By SENA JETER NASLUND, Founding Program Director
Thank you, one and all! May there be many more program directors, starting with Kathleen Driskell, who will glory, along with their associates, in the creative work of conceiving and re-conceiving a special, graduate, low-residency educational opportunity in creative writing, as much as I have.
May these words carry something of the warmth I’d like to express to each of you—faculty, alums, students, and staff—who have done so much for the Spalding MFA in Writing since our classes commenced in October 2001. Thank you, with joy and all best wishes for your lives and your writing.
Forgive me, that my hug and these words are virtual: they are cordial and real, nonetheless.
And isn’t that what we writers are all about: making the dark squiggles on page or screen dance or ache with an uncanny aliveness?
What can I say, from this remove, I ask myself, that may help you?
Believe in your own desire and ability, whether it was one minute, one year, or one decade ago that you last set words to page.
Believe in revision: to write is to revise. At least I’ve found it so. From nothing to something is the hard birthing. The next rounds can become increasingly pleasurable. You’ve got SOMETHING; now make it GOOD. Better. The best you can, till it shines.
And believe at least part of what other people have to tell you about how your work can be improved. Yes, it can be improved. For me, the beginnings of every long piece have been revised beyond fourscore and ten. And after each revision, I’ve thought, Ah, now I have it!
Wrong. But I have the same glee after the next revision.
Let your joy bubble up, even when you improve a single word or insert a needed comma. (I just did that on a draft of the big Civil War novel I’m writing these days. How needed that comma was! How it improved the rhythm and flow of that sentence. [And why hadn’t I noticed that need ten revisions earlier?])
Oh, it takes time.
Does it ever take time—this writing business. At least for me. For you, too?
But you know what? I’m glad to give it. It fulfills my basic, inner self to do this work, writing. Making something where once there was nothing.
I’m also glad to have given the time to teaching and to the administrative work and editorial work that have grown out of my love of good writing. Maybe that’s why my heart nearly breaks whenever I hear a recording of Edith Piaf singing je ne regrette rien! That sentiment stuns with its truthfulness—the necessity of the hard parts in the creation of the self.
Perhaps I could have written more, but I doubt if I could have written better were it not for the hours and years of my life spent working in other ways.
Long ago, when I was sixteen and had just received my Social Security card so that I could work in a bookstore after high-school hours, I asked myself (as I climbed the hill atop which sat my family’s home, in Norwood, Birmingham, Alabama): And how long and how much will I work before working is done?
Well, I’m seventy-five. You can do the arithmetic. Je ne regrette rien.
Not even failing to sell a single set of encyclopedia as I knocked on door after door.
I hope to return to Spalding to listen to readings, to lecture, perhaps to teach a workshop for alums abroad or in Louisville. And I have been promised that I will continue to edit The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. Nonetheless, I do feel that I have graduated, and one of the greatest pleasures is to be an official alum (according to Terry Price) of the Spalding MFA in Writing. I’m kicking up my heels! See you around the corner!
Don’t forget: when you speak to others about their work, think hard and carefully and say first what that other writer has achieved that most merits your discerning praise.
Faculty, students, staff, alums, you will always be welcome in the home of my heart.
–Sena Jeter Naslund
Sena Jeter Naslund retires on December 31 from her role as Founding Program Director of the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing Program. She is author of nine books, including the nationally bestselling novels Ahab’s Wife, Four Spirits, and Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette.