Commencement Speech: “The Urgency To Believe or The Pragmatic Quality of Optimism”

By MFA in Creative Writing Faculty Advisor Darrah Cloud (BA ’78)
February 15, 2015
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Today you are graduating from Goddard College. I take this very seriously because I too graduated from Goddard College. So did my sister, who runs the most innovative Institute for Sustainability Education in the world. Even now at her age, whenever she is speaking at a conference, no matter where—Beijing, Capetown, South Africa, Trenton—when she starts talking, the epiphanies ping off the walls and inevitably someone will ask her where she learned to think so inclusively and inventively; where did she go to school? When she says Goddard College, they always say: Ah, that is no surprise.
To this day we remain Goddard students, and today I want to pass on to all of you a few of the things I wasn’t able to get to in the time we spent together here (in less than ten minutes). In particular, I want to pass on something that has sustained my sister and I in the darkest of times, and is the greatest gift of a Goddard education: and that is optimism.
When I talk about optimism, I am not talking about hope; hope to me is naive and inactive. It implies a clear outcome. Therefore it seems to me that you can hope for the wrong things and not even know it. And what if hope really does have power? Then you would be creating the wrong things to happen and that would be… wrong. So just in case, I do not engage in hope. I engage in writing, which is fundamentally optimistic, because it is an activity in which we have no  ability at all to predict the outcome.
By writing, we hop on the mind-heart continuum, we become “the next step, the connective tissue, the bridge, the response and the next call.” When we are most depressed about not being published or listened to or lauded or even noticed, we must remember that the very real definition of optimism is to be unsettled, to be aware of the present and the possibilities for the future and the consequences of our actions, of if/then…
When I arrived at Goddard as an undergraduate all I knew was what I didn’t want: I didn’t want to be in the states of Arizona or Illinois, I didn’t want to have to take courses in a room with a person who droned on and on, I didn’t want to do anything irrelevant. That was a word I lived by. In order to find out what it was I did want, I needed to learn what I needed to learn, and then to learn more.
So I learned that George Armstrong Custer’s hubris was an illness.
I learned how to put out a flaming television. Do not use water: televisions are what that foamy stuff inside fire extinguishers is for.
I learned to start a painting by putting my brush in the center of the canvas and pushing the paint out in all directions from there.

I learned that Emerson said: “People wish to be settled; it is only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Thinking is result-less yet purposeful.
The truth changes because of it.
I learned that it doesn’t matter if you have clothes on if you’re running around a building when it’s 80 below zero as long as you are wearing boots.
Because the truth changes with thinking, I learned to revise. All the time. So I need to revise all the time. Until something happens that just stops me.
I learned that there is indeed such a thing as too much beer.
I learned that William James said: Truth is what happens to an idea. If you do the math on this, the equation goes something like this: it is unpragmatic to go into student debt to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in order to become a poet; BUT to write poems with ideas in them is to make truth happen. The truth is inherently pragmatic.
I learned how to drive fast with a calm head when someone is in the back seat bleeding.
I learned that the word “truth” is derived from the Greek and means: something that is not forgotten; what needs to be preserved.
I learned that Freud said: what is buried is preserved.
I learned that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
I learned that “The field cannot be seen from within the field”—and I learned that “In a field, I am the absence of field.”
I learned that both Lacan and Lincoln said that we all use the same language, we just mean different things. And Hannah Arendt said that freedom is a fact; but community demands giving up one’s personal freedom at times for the common good, enlarging and augmenting our own selves so that we exist as part of something, not alone. Remember this when someone you are working with gives you notes.
I learned that learning is a process of un-freeing the self in order to be better at something. Can we as Americans sacrifice even a small freedom? I learned that there are contingencies beyond our control to our freedom: the weather, for example, which changed the landing of the pilgrims, who had hoped to
disembark in Virginia but were literally blown to Massachusetts by the wind…
I learned about diversity: how reductive homogeneity is, how limited, how linguistically paltry; (as in, how can a language devised on a rocky island in the North Sea come anywhere near reflecting global experiences?) Exclusion is unsustainable; it leads to the downfall of that entity which does not include.
I learned that the need for belief trumps what is believed, especially since what scientists love to call the Darwinian Event. We as writers must believe above all else in thinking and in language.
I learned about the Pareto Distribution: this is another equation, in which it has been calculated that 80% of the effect comes from 20% of the cause. Translated into writerease, this means that you must send out your work 100% of the time, knowing that only 20% of that act will have an effect, as in, get published or
produced. More simply put, because most writers can’t add, this means that the more places you send your work, the higher the chance it will get taken.
I learned that you ought to be yourself when meeting important and or famous people, not the person you think you ought to be. And if you are critically shy, that’s OK. Just tell them. Do not tell an off-color joke to a famous person. Do not use a swear word in front of their two-year-old. If possible, do yoga in preparation for meeting famous persons and lighten up. Famous writers are just like you.
Also, do not order barbecued chicken at a lunch meeting with someone you could work for. It gets stuck in your teeth and there’s no polite way to get it out.
I learned that “selling myself” can be a creative act, as it were, instead of a horror and a burden. There is energy in creativity. Creativity is the one thing I know best how to use, so why not use it in everything? I learned that when I forget this, it’s easy to offend people. The glass ceiling does indeed exist, it is low and
everywhere, and the only way to shatter it is to keep hammering at it.
I learned that my mother’s insistence on table manners was the best advice I ever got.
I learned that my ego exists to do nothing more than drive me to my desk to work in the morning and send the work out when it’s done. It has no other purpose and it’s best to keep it locked up. What you can discover when you are open to new ideas is astonishing. I learned that if you think you know something for sure, your theory will almost always be disproven.
I learned that by teaching what I know to someone else, I teach myself the same thing, again. And I wonder, again, why I used to think Thornton Wilder and was boring and Virginia Woolf repetitive. What was I afraid of? How could I have been so stupid?
I learned to forgive myself.
I learned that mice really do eat their young. But only if there are too many to feed.
I learned that American Exceptionalism might be nothing more than our unconditional love of a nation that makes grievous errors.
I learned to keep asking myself if I can be better a better writer.
I learned that old Vermonters with no formal education were smarter than me.
I learned that the desire to go on learning after my time at Goddard kept me connected to Goddard; it is what binds us to each other. I think John Dewey and Tim Pitkin, theoretical founders of Goddard, would say, were they here, that the low-residency model absolutely conforms to their greatest theory: that education is life itself. I learned to keep learning.
Today you graduate from Goddard College and go forth to keep on learning. That is who we have taught you to be, that is who you are now. Share what you learned at Goddard with all the people you meet, and go where it leads you.
Keep writing: keep engaging in this activity with no ability to predict the outcome. The very act of writing is optimistic. Keep writing with the rest of us optimists.


Important Announcement

The Board of Directors for Goddard College have made the difficult decision to close the college at the end of the 2024 Spring term.  


Current Goddard students will have the opportunity to complete their degrees at the same tuition rate through a teach-out with like-minded institution, Prescott College. Updates and scholarship funds will be available in the coming weeks and months. Information will be posted to

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