Address to Phi Beta Kappa, Tufts University, May 2016

It is a genuine honor to join President Monaco and my colleagues from the administration and faculty in this celebration of your achievements.

First and foremost:  Congratulations.

And thank you.  I mean that:  Thank you for doing the work.  Your commitment to academic excellence vindicates the very idea of this university.  You fuel the spirit of the whole project for the rest of us here at Tufts.  For that, I am in your debt.

“Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings…”  Before I go on, I should say, this is a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein, the influential Austrian-born British philosopher and linguist.

Really.  Right off the bat, I am actually going to start quoting philosophy. I am aiming high today, hoping to elevate my ideas.

In truth, ever since I was invited to speak to this distinguished gathering about, of all things, capital-A Art, I’ve been feeling a little anxious, a little queasy, and I think I might have a slight fever, as if I am suffering with a mild case of Phi-Bet-Kappa-by-proxy disease.  But I am going to press on because, as many of you surely know, Wittgenstein was a master of expressing profound ideas in elegantly simple language.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Often, when I have had a picture well framed, or have hung it in the right surroundings,  I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself.  That is not quite right; not as proud as if I had painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it.”

Wittgenstein’s words have served to me in my work as a writer.  It is always useful to have his voice in my head, reminding me that the painters I admire, or the historical events that intrigue me, or the people whose choices inspire me so much that I want to write about them do not need me.  They exist without me.  And if my aim is to do something original that is worth other people’s time—which is what I think we mean by art—I have to do more than simply arrange or illuminate or describe what I know, what I see.

This challenge has been very much on my mind lately.  My new novel, The Chapel, is being published this week, and it takes place in Padua, Italy, much of it inside the Scrovegni Chapel.  In the first years of the 14th century, on the interior walls and ceiling of an innocuous little brick building, the great Italian painter Giotto di Bondone created the most beautiful fresco cycle in existence.  Really.  If you go to Italy and you are pressed for time, skip the Sistine Chapel and head straight for Giotto’s masterpiece in Padua.

It is easy to find the chapel, but it took me a long time to find my way into the novel.  I spent many hours of many days for many weeks in that chapel, simply staring.  This, by the way, is known as research.  I also squandered many hours of many days in my home in Cambridge, staring at the walls.  This, of course, is known as thinking.  I often didn’t shave, or shower, or remember to return phone calls and emails.  This is known as the reason many parents hope their children get normal jobs and don’t become writers or artists.

It’s a real problem, as the great social realist painter Ben Shahn pointed out when he gave a lecture about the role of artists in our culture. The artist, Shahn said, is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness.  Artists often seem a little unpredictable, a little peculiar.  People pause before inviting an artist to dinner.  Who knows, Shahn went on, but that the artist may arrive wearing a weird red shirt, or unexpectedly sporting an odd little beard.  Or she might turn up with a newly pierced something or other.  An artist is also likely to have strong opinions that are not popular.   Plus, who knows what an artist will do?  He might even lop off one of his ears and try to pawn it off on some unwilling recipient.

“However glorious the history of Art may be,” wrote Shahn, “the history of artists is quite another matter.  And in a well-ordered household, the very thought that one of the young may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm.  It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room—well, even for devoted art lovers, that can be a problem.”

I came to understand this soon after I graduated from college.  As some of you here surely know by now, as commencement nears, in this odd moment when you feel you are both here and not here, along with congratulations from family, and friends, and faculty members comes the dreaded question: What are you going to do now?  When I announced I wanted to be a writer, I noticed that people’s smiles faded just a little.  Some people would ask, What kind of a writer?  I would think, Well a decent one, I hope, but I knew that wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and before I could answer, they would often provide me with a helpful list of occupations in which I could write and collect a salary—journalism, advertising, public relations, obituary writing.  After a few years passed and I had not published a book, the question changed subtly.  Still writing?  Another year, and the question became, Still hoping to become a writer?  More time passed.  I was free-lancing as a proofreader, editor, ghost writer and barely covering the rent for a basement apartment in Harvard Square, and at family gatherings or parties at the three-bedroom homes of classmates who’d gone into law, or medicine, or banking, I’d overhear the old question, though by then people didn’t ask if of me.  They asked it about me.  Does Michael still think he’s a writer?

I spent the better part of seven years not publishing a book.  It wasn’t fun being a failure, but I got one useful piece of advice from a friend, a writer, who was as big a failure as I was.  Her advice was simple: Don’t stop.  If you write every day, you’re a writer.  Her advice had two virtues.  First, it was simply and self-evidently true. A writer is someone who writes. Second, it reminded me that writing is not theoretical.  It is practical.  It’s not something you think about.  It is something you do.

And I didn’t really want to do anything else.  So I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and eventually I got lucky, or the major commercial publishing houses got tired of writing me rejection letters and decided it was easier and less time consuming to just publish the books I write.

All I did was follow some good advice.  I didn’t stop.  And though The Chapel is my eighth book, I am still haunted by a bad piece of advice that I was given many, many times—starting in grade school when I was first introduced to that famous torture device, the five-paragraph essay.  Whenever I was stumped, the teacher would inevitably say, Write about what you know.  Write about what you know?   That’s probably very good advice for someone who is writing a Wikipedia entry.  But it makes writing an exercise in regurgitation, and even as a kid I knew it was much more fun to imagine spending a few weeks at a beach on Cape Cod than to read my miserable little account of What I Did with My Summer Vacation.

Every book I have written has begun with something I don’t understand,  something I don’t know.  One October, for instance, I stuck my finger into the face of a clock to lose an hour—and I realized I had no idea what I was doing.  I thought we did it for the farmer’s, but the first fact I learned when I began to write a social history of daylight saving time was that the farmer’s, from the beginning, hated it and fought to repeal it.  Similarly, when I was offered the chance to write a narrative history of the San Francisco Zen Center—the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia in the history of the world, and the institution that brought Buddhism from the East to the West—I really knew absolutely nothing about San Francisco, Zen, or the 5,000-year history of Buddhism.  In fact, as I confessed in the introduction to that book, “I am the wrong person to write this story, and this seems to make sense to everyone.  I met Norman Fischer, the Abbot of Zen Center, and I told him I did not have a Zen practice, was not even an aspiring Buddhist, had never meditated, ate more than my share of meat, and basically knew nothing.”

“Knowing nothing is a great place for you to begin,” the Abbot said.  “I hope you end up there.”

I did.  But it is easy to forget that you know nothing.  And after spending the better part of a year reading and thinking about Giotto’s chapel in Padua, and then spending many months staring up into its starry ceiling, I was suffering the delusion that I knew everything there was to know about it, that I had a special relationship to it, that I had  sort of discovered it.  I had hoped to write a novel that would make people want to see Giotto’s masterpiece, but when I pored through my stacks and stacks of notes, I found a colorless collection of dates and diameters and historical facts.  Had I kept going, I could’ve written a decent Wikipedia entry.  And then I heard Wittgenstein’s voice in my head.  He was right.  I was beginning to feel the Chapel was mine, that I’d had a hand in painting the place, that my work was done.

And then I heard the Abbott of Zen Center telling me that knowing nothing is a great place to begin.

And so I began again, knowing nothing.  And I’d like to end today by reading you one page from The Chapel.  It is my novel, but this is not my story.  Elizabeth is the central character and the narrator.  Unlike me, she is a woman.  Unlike me, she has two adult children.  Unlike me, she has had a long and often disappointing marriage, and when her husband died suddenly, he left her, along with several uncomfortable legacies, a very expensive trip to Italy that was meant to be a celebration of their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Through Elizabeth’s eyes, through her attempts to understand how anyone manages to make something beautiful and enduring, I saw my way into a story I didn’t know was there.  This is Elizabeth’s first moment in Giotto’s chapel.


Had Mitchell, my dead husband, been standing beside me, where he belonged, he would have whispered, First impression?

My first and enduring impression of the chapel was blue. 

The ceiling was a deep azure evening sky flecked with golden stars.  The residents of the heavens were provided with golden portholes on either end, and from the smaller of these windows on the world bearded saints and patriarchs looked down approvingly.  The bigger, central lookout above the altar end was occupied by Jesus in his middle age, and near the original entrance, above the Last Judgment, the Virgin Mary held her infant son for all to see. 

But wherever I looked, no matter which sainted gaze held mine, I felt the pulsing of that beautiful blue, not watery but viscous, as if all us, the living and the dead, were swimming in that intergalactic amniotic fluid.   

Blue was my first impression every time I turned and looked to the top of another wall, the blueness of sky above and beyond the figures in each frame of the painted story circling around above us. 

This blueness was not constant.  It faded from top to bottom, the sky in each succeeding row of pictures a little paler, each sequential layer of the story a little less saturated with the immensity and depth of eternity. 

There was a sanctuary with an altar embedded at one end, a window at the top of the other end, and six big windows cut into one side.  And that was it for structural detail.  The rest—not just the human figures and the landscapes, but what I had first seen as supporting columns and arches, elaborate pilasters and medallions carved in relief, and even the beveled and chamfered frame around every separate frescoed scene—was an illusion.  There was nothing but paint painstakingly applied to the smooth plaster walls of a brick-and-mortar barrel vault.  The gloriously illuminated and architecturally complicated chapel was, like Mitchell, like all of us, not really there. 


You have all done remarkably well here at Tufts.  And soon you will graduate.  You can, I’m sure, imagine the day when you will not be here.  We are, all of us, just passing through.  And yet by the work you have done to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa here today, you have made your mark.  You will be gone, but you will always be here.  That’s the art of you.

Congratulations.  You have made a genuine impression on this place.

—Michael Downing, May, 2016