On Sunday, 12 June 2011, I received my Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies degree from Dartmouth College. It had taken me six years to complete my studies while working full time, but this spring I had at last finished my thesis, a nonfiction account of an effort to find, fix, re-make, and re-make again a house in Lyme, New Hampshire. So with my fellow graduates, under gray skies that threatened to soak us all, I donned robes and hood and mortarboard, and marched onto the Green.
I was seated next to a colleague who had likewise pursued Creative Writing in the MALS program, an accomplished and talented writer who, like me, had undertaken graduate study in mid-life. The ceremonies are a lengthy affair, and the advanced degree candidates must sit through interminable speeches, plus forty-five minutes of undergraduate degree conferral. (Such is ceremony.) During one particularly slow moment, my colleague began idly perusing the printed program. Suddenly, she pointed to the page with a jolt. “Meg, look! You won the thesis award!”
When I enrolled in the MALS program in the winter of 2005, I had intended to focus my scholarship on studies in human-computer interaction, a field loosely connected to my career in software and web services. But my first course was in nonfiction writing, and in nine weeks I learned, first, that I enjoyed writing, and second, that it was one of the hardest things I could do. My professor was unfailingly patient, gamely reading through my novice efforts and pointing out the parts that were working well. But he also had an uncanny ability to see what was missing, to ask the key question that could crack open a piece at its hinge and lay bare its works for inspection. Writing is thinking, and thinking is hard.
As I worked my way through the creative writing curriculum, writing became part of my life’s mechanics, an essential process, deeply internal. It served as a kind of thinking-through in text of the subjects that most compelled me: nature, culture, food, wine, place, home, meaning, creativity. The results were usually shared only with one professor and those scattered others to whom it was assigned (like my classmates), or on whom it was foisted (like my husband). Working on my thesis these last several months, I expanded my understanding of the craft of writing, and developed techniques for planning and working out a book-length project. But I also learned more about myself, about what I know to be true about the poetics and praxis of home, and about what it means to make my own true place in the world—as a woman, wife, gardener, cook, and homemaker.
When my colleague blurted that I had won the award that bears your name, the news sent me reeling, delighted but also thoroughly astonished. I had heard about the award, of course, but that day the MALS program was graduating forty-one scholars, every one deserving of special approbation, and it was a great honor to be tapped by the faculty committee. Winning said, in essence, you are worthy, and your writing is good; it matters.
But in the very next instant, I realized something else, too, something much more important: that while writing is a deeply internal process, it is not merely internal. Writing goes forth, reaches with long fingers and toes, fingers its way into another’s mind, and maybe even changes it. Writing is, or can be, one of the most intimate and beautiful of acts. And so that moment on the Green I was suddenly forced to acknowledge that I now had yet another role, and that there was yet another dimension constituting my true place in this world: as a writer.
Thank you, Mr. X, for giving me a jewel that I will cherish always.
Meg Houston Maker ’87, MALS ’11