Keynote Address

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

“Good evening everyone.  I am sorry we are here together on a very tragic day for Pittsburgh and the world, and naturally our celebration is significantly subdued.

I am truly honored to be here. I am a professor, so part of our job is giving talks in lots of different places and environments. But I have never been so honored – or nervous – as I am this evening giving a talk at my alma mater’s 50th anniversary.

I must admit, in full disclosure, that I did not initially want to attend CMU.  My first choice was Vassar College. But my father very much wanted me to attend Carnegie Mellon, a “real” university as he put it. Admittedly Carnegie Mellon was my second choice so I wasn’t utterly despondent!   And to be honest, it took just the first evening of orientation to fall in love with CMU – my roommates, with whom I remain friends, the cross country team, running through Shenley Park, the leaves changing as we ran, the architecture and perhaps most important as I think two decades back – meeting people who made me think, really think and who challenged me and made me want to be want to be smarter, learn more, care more about the world.  I became a vegetarian mere weeks into first semester due to my roommate who was vegetarian and her PETA pamphlets. In retrospect, I cannot imagine attending college or being happier anywhere else.

What makes Carnegie Mellon so special is the excellences in both the arts and mathematics and computer science and that these two worlds collide – an essential relationship in the 21st century whether in art forms, data visualization or communication.

My father wanted me to study business at Carnegie Mellon. So obviously I studied creative writing and more specifically, poetry.

I had the best time of my life. But more than that I do not think I could have foreseen that a creative writing degree – a humanities degree – would provide me skill sets that would actualize my potential more so than possibly any other degree I might have chosen.

People might think that a creative writing degree provides a winner-take-all outcome – you’re either winning the national book award or becoming a poetry professor or you are driving uber.

In the current collegiate climate, there is a wariness towards a humanities degree and a greater emphasis on professional degrees.  Today, I am a college professor and students talk about deliverables and jobs years before I contemplated either.  I wrote poems. I read books. I analyzed texts in creative writing workshops. I am not sure I contemplated my career until my senior year of college and at that time, I realized I’d prefer to keep going to school (which I did for another 7 years).

I’ve thought a lot about what CMU’s writing program provided me – and it is invaluable. It is something I could never have gotten in any other major.

I knew that I was fortunate to have received this degree. I have spent most of my adult working life surrounded by political scientists, economists and policy makers so the link is not obvious. Yet I knew it matters but I never quite articulated why until I was asked to come tonight and speak with you.

I’ve boiled down for me, the indispensable skills that creative writing has provide me.

 

1. Teach us how to write a sentence people want to read. — A sentence that it is more than just noun verb adjective object. A sentence people take notice of…a sentence people feel.

I could say, the red wheel barrow next to the chickens is wet with rain and useful in this state.

 

Or, I could say

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

 

Which is of course William Carlos Williams.

 

I could say: Be brave.

 

Or I could say, as Emily Dickenson said:

“Go above your nerve”

 

Creative writing teaches us how to write in a way that makes people listen and want to read.  Not just understand, but to care and to feel empathy for the cause at hand, the person described.

As a doctoral student at Columbia University, I was told that my dissertation sounded too much like an article in the New Yorker.  Despite this being a seeming criticism, I took it as the compliment that is was. I had a book contract with Princeton before I finished my PhD – definitely not because of the footnotes, or the works cited, or even the methodology, but because of the writing. The editor thought he could sell this book. That’s several semesters of writing workshops paying off. Thank you Professor Daniels and Professor Dilworth.

 

2. Creative writing teaches us value of cultural allusion and demands that we learn how to find and employ it. Connections across time and space matter and cultural and historical references make the current moment clearer. History repeats itself, but how? More than just metaphor good writing is the ability to connect and make use of different ideas.

T.S. Elliot’s use of Lazarus to capture Profrock’s midlife crisis, to express his characters feelings of mediocrity with a reference to Prince Hamlet – it is the “show don’t tell’ essential to good writing.  We can say a book is very old or we can say it is a veritable Guttenberg Bible.  The latter gives us imagery, we know not just that something is old, but can see it in our minds. To say the possible Russian involvement in our election feels like something out of Watergate is not just to capture the notion of political intrigue and collusion but also the potential involvement of our highest levels of government, of possible malfeasance and the atmosphere that surrounds such accusations.  It would be redundant and boring writing to rehash these similarities but the cultural allusion succinctly catches the moment with one reference.

These techniques provide layers to the issue at hand. This is also why writing like the humanities more generally is inherently interdisciplinary.  One cannot draw a convincing cultural allusion without taking the history, English or political science class that provides the knowledge to do so.

 

3. The ability to, as Falkner advised, “kill your darlings” but also write endlessly. To know when to write long and short.

Creative writing degrees do not simply teach you poetry or screenwriting or fiction. If you major in creative writing, you must learn how – in some measure – to do all three in different mediums and styles and lengths.  This bodes well – in the quotidian communication of life – the email, the text – but of course, far more importantly, in what type of writing is most effective for your audience. This skill is not just for authors – it’s how effective memos get written, op-eds get published, speeches are listened to, and interviews are conducted.  We must learn the cadence and rhythm of different styles of writing and with whom we are communicating.

 

4. Ask the questions that matter to human society and to our existence. There is no question we will one day find that cure to cancer, figure out health care, solve social security, and provide global access to clean water. We have not yet, solved the mysteries of being human.

But we make in roads and the humanities offer us this path.

The humanities have long probed and attempted to understand the human condition. Social scientists – and I am one in my day job — attempt to quantify life, but the humanities raison d’etre, as it were, is to understand fundamentally the vitality of our existence – how to make sense of it, above all, what matters and why.

Instead, we are Republican or Democrat, white or black, coastal elite or rural poor. We have lost sight that we are all human. This has perhaps never been more apparent as in today’s current climate, as evidenced so clearly in today’s tragedy, which lacks understanding.

The poets, the novelists, and the playwrights today and many centuries ago look deeply into love, poverty, war, equity, social justice, happiness. If we want to understand what it feels like to be poor, read Charles Dickens. To understand inequity and class, read Edith Wharton. The declining middle class? Read Jonathan Franzen.

There is no statistic or co-efficient in a multivariate regression model that will garner up the empathy or care about a particular social issue more so than the human story and how it is told.

We must start with what it feels like to be human, to experience different types of the human condition before the regressions and data make sense.  The data in itself does not evoke empathy.  And our empathy towards fellow humanity is what instigates change. Thus, in my opinion, these two worlds of humanities and science, must merge.

I only wish more students enrolled in poetry workshops and English literature courses – even if they still major in engineering or public policy.

We will not understand each other and connect without empathy. Language and the written word are conduits to that end.

I remain forever grateful for my time at CMU.  These years – so fleeting, so formative encapsulate some of my fondest memories.  I gained friends, a sense of self and a sense of what it feels like to be someone other than me. These gifts were certainly given to me on the track and the trails of Shenley Park, in the dormitories and walking to class but also through the books and poetry my professors assigned me and in that quotidian task of college life, they truly opened the world to me.

 

To quote from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

“Between reality on the one hand and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic…And just as music is the space between notes, just as the starts are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky – so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing…is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”

 

This is what good writing does, what it gives our society, our universe and our human existence. Keep writing.

Thank you.