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 process was 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 meets 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 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):