It’s been forty years since I graduated from Middlebury College. Just about forty years to the day—I think the ceremony was on or about June 1, 1976. I am missing my fortieth reunion this coming weekend.
In fact, I have yet to attend any of my Middlebury class reunions. I’ve given the college money. I’ve interviewed applicants as part of the Alumni Admission Program, where alumni around the nation interview students who are applying to the college. I’ve represented Middlebury at college fairs in the Kansas City area. But I’ve only been back to campus once, when I took my high-school aged kids to see the college.
We visited, because I hoped the visit would inspire my children to apply. It didn’t work. Actually, my son applied, and even was accepted, but quickly ruled out the rural campus as somewhere he wanted to spend four years. He had a difficult time deciding between other colleges, but he knew he didn’t want to go to Middlebury. When her turn came, my daughter refused to even apply.
As I recall, there were several days between my last final and the graduation ceremony. My parents and younger brother and sister flew out, picked me and one of my college friends up from campus, and we then toured Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It was an opportunity for my younger siblings to see some of our nation’s heritage, in places such as Independence Hall, the White House, the Capitol, the National Mall and its memorials, and the Smithsonian museums.
Then we returned to Middlebury for the graduation ceremony. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the speaker—one of my mother’s favorite authors, so my mother was thrilled. I had read several of her books and looked forward to hearing her. But all I remember now, forty years later, is that Mrs. Lindbergh was a petite woman and a good speaker.
Google revealed that Mrs. Lindbergh’s speech that graduation day, entitled “Aspects of Communication,” is available on the Middlebury College website. So I went back and read it.
Forty years later, it means a lot more to me than I think it did that day. As a writer now, I found more inspiration and truth in what Mrs. Lindbergh said that I could have at the ripe old age of twenty.
She reflected back on her own college experience and a remark she had made then that “To me the most exciting thing in life is communication.” She said that she still believed that statement to be true.
Then she said:
In trying to define communication broadly, I have come to feel that it is the translation of one’s individual talents into a negotiable form. What you and only you have to give is transferred to other people in a form they can understand, accept and use constructively. The forms may differ but the transfer, the exchange, is the essential element always present.
. . . why is communication important? . . . I decided it was important to me because of a very simple paradox: we are social animals and at the same time we are solitary, irrevocably solitary. We communicate in order to break out of our solitude, our loneliness, in order to be part of our world, in order to share our experiences, and perhaps to try to discover their meaning. In other words, we communicate in order to illuminate our lives, or the lives of others. We try to illuminate the darkness both within ourselves and outside of us.
At least this is why I write—to illuminate for myself and occasionally I hope, for others.
She continued, describing the gift of vision that writers have, the desire to commune with the vision instead of developing it into something tangible and complete, and the whole process of that development. She said what all writers know:
The disparity between your vision and the first draft is unbelievable. What you’ve written is messy; it’s heavy; it’s inarticulate. The words that come to you are awkward and lumpy, and they won’t fit together into a sentence. . . . This is the marsh, the bog, the quagmire and I’ve been in it often myself. . . . I have never found a detour around the bog. You have to go plodding right through it. It is the only way to reach the second draft. If one clumps ahead, no matter how awkwardly, one does reach the second draft, and then the third and the fourth.
From the bog, she went on to describe the chasms and woods of writing, and finally the mountain peak—the end of the journey.
The journey was worth making because when you finish your poem or your book or your piece of work, it speaks to others. And it is the response of others who hear, and only this response, that tells you have reached the point you aimed for. This response in itself is a great joy.
Now that I have focused on writing for almost ten years myself, I see the truth in what Mrs. Lindbergh said forty years ago. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to reflect again on her message. And I encourage all writers—indeed, all communicators (which means everyone)—to go read the full speech.
What events in your life do you wish you remembered better?