like falling down a rabbit hole after a white rabbit in a waistcoat. And he knew literary fiction wouldn’t stand for that. So it had to be pop fic. And running across his living room floor to plop down on his sofa, he tripped over a couple of months and before he knew what was happening, he was driving down, down, down to his first residency. Since he had plenty of time to think on his drive, he wondered if perhaps one day his own book he was writing would be found on someone’s bookshelf or if there was a chance of getting orange marmalade at the Harrasseeket, the pleasure-dome to which he was going to stay for the next 10 days.
“The family will miss me tonight,” he thought, trying to find the room his golden key fit, even though the number was on it. But he was too nervous and distracted to think straight. “God, I hope they’ll set out a saucer of milk for me in my absence. Oh, Dinah,” he said, which was neither the name of his wife or his two daughters, but he was in a dreamy sort of way and he could have sworn he overheard another student say he was writing a killer fantasy about a white rabbit that eats little girls.
“Oh, my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting,” he said, stealing lines from the rabbit again, and he tried to slip into his room before a queer looking party, whose nametags spelled Zach Mouse, Adam Dodo, Julie Duck, Adam Lory, and Ian Eaglet, appeared, all dripping wet and cross and uncomfortable, having just come back from a swim in the pool.
“I beg your pardon,” said Zach Mouse, frowning, but very politely. “Did you speak, dude?”
“Not I!’ said Adam Lory and Adam Dodo together.
“I thought you did,” said Zack Mouse. “Don’t do it again while I proceed: and who’s got Holder and Kimball this residency, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria? Even the Workshop Doctor, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable.”
“Found what?” said Julie Duck.
“Found pop fic,” said Zach Mouse rather crossly. “Of course you know what pop fic means?”
“I know what pop fic means well enough, when I find a story,” said Julie Duck, “it’s generally with a giant frog that eats virgins. The question is, what did the archbishop find?”
“Speak horror!” said Ian Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”
“Curioser and curioser,” said Allister as he fell flat onto his bed. He sprang up when he saw someone sitting in the room’s chair, fingers folded beneath his chin, sucking on a hookah. “Who are you?” said David Anthony Durham.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Allister replied, rather shyly, “I, I hardly know, mentor, just at present — at least I know what kind of writer I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed genres several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said David. “Explain yourself.”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, mentor” said Allister, “because the self is a fiction, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said David.
Allister quickly excused himself in his own room to get some last minute critiquing done before his first workshop.
“Come back!” David called after Allister. “I’ve something important to say.”
This sounded promising, certainly: Allister turned and came back again.
“Be prepared to play loup garoux,” said David.
“Is that all?” asked Allister.
“No,” said David. “There may be some arm-wrestling required.”
Allister now hid behind the room’s curtain. “Oh, god, genre does matter,” he thought, when only moments before he was not particular to any.
Stepping out from behind the curtain, Allister was a little startled to see the writer Elizabeth Hand sitting on a bough of a tree. And in his room.
Liz Hand only grinned when she saw Allister. The mentor looked good-natured, he thought: still, Liz had very long credentials (Three World Fantasy Awards, two Nebula Awards, the James M. Tiptree Jr., two International Horror Guild Awards, and the Shirley Jackson Award), so he felt that Liz ought to be treated with respect.
“Would you tell me, please, which genre I ought to pick?” he asked.
“That depends a good deal on what you want to write,” said Liz.
“I don’t much care, as long as what I write is good,” said Allister.
“Well, in that case,” said Liz, waving her new published thriller in one direction, “you’ll want to take a workshop with Jim Kelly” and waving her other recently published Young Adult book in the other direction, “or take a workshop with Scott Wolven. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Allister remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said Liz. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know, I’m mad?” said Allister
“You must be,” said Liz, “you’re a writer.”
And then Liz Hand vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of her tail, and ending with her grin, which remained some time after the rest of Liz had gone.
Allister fell asleep and dreamed a bestseller.
The next morning was his first workshop. There was a table set out under a tree in front of the Stonehouse, and Scott Wolven and Jim Kelly were having a deep conversation about whether a writer should think like a dinosaur. A student was sitting between them, fast asleep, and Wolven and Kelly were using the student as a cushion, resting their elbows on him, and talking way over his head.
“Have some whiskey,” said Wolven in an encouraging tone.
Allister looked all around the table, but there was nothing on it but marked-up students manuscripts.
“Your story wants cutting,” said Kelly. He had been looking at Allister for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
“And you should say what you mean,” added Wolven.
“I do,” Allister hastily replied. “At least, I mean what I write.
That’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said Kelly. “You might just as well say that ‘I write slipstream fiction’ is the same thing as ‘I slipped in a stream.’ ”
“Suppose we change the subject,” said Wolven. “I vote the young writer reads from his story.”
Allister did, about the Erlking who steals young children, a werewolf, a cast of other characters, and the setting of the twilight of the Third Reich.
“You need more plot and your pov is all over the place,” said Kelly.
“Attend some cons,” said the student, very earnestly.
Allister was silent. Until it was time for him to speak.
“Kill your darlings!” someone shouted. It was the Queen of Hearts, the only fictional character in this story. She stomped from workshop to workshop shouting this refrain over and over.
That night, after his first day of workshops, Allister slept like a baby that had been turned into a pig, snoring happily in the knowledge that he was at home with his fellow writers.
“Wake up, Allister dear!’ said his wife, “Why two long years have gone by and you’re about to graduate.”
“Oh, but it’s been such a wonderful dream!’ said Allister, and he told his wife, as well as he could remember after all the late-night parties at Townhouse 4 and the games and the hot tubs and the open mics and the Stonecoast follies, all these strange adventures of his that you have just been hearing about; and when he finished, his wife kissed him and said, “It was a curios time, dear, but now it’s time to finish your book and makes us some money.”
So Allister sat, with his eyes half-closed before his keyboard, half believing he had graduated, half believing he was still in Wonderland, though he knew, like every writer knows, that all would now change to the everyday reality once again, with only glimpses of his adventure seen in the Facebook posts that spoke about another great residency, another fantastic workshop, another presentation on the dangers of making fires in the Stone House.
Lastly, he pictured himself as an old man, many years from now, a published author, relaxing in his writing shed. And feeling the luck of ages, he gazed with eyes bright and clear and wondered how many strange tales he would have written if he hadn’t gone to Wonderland all those long, long years ago.