A chapter from my book-in-progress, Writing for Happiness, by Kim Stafford...

 

 

Writing as Ritual

Four elements of a daily writing page…

 

There’s the story that the young student of J.S. Bach asked the master, “Where do you find your melodies?” and Bach replied, “My child, I stumble over them getting out of bed in the morning.”

         What shall we make of that? Do some geniuses have a mainline to the fountain of creation, while the rest must struggle for a few good notes? I once had this contention with a devoted reader of my father’s work, who said, “Let’s face it—he was a genius.”

         “Not so fast,” I said. Maybe his processwas genius, and by writing every day, he cultivated access to the font of creation.” 

         Well, which is it—genius in the writer, or a spell for genius cast by the daily writing practice? Is the world of writing divided into those with a gift and those without? Or can we turn from some form of literary aristocracy to a more inclusive and dynamic approach to the creative life? 

         On reflection, I have realized there may be only one way to find out about the source of earned good luck: Have many people carry out a daily writing practice faithfully over many years, and then see what we have. This bold experiment is what this book has set out to arrange. I’m counting on you to be part of this long study by establishing and sustaining a writing practice, inspired by the world as only you can experience it, and literature as only you can compose it.

         For my part, I had been writing for years, by fits and starts, when my father’s death opened a new path for my life as a writer, and as a human being, as a seeker. To that point, writing for me was most often an occasional project—when I “got inspired”—to express my inner feelings or tell my experience in the world. But then by my father’s last will and testament, I inherited the care of his twenty thousand hand-written pages of daily writing from the 1950s through the day of his death in 1993. And as I handled his pages, I had a chance to survey the whole life of a supremely active writer. What I found was a readiness to range far and wide on the hospitable page in ways I will explore in the chapters to follow. In the end, it seems to me, a buoyant writing practice is a place where the two realms join as one: internal personal response to external experiences, discoveries, and events in the wide world.

         William Stafford’s writing practice had been invisible to me when he was alive, because he rose before dawn to write, and I did not. All through childhood, I would see the literary magazines where his poems were published appear on the coffee table—Crazyhorse, Poetry, Cimarron Review—and every year a book or two would come forth. When people would ask him, “Bill, when is your next book coming out?” he would often answer, “Which one?”

         How did he do that? Simple: he wrote something every day, and his books were made from about one day’s writing out of eight that he found worthy. 

         A few weeks after my father died, I started to carry the reams of his scribbling down from the attic, and leaf through his pages one by one. His scrawl was a challenge, and I sometimes needed a magnifying glass to examine the tangle of feral words to tease the meaning forth. But overall, I began to see four elements in his practice that worked together in a way both sternly practical and somewhat mystical. 

         I want to start my book about writing for happiness by considering what my father’s daily writing pages contained, and how they worked for him — and how something like his approach might work for any of us who choose to give such daily writing practice a try. His pages, which are now housed in the William Stafford Archivesat Lewis & Clark College, exhibit a varying daily mixture of four prevailing elements:

 

1. Each page begins with the date. Is that even worth mentioning? Well, it turns out to be strangely helpful — in the act of writing, and of course for keeping track of the writings. “Once I write the date on a piece of paper,” he said once, “I know I'm okay. I have made it to my writing.” This is the “open sesame” move of the daily writing practice, for by jotting the date down on a page, you have accomplished the most difficult first step: you have shown up, staked your claim to a page, and you have begun. The pen is active before any wisdom is required, and you have stepped humbly into what William Stafford called “the realm where miracles happen.”

 

2. Then, often, the page would begin withsome prose notes from a recent experience, a few sentences about a connection with friends, an account of a dream. This short passage of “throwaway” writing, it turns out, is very important, as it keeps the pen moving and gets the mind sniffing along through ordinary experience. I call this stage “the boring prose.” You are beginning the act of writing without needing to write anything profound. You are writing before you seek to write well. No struggle, no effort, no heroic reach. Just writing. 

 

3. Then there will often be an “aphorism”— a freestanding sentence, an idea, a question, a note about a pattern he perceived, a puzzle. With the aphorism, as we call it in his pages, William Stafford would write a sentence that “lifted off” from daily experience to observe an emblem of thought, a truth, an idea, or a private joke. (“It still takes all kinds to make a world, but there is an oversupply of some.”) This provisional understanding from daily life begins to raise the writer’s attention out of the mundane into the gently miraculous realm of poetry. It is your own koan.

         The aphorisms in William Stafford's daily writing rarely become part of the poem to follow (though a few of his poems are built from a series of such lines). Most often, they are little wonders left to resonate as private treasure, threshold, key. A bell has been struck, bringing the writer to attention.

 

4. Then he would write something like a poem... or notes toward a poem... or just an exploratory set of lines that never became a poem. But he had taken a few steps up the ladder from silence in the general direction of song.

 

To write the date, some prose, an idea, and then poetic lines beyond prose — this can begin a process for distilling from ordinary experience the extraordinary report of literature. For once your fill this page, this day, again, you have given yourself a chance to discover worthy things. Nothing stupendous may occur ... but if you do not bring yourself to this point, nothing stupendous will happen for sure ... and you are likely to spend the balance of your day in reaction to the imperatives of the outer world — worn down, buffeted, diminished, martyred.

         William Stafford’s use of these four elements is capricious. Many pages, especially in his later years, show only the date followed by a poem. Or the date, and a note about family, or his work. But over time, his long practice speeded the process, and the poems began to flow forth. And even in his early years, he can sometime go many days without preliminary prose, or an aphorism—or he can jot a series of aphorisms as if he has been saving them to record in a rush. 

 

         Most of us do an assignment shortly before it is due. (That's often true for me.) It's better to begin the project when it's first assigned, not when it's due. And, I realize, again and again, it's even better to practice self-directed searching, writing, thinking on the page — when there is no assignment given, except by yourself (or this book!). This empowers the free range of mind, of “hands-on thinking.” By something like this daily practice, you build up a personal sheaf of riches, a democracy of inner voices, an archive you can draw from as needed for work and pleasure over time.

         A writer in class once said to me, “You give us a deadline for our writing. But who gives youa deadline?” A terrible sentence came to my mind: “Death is my deadline.” There are myriad latent discoveries in me. Daily, I must bring them forth. For this reason, several years ago, I made a vow to perform this four-part practice every day, and now it’s been six years without a break. What works for me is to write first thing, before daylight. I’ve decided as the control group of one for this experience to enlist all four elements each day—the date, of course. And then there is always something to scribble about from the day before—the boring prose. And then—what now seems an essential element in the process—the aphorism. To wait for a thought, which always appears, given time and welcome, is the prelude to true practice for me. The aphorism is the hinge that begins to turn memory to thought, event to idea, scribbling to design. Then a poem, something like a poem, notes for a poem.

         This four-step process on the page became a more mysterious form of beckoning when I learned an idea from Buddhism while traveling in Bhutan. Each place, I was told—each experience, each person, each dream, text, or encounter—may offer four ways of knowing: 

 

         the visible

         the invisible

         the secret

         the deeply secret

 

So there it is again: the date—visible. A scribbled memory from the day before— the invisible, but palpable. The thought—a secret episode of the Buddhist “unborn.” And then ... then whatever mystery may come next, a secret so deep it will not appear unless you use something like this process to welcome what you didn’t know until you do.

         And later I came upon another way to look at this four-part structure. I read that after the difficult and often violent end of apartheid in South Africa, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission organized by Bishop Tutu and others took on the task of healing the country, in their deliberations they recognized their almost impossible process could be assisted by four kinds of truth:

         

1. Forensic truth (“This is what happened.”): What events occurred, what actually happened 

in as much detail as possible, who were the witnesses, what was the police report, interview transcripts, the coroner’s report, are there photographs or documents or other forms of objective truth available?

2. Personal truth (“This is what happened to me.”): What first-person accounts of what happened can be entered into the record?

3. Community truth (“This is what happened to us.”): Given the forensic facts, and an array of personal accounts, what can we say happened to the community as a whole?

4. Healing truth (“This is what we tell, or sing, or do to heal ourselves, our community, and our nation.”): By honoring facts, individuals, and the whole community, can we gather around an account that provides a way forward together?

 

After reading this account, when I next looked at my daily writing page, I saw the parallels:

 

         1. The date is forensic truth: the fact that today has come. Everyone agrees this is today.

         2. The “boring prose” is the personal truth: this is what happened to me recently,

                     occurred to me in mind, in dream, in what I fear, seek, or wonder.

         3. The aphorism is the community truth: beyond my own experience, is there a

                     pattern or idea about life that could useful to all of us, that’s about “us.”

         4. And part four, a poem or story or whatever comes next on the daily writing page has

                     at least the potential to be something that can help the self and others to heal, to

                     learn, to grow.

 

I don’t want to get too grand about this process, but the parallels intrigue me.

         As I tell my fellow writers, if you follow this four-step process, or something like it, you may not compose something of lasting value every day — but it will be a better day! It will be a day that begins with your own appointment with silence, with attention, with welcome to the self and to words. Something like this structure can lift your writing into a realm of episodic discovery reaching beyond a simple journal or diary, worthy as those habits can be. Gradually, inexorably, you will accumulate riches to return to, an archive of discrete beginnings to nurture on the path of your devotions.

         Based on the legacy of William Stafford, as explored further in my own practice, I offer this four-part daily writing ritual as a kind of hands-on meditation. And I propose to you a week, a month--a year of daily exploration founded in this process of the daily page. What would it be like to experience the kind of sustained and sustaining life of writing you have long imagined?

____________________________________________________

Here is a sample 4-part daily writing page (see the finished poem on the

     "Pandemic Poems" page):

 

 

Kim Stafford workshops…              

 

 

 

 2020-2021

                                    

Kim Stafford online generative writing workshops

July 2020 to February 2021

 

 

 

Citizen Poems: Writing Poetry for the Human Project

“The more I write poems,” said Elizabeth Woody, “the less it’s about what the poem is, and more about who the poem serves.” Writing can be a habit that enriches the individual life, and publishing can bring this enrichment to others, and perhaps lead to money and fame. Or—writing and sharing work composed as a gift of advocacy for your heroes, for places, and for communities—this form of creative devotion could be your true vocation. In this workshop, open to writers at all stages of experience, we will explore the notion of “citizen poems,” which are written not abouta subject, but fora person, a place, a cause, a community. We will practice writing little anthems, manifestoes, and blessings.

 

hosted by Willamette Writers / one-day class / Thursday, July 30, 9:30am-3:30pm

http://www.cvent.com/events/willamette-writers-conference-2020/agenda-0a4de8b63fbb4c0798aec2a2a9eb0805.aspx#tabs-1

(third workshop listed)

                                                                                                                                                

 

 

Earth Verse

When trouble comes in the human world, there may be a little story from the wild that can offer consolation. From the Gnomic Versesin Old English, to the Tao te Ching, and the writings of Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, and Mary Oliver, we have cherished lyric remedies speaking the language of earth for human comfort. In this workshop, we will harvest close observations from the Playa landscape and compose an archive of consolations for use as our need comes.

 

hosted by Playa at Summer Lake / Saturday-Sunday, August 1-2, 9am-3pm

Details here soon:

https://playasummerlake.org/playa-events/

                                                                                                                                                

 

 

Pandemic Diary for Earth

In the Corona Virus era, someone said, It's as if Earth has sent us to our rooms to think about what we've done. Out of this time, how might our lives become more measured, local, and sustaining? In this online workshop, we'll write episodes of observation and thought about how this era of shelter in place might temper our frenzy, and turn us toward better ways to live. We'll compose poems, stories, letters, and other forms to offer lament, ways to savor the simpler life, and prophecy about where we might go from here as individuals, and as citizens of Earth.

 

hosted by Sitka Center for Art & Ecology, Saturday-Sunday / August 8-9, 10am-4pm

Details here soon:

https://www.sitkacenter.org/workshop/workshopslist

                                                                                                                                                

 

Pandemic Poems for Lament, Solace, & Testimony

This is a one-day generative poetry workshop. Drawing on short readings from writers who have addressed pandemics—Giovanni Boccaccio, Daniel Defoe, Albert Camus, and writers addressing our predicament now—we will write poems to report personal experience, interrogate the public narrative, honor what’s lost, and celebrate what’s been clarified. The pandemic has hit the re-set button on our individual lives, our communities and our nation. Pandemic poems can re-frame what we now know we need, don’t need, and must envision. 

 

hosted by Richard Hugo House / date TBA (one day workshop)

Details here soon:

https://hugohouse.org/classes/course-catalog/

                                                                                                                                                

 

Courage to Lead through Writing: We Begin a Better Nation through Writing

Join us for a virtual Courage to Lead retreat designed to offer participants the time and space to reflect on the complex, challenging, and changing dimensions of leadership, rooted in the belief that effective leadership flows from the identity and integrity of the individual. Empower and deepen your leadership during these challenging times by using writing as a tool for learning and leading.

 

hosted by Lewis & Clark College, Thursday 4pm – Saturday at noon / October 1-3

https://graduate.lclark.edu/live/events/310346-online-we-begin-a-better-nation-whats-next-a

                                                                                                                                                

 

 

Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford

In a time when wars don’t stop, when pandemic strikes, jobs end, climate shifts, and life needs constant reinvention, your daily writing practice can be a way to navigate change and sustain the spirit.

     Inspired by the 50-year writing practice of William Stafford, this online workshop will include reading of classic poems and responding to writing prompts designed to deepen your own process for creation.

     We will delve into sources for starting, ways of revising, responding to work in progress, and sending forth our testimony to a world hungry for meaning. Open to all levels of experience.

     The class will utilize the online platform Zoom, with each of the two days designed as a series of conversations, writing prompts, solo writing time, then sharing and discussion.

 

hosted by Lewis & Clark College, Saturday-Sunday, December  5-6, 9am-5pm

https://graduate.lclark.edu/live/events/312810-online-daily-writing-in-the-spirit-of-william

                                                                                                                                                

 

 

Oregon Writing Project: Poems for a Better Nation

In these days of frenzy and confusion, some bit of news, a scrap of story, a friend’s question, or some other morsel of language from the world may long to become a song, a poem, half a poem—may long to catch something mysterious about this life. A footnote to the inexpressible.

     In this online Oregon Writing Project course, we will celebrate the winsome habit of poetry to turn small discoveries into the half-page where we say much in a few words.

We’ll read lively texts, start many lyric experiments, and talk along the way about how to use this quirky and welcoming writing practice to calm the self, and to explore with students and share with friends.

     No previous experience is necessary for participation in this course, which is open to all teachers and writers. The class will utilize the online platform Zoom, with each of the two days designed to develop a learning community through a series of conversations, writing prompts, solo writing time, then sharing and discussion.

 

hosted by Lewis & Clark College, Saturday-Sunday, February 20-21, 9am-5pm

https://graduate.lclark.edu/live/events/313370-online-poetry-writing-poems-for-a-better-nation

 

 

 

Later in 2021              

                                      

January or February, week-long Writing Retreat in Guanajuato, Mexico

TBA but UNLIKELY

February 11-14, 2021 (tentative date), Writing Retreat at Santa Sabina, San Rafael, California

https://www.santasabinacenter.org/retreats-page

TBA

April 21-30, 2021, week-long Writing Retreat in Ireland

TBA but UNLIKELY

 

May 2021,  week-long Writing Retreat in Assisi, Italy

TBA but UNLIKELY