(This week’s Faculty Voice post shares the complete text of the talk given by Mary Rockcastle at the Graduation Recognition Ceremony January 18, 2015.)
Welcome to Hamline and to the sixteenth Graduate Recognition Ceremony for the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I’m Mary Rockcastle, Director of The Creative Writing Programs, and I’m very happy to be here celebrating the accomplishments of our graduates. They have completed five marathon residencies and four demanding and, I hope, transformative semesters. The picture books, novels, and nonfiction they wrote for their final thesis projects show mastery of the craft in their chosen genres and are light years ahead of the writing they submitted when they applied to the program. I want to thank the family members, friends, and other loved ones who are here today helping us to honor our graduates. I also want to thank the faculty who worked so generously with them during their time at Hamline.
Eudora Welty calls “place” one of the “lesser angels” watching over the racing hand of fiction. It certainly has been the primary angel on our minds over the course of this residency. In her essay, “Place in Fiction,” Welty writes: “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”
The writer often starts a literary text from a seed: an image, a person, a memory, an overheard conversation, an idea, a galvanizing incident. I’m a writer deeply inspired by the physical world. Both of my adult novels started with place. I took a turn in my latest novel, About Face, by writing not from a place I knew well but about a place I knew little about and a world I’d never experienced: a London hospital and its environs in the final months of World War I. The seed was not a place but an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum on prosthetic masks made by artists for soldiers wounded in battle. I soon realized, however, that my ability to create was tied to how deeply I was able to ground myself in the novel’s time and place. I can’t say for sure whether this is just me and my predilection for place or the writer’s essential need to see, hear, touch, and feel the physical world of the story. To do this, I dove headfirst into research in every way Claire Rudolf Murphy talked about in her lecture this week.
Eudora Welty writes not just about the craft value of writing about place but the larger social value we can derive from effective world building. “Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth.”
I believe that if you effectively capture the individual’s unique voice on the page, you in fact can convey the voice of a community.
This individual voice is shaped by the world he or she is part of. “Location,” Welty writes, “is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course. These charges need the warm hard earth underfoot, the light and lift of air, the stir and play of mood, the softening bath of atmosphere that gives the likeness-to-life that life needs.”
Flannery O’Connor, another Southern writer, was interested not in external habits but in what she called “the habit of art.” “The person who aims after art in his work,” she wrote, “aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.” In her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” she referenced the writer Joseph Conrad, whose goal as a fiction writer was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe. From Conrad:
“The task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there . . . encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
As you’ve been learning since you started the program, our business as writers is to distinguish what is significant from what is not, to select, to find the telling—not the random and extraneous—detail. Each choice you make as a writer affects the ones made earlier and the ones that come after. Sometimes you make these choices in the first draft; often the choices become clearer during revision.
Everything you know and feel and believe about your novel—its characters, action, style, voice, underlying meaning—is part of building the world. Place makes the characters real and keeps them that way. The characters’ inner and outer worlds define them.
In my novel, I wanted to know what it was like to live inside a country at war. Partly I wanted to better understand the lives of my two grandfathers, both of whom had served on the Western front. My maternal grandfather was gassed on the eve of a ferocious battle that took the lives of most of the men in his infantry brigade. Had he not been gassed and taken to a military hospital, I might not be here. The experience of being a soldier and living in London during World War I felt completely alien to me. I thought I could harness that alienated feeling by telling the story from the  point of view of an American teenaged boy thrust into the daily life of a military hospital during that time.
Marsha Chall quoted the German artist Paul Klee, who wrote: “Art is making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” Anne Ursu calls it defamiliarizing the familiar and quoted the writer Zadie Smith: “A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar.”
My own alienation from the world I was creating helped me to inhabit the body and consciousness of my teenaged protagonist. If I can make the strange world of a 1918 hospital ward familiar to the reader, I might be able to bridge the gap between the first World War, and its lessons, and a 21st century reader.
As it has done for me, and as your books have done and are doing for you, we hope they do for our readers—take them into a new and foreign world and make it real. So the world shrinks, understanding grows, empathy builds.
In her kick-off lecture, “Worldbuilding in Fiction,” Laura Ruby used Tolkien’s concept of the “secondary world,” the one enchantment produces, which is an amalgam of setting, rules, language, and theme. Every secondary world has its own rules, Laura says, whether magical, scientific, and/or cultural. Each of these rules has implications and costs for your characters. The set-up of these rules can often give you the seeds for conflict.
Marsha Qualey also talked about the role that rules, and disruption of those rules, can play in creating conflict. Conflict arises when your character doesn’t know the rules of the particular world she’s in or chooses to push against them. Identity equals Power + Belonging, Marsha says. Creating disruptions in power and belonging will always be the best way to ensure that conflict in a story really matters.
Marsha Chall and Claire Rudolf Murphy took us through the physical process of making a picture book and explored the role and uses of setting in the picture book, whether the setting is communicated through the text or through the illustrations. Most picture books, Marsha says, feature familiar settings for children. Or, they take a fantastical or non-human setting and make it feel like the child’s own home.
In her three-day intensive, Emily Jenkins also immersed us in the process of writing a picture book, covering the form, the text itself, pacing, page turns, and the different ways in which illustrations work. The artist, with cues from the author, might choose to give the reader something new to look at on each page, or spread; might use a particular visual device; might employ repetition, creating a premise and its payoff; might simply play with language and use white space to create drama.
This idea of white, or blank space, all that is roiling between the lines or beneath the surface of a text, got a lot of attention during this residency. Charles Baxter calls this white space subtext, the “implied, half-visible, unspoken material behind the surface.” One of the ways to achieve subject, Baxter says, is through staging, putting your characters in specific strategic locations or positions in a scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed.
Swati Avasthi stressed the importance of this white space, all the stuff the writer leaves out. The writer’s job is to make connections for the reader, to help her, just as the spotter helps the gymnast, across the empty space to a soft landing. Choosing the right telling details can help us do this. It can make the invisible visible. As writers, we want to be in charge of the blanks we’re leaving for the reader. An effective use of negative space can invite the reader to complete the story for himself.
A folk tale can be the negative space we offer a reader. Jackie Briggs Martin shared the many opportunities offered us as writers through retelling a familiar folk tale, adding a folktale to our stories, or placing a folk tale in a new setting. The folktale imbues the story with meaning, conscious or unconscious. It can add depth and texture, shed light on our own time, become a bridge into another time or culture.
Kelly Easton showed us how to use the language and forms of poetry to capture a particular kind of intensity or emotion in our writing. A poem is a mystery, Kelly says, like channeling the voices of the dead. The practice of reading and writing poetry can enliven your language, add rhythm and a sense of surprise to your sentences, show you the power of compression and the opportunities that form opens up to you as a writer.
For Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs Martin, music—jazz in particular—is a great model and source of inspiration to the writer of the picture book. Both are orally based. Both rely on rhythm, and the play between tension and release. Both use form and improvisation; both speak from the heart.
We heard from Debbie Kovacs on how to use our skills as writers to assemble a working life that leaves us room to write. Mary Logue walked us through the process of publishing a book. Tina Wexler shared tips on finding an agent for our books and explained the role she plays when representing a writer’s book.
Visiting writer Matt de la Pena said that one of the most useful lessons he’s learned as a writer is to slow down and cultivate the art of patience. This slowing down is important in a number of ways. One: it enables you to appreciate the process itself. Matt asked: “Why is success considered so much more important than the beautiful possibility which exists just before?” Another is the narrative restraint that gains the reader’s trust and enables us to create more big ticket set-ups and pay-offs.
Jane Resh Thomas said that fiction is a prolonged act of empathy—empathy for our characters and for ourselves as the transmitters of story. I don’t know whether empathy can or cannot be taught, but I do believe it can be cultivated and that’s what you must do to be a good writer. It’s at the heart of what Sarah Park Dahlen talked with us about: if you do your research and harness your own experience (each of us knows what it means to be an insider as well as an outsider), if you acknowledge what you don’t know and do your best to fill in the gaps, if you come to the writing with a sense of humility—to quote Justina Ireland, if you activate your empathic imaginations, you can create authentic characters unlike yourselves and build worlds no matter how foreign.
When Charles Flaubert uttered his famous line, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” we saw perhaps for the first time in literary history a male author fully and intentionally extending his empathic imagination to the particular woman he’d created. Essential to Madame Bovary’s character is the mid 19th-century small town near Rouen in northern France, a setting that Flaubert meticulously describes. As the world cries out, “Je suis Charlie,” it is in solidarity with the people of France, in honor of the 12 journalists and cartoonists who were murdered on January 7 in Paris. We are saying: we share your outrage and your suffering. We, too, believe in freedom of expression.  On another day, in another place, it could be us.
The hip hop recording artist and actor, Common, with John Legend, won the Golden Globe for best original song for their song “Glory” from the movie, Selma. In accepting the award, Common said, “As I got to know the people of the Civil Rights Movement, I realized I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand, but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers murdered in the line of duty. ‘Selma’ has awakened my humanity.”
This is what we do when we create fictional worlds on the page. If we do it well, we force the reader to, in Anne’s words, PAY ATTENTION. We make the extraordinary familiar or give new life to the familiar so the reader sees it all again.
If the writer is doing her job, we, too, are Narnia; we, too, are District 12; we, too, are Hogwarts; we, too, are Naomi, Florida; we too are a small potter’s village in 12th century Korea or a schoolyard in southern Sudan.
The young men who left their trenches and went over the top on July 1, 1916, in the first battle of the Somme had to stifle, or block, all empathy toward the German soldiers on the other side of no man’s land. You can’t kill another human being if you’re trying to walk in his or her shoes. Therein lies the perhaps unresolvable conundrum of war.
Cultivating our own empathic imaginations to write well enables us to create meaningful connections across cultural, national, gender, racial, and other boundaries. We want our books to cultivate this empathy in our young readers.
One last time, Eudora Welty: “The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.” I’m still pondering this language, “the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.” Pacifists or not, we may all be warriors in search of the truth.