This year we celebrate the centennial of William Stafford's birth — in Hutchinson, Kansas, 1914. He started in the Midwest but published 59 of his 60 books in Oregon (not to mention the dozen published since his passing in 1993). When people would ask him, "Bill, when is your next book coming out?" he would often answer, "Which one?"
How did he do that? Well, the answer is very simple and lavishly inviting: he wrote something every day for 40 years, and his books were made from about one day's writing out of eight that he found worthy.
In this little remembrance of him, I want to consider what those daily writing pages contained, and how they worked for him — and how something like his approach might work for any of us who chose to give such daily writing practice a chance.
His pages, which are now housed in the William Stafford Archives at Lewis & Clark College, exhibit a varying daily mixture of four prevailing elements:
1. Each page includes the date of the writing. 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," William Stafford said, "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, 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. Some prose notes from a recent experience, a few sentences about a recent 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. You are beginning the act of writing without needing to write anything profound. No struggle, no effort, no heroic reach. Just writing. (As he says in his classic statement, "A Way of Writing," "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.")
3. An "aphorism" — a freestanding sentence, an idea, a question, a puzzle. Often, William Stafford would next write a sentence that "lifted off" from daily experience to observe a pattern, 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 your attention out of the mundane into the gently miraculous realm of poetry. It is your own koan. These aphorisms in William Stafford's daily writing rarely become part of poems (though some 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. To write in poetic lines, rather than prose — this can begin a process for distilling from ordinary experience the extraordinary report of literature. For this day, again, you give 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 will spend the balance of your day in blind reaction to the imperatives of the outer world — worn down, buffeted, diminished, martyred.
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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. 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.
My students once said to me, "You give us a deadline for our writing. Who gives you a 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. So, for this William Stafford Centennial year, I am trying this four-part practice every day. And I have to tell you, I carry a private satisfaction into each day's struggle.
This was my father's way, each day, for the long run of his adult life. What I tell my students about daily practice is this: You may not consistently compose something of lasting value — but it will be a better day! Something like this structure may lift your journal-keeping into a realm of episodic discovery reaching beyond your days. Gradually, inexorably, you will accumulate riches to return to, an archive of discrete beginnings to nurture on the path of your devotions.
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Books by and about William Stafford published in this centennial year:
Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, by William Stafford, edited by Kim Stafford (Graywolf Press).
The Osage Orange Tree: A Story by William Stafford, with illustrations by Dennis Cunningham, edited by Kim Stafford (Trinity University Press).
Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems, by William Stafford, ed. Paul Merchant & Vincent Wixon (University of Pittsburgh Press).
We Belong in History: Writing with William Stafford (Ooligan Press).
A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, ed. Rebecca Lachman (Woodley Press).
Everyone Out Here Knows: A Big Foot Tale, ed. Tim Barnes, illus. Angelina Marino-Heidel (Arnica Publications).
William Stafford: An Annotated Bibliography, ed. James Pirie, et. al. (Oak Knoll Press).
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Join Kim Stafford and friends at Powell's City of Books on Wednesday, April 23, for an event in honor of William Stafford's 100th birthday. Click here for details.
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Kim Stafford is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, and author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared. He is the editor of Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford.
Books mentioned in this post
Kim Stafford is the author of Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford