Remarks at graduation

There's not much content here yet, so here's a blast from the past (delivered in shaky voice May ?, 2003):

It’s kind of ironic that Ethan is the master of ceremonies today, because this is so an either/or ending. But endings imply beginnings, and that’s what I want to focus on, back when the workshop was just this dream of possibility and excitement. I want to tell some stories about that, and what Iowa has meant to me.

Tracy and I had left our corporate editing jobs in San Francisco and moved to Galway, Ireland. What a great place to write, we thought: the broken, poetic coastline, the warm and cozy pubs with fireplaces and fiddlers — a whole nation of hilarious storytellers all around us sipping Guinness. We were there a year and it was so warm and cozy I only got around to writing one story the whole time.

Then Tracy got into a masters’ program in European Studies at the U. of Amsterdam. What a great place to write, we thought: the cheerful busyness of a cosmopolitan city that hasn’t changed much since the 17th century, the warm, cozy hashish cafes — a whole nation of tall, industrious liberals around us sipping their absinthe. I wrote one story there, too. At that rate I might have a ten-story collection ready by 2009.

So Tracy suggested that I apply to creative writing programs. We picked out eight of them that sounded like places we’d like to live in next — and we threw in Iowa, because you have to. We figured I had the best chance at U. of Alaska, Fairbanks, so that’s where our hope lay, and we’d go online, looking for parkas and snowshoes. Then the rejections started trickling in. Goodbye New York, Montana, Washington, Syracuse, Austin. We figured we hadn’t heard from Alaska yet because I was on the short list that they were still vetting, and we hadn’t heard from Iowa because they had ruined my application by using it to mop up their tears of laughter and so didn’t know how to get ahold of me.

Then one night we got hammered and rented all the Rocky movies, which are much better with Dutch subtitles. In the middle of this male, macho marathon, the phone rang. We’d left the phone upstairs and normally I wouldn’t even bother with it, but for some reason I jumped up and stumbled up there, and by the time I found it the message light was blinking. It was someone named Connie Brothers saying that Iowa had accepted me, but they wanted to offer some kind of financial aid and I hadn’t filled out the forms for that. And it was true, I hadn’t even bothered with those forms. I went back down and as Tracy listened, she started laughing and smacking me on the head.

I flew to Iowa to find housing and visited the Dey House and Connie suggested I sit in on Chris Offutt’s seminar. The people in there were silent and tense — I found out later that was the day after the TWF announcement — but Chris came in wearing jeans and an old ballcap. I thought he was there to clean the chalkboards until he called on me to discuss the story for that day. He asked me lots of questions, and when I said we wanted to get a dog, he said, “That’s a big responsibility.” I said I needed one. Because as you’ve just heard my structureless life had produced two stories in two years — I needed responsibilities fast. I found a little band-aid colored house for rent, with a landlord who wanted to tell me all about his divorce and said things like, “Sometimes I wish the Lord would just take me” and he hoped I’d be going to church with him. I said I’ll take it because it was the only place I could find.

I flew back to Holland and that night dreamed that it was my first day at the workshop. I walked into the Dey House and went to my mailbox and there was a package for me. Inside it were a bunch of CDs and a note: “Corbin, welcome to the workshop. Here’s a bunch of old stories I can’t find any use for. Use them if you want. Chris Offutt.” Many of you can judge for yourselves how well I did with that material while I was here.

In May Tracy graduated in Amsterdam, and I was finally going to meet her thesis advisor and teacher, Joep Leersen. All I knew about him was that to my great annoyance Tracy seemed to have developed a crush on him, this Joep Leersen. We had this thing where she’d say, “I love you...p.” I laughed but I didn’t think it was that funny. Tracy had told me the graduation would be formal, but as it turned out I was the only one there in a tie — looking every bit the uptight American. So the moment came when she brought Joep over and introduced us. He asked where we were going after Amsterdam, and as Tracy beamed up at him I mumbled something about the University of Iowa. “Oh?” he said, looking at my boring conservative tie, “And what will you study there, business?” I drew myself up and said, “The Writers’ Workshop.” “Oh!” he said, “That’s very famous, I once had a student write a dissertation about that program.” “Yes,” I said, “Yes, that’s the one.” I think that was the moment when I truly became a man.

We got married August 4 in Holland and moved to Iowa a week later. And I kept getting calls from my mother wanting to talk about the workshop. She was impressed when I told her it was run by Frank Conroy — because she thought I said Pat Conroy — and when I had convinced her that Frank Conroy had not written The Prince of Tides, she seemed disappointed. She looked up information about the program and the more she found out, the more she wasn’t sure I was in it. She called me to ask, “Now are you at Iowa or Iowa State?” My parents kept asking if I’d read Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season. My told me, “Now he wanted to go to Iowa, but he wasn’t accepted” — which made it more unlikely that I had been. I mentioned to my eighty-six year-old grandfather that James Michener gives a scholarship here and a week later a large box of original hard-cover James Michener books arrived in the mail with a note: “Corb, I don’t think I have time to re-read all these, I thought you’d enjoy them.” So, if anyone wants to borrow one of those…

So, the reason I came here was for the discipline, but I ended up learning a staggering amount of stuff — such as don’t turn in a story about magical baby Godzillas in Ethan’s workshop. In the end, this thing that started out with impossible phone messages received while wasted, workshop teachers slipping me material in my dreams, and my own family not entirely sure I’m not at Iowa State — it doesn’t feel totally real. The workshop feels like a dream, and from now on I expect it to feel more and more like that. You know, “Honey, were we really living in Iowa, or is that a story we told ouselves?”

I’ve met a lot of amazing people here, some of whom I may not see again after today, as we become the workshop diaspora, and I can’t guarantee that some of you won’t wind up as characters in my fiction — again begging the questions of what’s real, what’s dream, what are stories? I don’t know that the workshop helped me with those questions — quite the opposite, it seems to me. But I do know that unlike Galway and Amsterdam, for me anyway, Iowa is a great place to write and it did give me the discipline I craved — whether or not it’s real.

I love my class of second-years. I think we brought the tension down a few notches from those who went before us — we’re a very earthy, unpresuming, happy class. And the first-years this year are so good it’s truly frightening, so it’s probably just as well we’re leaving. It’s a time of great change at the workshop — the end of an era in more than a few ways. I think we’ll look back and eventually convince ourselves that we were among those who held our workshops in those WWII quonset huts. I’m glad Tracy and I are staying in Iowa City for another year. Just to bring things back to Rocky, it’s like in Rocky II, when Rocky is so washed up he’s emptying spit buckets, and Mickey tells him to go home, that Rocky’s presence makes him sick. And Rocky says, “I just gotta be around it, Mick.” I owe a debt of gratitude to my teachers Ethan, Frank, Chris, Sam Chang and Elizabeth McCracken, and to my fellow students, who taught me just as much. For everyone heading out to bigger and better things, good luck, Godspeed, keep in touch—it’s been, I hope, real.

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