One week ago today — Saturday, March 19, 2016, at Camp Casey Conference Center on Whidbey Island — I was invited to the podium before my special guests, as well as the students, faculty, and staff of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing.

My MFA graduation reading. Photo by Bob Denst.
My MFA graduation reading. Photo by Bob Denst.

This was the moment: I would give a reading from my final manuscript — the best pages from two years of writing.

I wish you could have been there.

Lauren Winner introduced me. And while I won’t share what she said here, I will tell you that I treasure what she said, and will carry it with me as a source of inspiration for the rest of my life.

I also cannot share what I read, as I hope to publish it someday — either in a journal or a book, or both.

I will, however, share with you my own introductory remarks from that presentation. Because I am very, very grateful to a lot of people whose support enabled me to climb a high mountain.

me and lauren winner and paula huston at graduation
My MFA mentors: Authors Lauren Winner (left) and Paula Huston (right).

Over those two years, I read 62 books and wrote papers on them all. I also wrote several longer critical essays, as well as hundreds of pages of original creative nonfiction. I did this while working full time, sustaining a regular music column, and blogging here for you.

And I couldn’t have done that without these people.

Here is what I said before the reading:

To Gregory Wolfe, the director of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Greg is making of himself a sort of living sacrifice that Image, the Glen Workshop, the Chrysostom Society, and the MFA program might become for us — at least for me — a sort of promised land I didn’t know I’d been seeking.

To Aubrey Allison (the MFA program coordinator): Everybody talks about how graceful you are. I think you’re a badass with a deadly sense of humor. Thanks for showing all of us so much love.

Thanks also to Tyler McCabe, the Image program director, and all on the MFA/Image team, and to Seattle Pacific University. I’m hard-pressed to think of anywhere else in Christian higher education that shows such respect and support for artistic freedom.

Paula Huston — I’ll say that I’m lucky, but I mean that I’m blessed to have begun in time to run the full course of the program with you. Everything Alissa Wilkinson told me was true: Your tender and truthful responses to my essays are still doing good work in my head and heart.

Lauren Winner: Who cornered me after I spoke at a workshop, asked me questions about my life plans, and then proceeded to host a spontaneous intervention, with the help of John Wilson from Books & Culture, helping me regain the vision for my life that I’d had to abandon two decades earlier. They convinced me that an MFA was the best possible course of action. And then, Lauren, thank you for not going easy on me — for your uncompromising criticism. Your lenses exposed bad habits in my writing that I hope I am learning to break. In the interest of avoiding what you call “overwrought language” — I will stop there.

To Robert Clark, who persuaded me to take the Creative Nonfiction track when at first my mind was set on fiction, and who hosted a Seattle writing salon, so I could enjoy his critiques free of charge. I have no regrets about CNF, Robert — just jealousy for those who get to dream up stories with you and Gina Ochsner.

Me with one of my dearest friends — author Robert Clark.
Me with one of my dearest friends — author Robert Clark.

To Scott Cairns, who has been a counselor in person and in poetry for almost 20 years; to Jeanine Hathaway and Jeanne Murray Walker, for sharing my appreciation of Anne’s poetry. To Luci Shaw, for praying with me during one of my low points. To Warren Farha, who served up heaping plates of literary beauty, nourishing my spiritual formation.

To you, my MFA community — especially Bob Denst — thank you for your generosity in everything from listening to libations. Thanks, Nick Olson, my CNF brother; the current CNFers, from who I have just begun to learn; and to a certain piece of furniture — some of you know what I mean.

Now, of those who launched with me at the starting gun, only one has kept pace with me to cross the finish line. Christian Downes, I have no boring friends, but you are the friend who is farthest from boring. You first impressed me with your style, then with your writing, and recently with your close-readings and critiques. Thanks for sharing pints, and thanks for sharing poems that translate for me as a call to stillness, humility, and openness to natural revelation. When people ask me if we did that cohort tattoo bonding ritual, I’ll just say, “Yes, we did, but I can’t show you mine because Christian’s the one who actually wears it.” And then I will realize how unsettling that sounds, and I’ll point at something up in the sky, turn, and run.

Finally, my family:

Thank you, Mom and Dad. You taught me to value reading and writing; you let me be a weird kid for whom being sent to his room was a reward instead of a punishment; and you let me spend more time with a typewriter than a television. I can honestly say that I have never experienced what people call a “crisis of faith” — and that’s because your love for each other and for God has shown me what is possible. (And no, that is not “overwrought language.”)

Me looking over my notes with my parents, Larry and Lois Overstreet.
Looking over my notes with my parents, Larry and Lois Overstreet.

Which brings me to a grace I do not know how to describe. Thank you, Anne. Thanks for listening to all of my complaining about my packets never being good enough. Thanks for making every potentially lonely evening of homework into a study party. You are my first reader, my first responder, and a fourth mentor. I think of these two years as a sort of parenthood — raising pages with lives of their own — and they’ve been the richest of our 20 together so far. And your poems are like tuning forks for my disordered and sometimes decimated attention. When I read them, everything dissonant in me resolves for a time, and I can rest.

So, that’s how things started.

And then I read an essay.

Jeffrey Overstreet - MFA martini toast - by Bob DenstAnd there was much rejoicing. During one of the week’s festive occasions, my friend Bob Denst snapped this rare picture of me actually smiling.

This is the end of two unforgettably inspiring years, and the beginning of a new phase in my life as a writer.

I have my evenings and weekends back to do the writing I was born to do. With God’s help, eventually I’ll find more even more hours to apply myself to my true vocation. And with the help of this MFA, hopefully I’ll find a good opportunity soon to teach classes in film studies and creative writing.

I appreciate your prayers and support.

Cheers, everybody.

 

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