Writing the Symphony


By Gregory Wolfe

Note: The following is the text of the commencement address given for the graduates of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 1, 2009.

On behalf of the staff and faculty of the SPU MFA program, I’d like to offer a warm welcome to all the friends and family of the graduates—including a number of alumni—who have come here to celebrate this special day.

I am going to confess to you that it is a little harder for me today to maintain the sort of gravitas that I normally reserve for occasions such as this. That’s because it’s less than 24 hours since the “Santa Fe Lullabies” contest. For those of you who were not privy to those festivities, let’s just say that they were an excellent showcase for the literary talent of this student body. Of course, I expect your final, revised lullabies on my desk next week….

In any case, I think it’s fair to say that a commencement address should not be a lullaby, though I will try to keep it brief and gentle.

As you graduates leave this program you will enter a new phase in the lifelong struggle to use language to bridge the gap between self and world. This process, this reaching down into the interiority of the soul and the ensuing search for the form whereby your private world can be transformed and made known to another in its own interiority, is a profound mystery.

It’s also part of why writing’s so damned hard.

Of course, this transaction can never be more than partial.

But the act of writing is still a form of communication—or, as I’d prefer to call it, a form of communion, a temporary holding together of two minds, two hearts.

Martin Buber described a similar process in which the self addresses the other not as an unknowable and uninteresting “it” but as a “thou.” An “it” is an object, and an object may be manipulated, used, or walked away from.

A “thou” implies another “I”—a subject, rather than an object, and hence implies a relationship.

Buber writes: “The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.”

It seems to me that this comes very near to the essence of great writing. As you’ve heard me say—perhaps too many times over the course of the program—“writing is not self-expression, it’s about doing justice to the world.” In other words, it’s about your I encountering and speaking to a Thou.

Anything short of this is soliloquy.

This residency we have been discussing two texts—Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence and Uwem Akpan’s short story collection, Say You’re One of Them—which may seem far removed from these grand concepts, but which are, in reality, quite close.

We’ve been taking account of the reality of the global village, of the ways that we in the West need to open ourselves more consistently and generously to the existence of those who are no longer as far away as they once were, thanks to technology, war, migration, and economic need.

In short, we’ve been attempting to think about the encounter with an other—a Thou—who seems distant to us, whether that distance is defined by geography, or any of the other forms of difference this world contains.

We’ve complicated matters further by asking whether the particular tradition of Christianity is locked into a single cultural framework or whether it has the capacity to become universal, to reveal new dimensions of itself to those from widely divergent places and customs.

In Endo’s Silence, a well-meaning but unconsciously prideful Western missionary discovers that his triumphalistic Christian faith cannot be communicated to a Japanese culture that has no reference for the strong father-figure of the Western God. Only in failure and humiliation does this missionary recognize another facet of God’s nature—the hollow, sunken face of one who has known suffering and shame.

Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them contains within its title a hint of the same imperative—the need for each of us to find a way toward union with the other. In the story “Luxurious Hearses,” a fifteen year-old Muslim boy fleeing civil war in the north attempts to remain anonymous on a busload full of Christians and animists. He hides the arm which ends in a stump because his hand had been cut off for stealing.

But the arm comes out of his pocket accidentally and he is revealed before the others, who respond with aversion and violence. Yet his brokenness—his human contingency and need—becomes the very image that could unite the broken people of God.

Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest writing out of his Christian faith, depicts the possibility of the I-Thou relationship healing his riven nation.

What if we, as writers and as citizens, follow the lines of these relationships further out? Buber writes: “Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You…. Every single You is a glimpse of that. Through every single You the basic word addresses the eternal You.”

This is the challenge that the writer of faith has: to find the brokenness in herself and discover how it can connect to the brokenness of the other. And to know that this brokenness is underwritten by the You who accepted brokenness on the cross.

The communion that great writing undergirded by faith can achieve does not imply a sameness or homogeneity. Rather, it is like a symphony, in which many instruments play together and find a harmonic resonance.

In his book, Truth is Symphonic, Hans Urs Von Balthasar says: “the purpose of…pluralism is this: not to refuse to enter into the unity that lies in God and is imparted by him, but symphonically to get in tune with one another and give allegiance to the transcendent unity.”

This is what Endo, Akpan, and you and I are all striving for as writers and people of faith. So I charge you graduates to go forward, and write so that you do justice to the other, the one who is different from you and yet bound in a transcendent unity. Seek the harmonic note. Only when you encounter a Thou will you become an I, and bridge the gap that separates us with a word of hope.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.