On a recent Sunday morning in an old officer’s house at Fort Worden, it was so quiet the quiet itself felt loud. I sipped my coffee and watched the sky lighten. I thought of the layers of history on this silent hill just outside Port Townsend; how for decades, it teemed with soldiers, their cannons trained on the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Now the Fort has been recommissioned as host to a motley assortment of visiting groups: healers, fiddlers, woodworkers, high school football teams, artists, writers. People, including me, who mostly come in search of themselves.
I was there for the Goddard College Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing commencement. Not my own—that happened the summer before last. This time, I was there to witness. To applaud what happens at the Fort.
Goddard is one of more than fifty American colleges that offer what are called low-residency degrees. At the beginning of each semester, faculty and students gather for eight days jam-packed with seminars, workshops, readings. Then everyone goes home and writes like crazy, sending 30 or 40 page packets of work to their advisors every three weeks. The idea is to integrate learning into life, rather than leaving your life to go to school full-time.
There’s another idea at work, which seems at odds with the low-residency concept: the notion of creative community. Of the power of knowing you are not alone: you are connected to this group of people who, like you, find meaning in this crazy quixotic act called writing. Who, like you, have full lives—jobs, families, commitments—but feel powerfully called to do this too. And who, like you, find meaning in finally emerging from their shy shells to share their work—twice a year at the residencies and in all kinds of ways in between.
Lewis Hyde writes, in his book The Gift, “The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person.” He asserts works of art not only come from but nourish a part of our being that’s “not entirely personal.” This is easier to understand when you think of a symphony orchestra or a rock band than it is when you think of a writer toiling in solitude. But it is true for us too.
Writers are tempted to believe their gift is singular; it springs from some pure deep inner well. But that’s like believing you learn to walk, talk, eat and dress all by yourself. There’s a strand of your gift that is indeed only yours. But what are your tools? Words. How did you learn to use them? By reading and listening.
There are no letter grades at Goddard. There are no valedictorians, no awards, no Best Emerging Writer of the Year. At commencement, every student gives a very short speech. Many spoke of how the Goddard community enabled them to overcome their fears, face the loudly quiet room, set aside wants in favor of greater desires. One student spoke of learning at Goddard that what was more important than being “gifted” in some way was realizing she was “surrounded by people with gifts.”
And there were lighter moments. For example, faculty speaker Ryan Boudinot belted out an original ballad that included a line about remembering, as you face that first student loan bill, quote, “they can’t repossess your brain.”
No they can’t. Nor can “they” repossess the gifts people give each other in programs like Goddard’s, at re-imagined places like Fort Worden, in creative communities everywhere.
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