Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Writing with William Stafford

A few entries back, I introduced a poem by William Stafford. He has greatly influenced me--not only through his beautifully unique and strong poetry, but also through his philosophy of writing, which was full of generosity and wonder. I think he has an extremely insightful understanding of our spiritual nature and how we can become more open to God's voice. I'd like to tell you a little about him here, with some quotes taken from his book, Crossing Unmarked Snow. The highlights are (obviously) mine. You can read more of his wonderful poetry at

Stafford was born in 1914 in Hutchinson, Kansas. He attended the University of Kansas, and took active part in the early struggles of what would later be the Civil Rights movement. He was drafted in 1940, and served as a conscientious objector throughout the war (in work camps in Illinois, Arkansas and California). During this time, Stafford began a life-long discipline of rising very early to write for several hours every morning, and he wrote many poems during this time. He said everyone can be free around four in the morning.

He often talked about his writing process, which he claimed to value above any one poem he produced. He said that in those early writing sessions, his practice was to write whatever occurred to him, whatever located him.

As one interviewer put it, his writing process was one of “extreme receptivity,” which Stafford said acted as “a defense against being stampeded by the current, intentional engagement with what other people think is important. It’s very subjective, but it is the kind of subjectivity that makes you available for what is (making) a valid, actual, individual impression on a human being: yourself. I’m afraid that getting published has often pushed me toward trying to repeat what has succeeded, and I don’t want to do that. I want to stay as trusting and innocent as I was when I first started to write…”

A hunger to be “lost” often comes up in his poems. He spoke about that desire to be lost in his writing process: “…if you’re lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide to what comes next. None of us knows what comes the next second. We manage to survive in our lives by staying inside the bubble of our assumed self-sufficiency. That’s nice, cozy—but as a writer, as a thinker, as maybe a mediator, I have a sense of being in a set of circumstances that’s much more wilderness than most people assume.”

After the war, he continued his education and began teaching, finally setting at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon in 1956. He didn’t believe in overtly complimenting or criticizing students’ writings. He preferred to tell them where he “was with them,” and where he hadn't been able to follow them. He wanted the goal to be locating the self, not writing for praise.

I feel trapped in a society, and in a school system, that persuades individuals that all their activities are goal-oriented towards some goal that doesn’t have anything to do with how they feel. In the arts it has to do with how you feel. So trust what occurs to you. And you’ve just got to do that. If somebody else doesn’t like it that way, you can make it the way they like it if you want to, but it won’t be art.”

He was stubbornly non-elitist in his ideas of education and writing, and claimed not to be overly concerned with the quality of any of his own poems.

What is quality? It depends on where you stand, whether you feel you’re limited or not. I feel I’m limited. I feel other people are limited. This idea, whatever standard American writers have reached is estimable and other standards are not, is a relative matter. In a way, I could say I’m not that ambitious, but another way I could put it is I’m a lot more ambitious than that. I don’t want to reach the standard that American poetry has reached. Nothing less than everything, that’s what I would like to find by keeping going. The idea that you could cut back a little bit and thus be esteemed is not as important to me as if you could keep on being headlong, you might get beyond being esteemed. I’d like that. So maybe I’m more ambitious. God has got bigger plans than the standards of American poetry, no matter what those standards are.”

I’m suspicious of the ability of any fallible human being to erect some kind of standard and say, this is it. The realm of possibility is more glorious than that--…the closing in on some kind of hierarchy is a function of the limitedness of the judges more than it is the quality of the work….”

“For me writing is invading that area of “what am I missing?” rather than “Does this reach a standard?” You live your life by the feeling of satisfaction a day at a time. Those who try to say, well, at least, no matter how grim this makes you feel to do this drudgery writing …. at least you have your accomplishment in the end. I don’t feel that way at all. I feel the other way around. At least you have pleasant days. You have good feelings about your life. As far as what I’ve accomplished, I don’t know.”

Stafford's first volume of poetry was published in 1960, and his second volume, Traveling Through the Dark received the National Book Award in 1962. He wrote poems steadily the rest of his life. He died in 1993.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Favorite Poem of Mine

This is one of my favorite poems, by William Stafford. My own attempts at a reflection follow.

Saint Matthew and All

Lorene--we thought she'd come home. But
it got late, and then days. Now
it has been years. Why shouldn't she,
if she wanted? I would: something comes
along, a sunny day, you start walking:
you meet a person who says, "Follow me,"
and things lead on.

Usually, it wouldn't happen, but sometimes
the neighbors notice your car is gone, the
patch of oil in the driveway, and it fades.
They forget.

In the Bible it happened--fishermen, Levites.
They just went away and kept going. Thomas,
away off in India, never came back.

But Lorene--it was a stranger maybe, and he
said, "Your life, I need it." And nobody else did.

The first time I read this poem, I re-read it and re-read it. I consumed these words. I thought I'd never encountered a poem like this before. It was so simple. The language so straightforward and unadorned. It almost wasn't a poem. There was something subversive about it, I thought. But of course, it is very lyrical, and there is a beautiful, if subtle, use of sound.

Nevertheless, the borderline subversive, mysterious, almost dangerous quality remains. Stafford is telling the story of a small community and one woman who isn't there any more. She's gone. We thought she'd come back, but there's only a faded patch of oil in the driveway. Who couldn't be a bit disturbed by the unexpected, by the disruption of order like that.

And at the same time, Stafford is so generous, without judgment. "Why shouldn't she, if she wanted. I would...."

But when he compares her leaving to the decision of the disciples of Jesus to follow him.... I started to feel for the first time the depth of how disruptive and disturbing this could be to a community, even how disturbing this was to those staid and rigid parts of me.

Finally those last lines, "It was a stranger maybe, and he said, 'Your life, I need it,' and nobody else did," have communicated more to me about the transcendent freedom of each life than any other words I have ever encountered. I feel sure that although Stafford might not know the implications of what he wrote, he knew that a life was freer and more glorious than any other witness can recognize. And when I read those lines, I knew that too, and I knew that Jesus knew that truth even better. I felt a little part of me come alive and say, 'Yes,' I too have a true life, beyond any "role," in any community, and this is the life that Jesus is asking for.

I'm still amazed that a few plain spoken lines about an absent, "unimportant" woman in a small town can bring that kind of transforming power, but I witness that they can. I think that is subversive, and I long for more of that dangerous power.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Spiritual Formation and Making Art

I've grown a lot more self-conscious about this blog and its place on the church web site, especially since the church's creative writers group is currently out of commission. A little tune from Sesame Street often comes into my head: "One of these blogs is not like the of these blogs just doesn't belong..."

Ultimately, the blog may not belong on this site. But I have deeply appreciated how the church has taken some rather unconventional steps to embrace and encourage the arts, including creative writing. I know there are many beautiful reasons for this, including a core belief that God delights in the creativity and self-expression of his children. I also think the church believes that the making of art is another path, another spiritual discipline that God often uses in the formation of our souls.

I thought a lot about how creative writing can lead us a bit towards the Kingdom of God while I was preparing to teach in the Arts Camp this summer. I'd like to share some of those thoughts here.

Usually, I hate to articulate the purposes and usefulness of a thing. This is simply because of some badly formed areas in me that tend to be rather uninterested in things that are "good for me," or come with some other kind of claim. Also, I feel like I barely have a grasp on what spiritual formation means, and so trying to say anything meaningful on this topic just seems riduculously presumptive. Please read what I say with this in mind. Most of all, I believe we write or make any other art because we want to. I also believe we pray because we want to. And we love others for the same reason. But I might be wrong about all that. Anyway, like I said, this blog might not belong. But here are my fairly rough thoughts. They are all quite related, and may be restating one another again and again. Do you have anything to add (or subtract)?

1) Creative Writing (and other art making) puts us in touch with our Self. I have most learned this from the poet William Stafford, and I intend to write more about him later. But I think this is a major gift of art making. I am tending toward a belief that real art is only made by free selves. Not for any secondary purpose but to express a self. It is a place to acknowledge the fact of our existence as a self that God has chosen for his universe of existence.

2) It also puts us in touch with the moment, with the Now. That's where poetry and other art comes from. And this is also, I've been told, where God meets us.

3) As we make art, we become more attentive to the world God has made, to ourselves, to others, and hopefully, through all of this attentiveness, to the eternal God himself. I think we start with how we see the world and this moment around us. That is enough work to last me for the rest of my life, I believe.

4) Making art allows us to live in wonder. When we let ourselves be surprised, astonished, delighted or appalled by the real, I think perhaps we let ourselves get a little closer to listening to God. (maybe I'm wrong).

5) I have found that for all of the reasons I've listed above, and more, making art has drawn me into a deeper connection with other people. I can see more of the beauty of their stories and of their selves. Writing has become another way for me to attend to others, which is one small way to love.

6) Perhaps I could say that making art also makes me a little more discerning about what is true and what is beautiful and lovely.

I think there must be other ways that making art and creative writing in particular can be a gracious tool in our spiritual formation. Do you have anything to add?

I also suppose that there are some pitfalls, some sins and blindspots that art making could encourage. Maybe I'll think about that and do another blog.

Regardless, it would be a pleasure to hear from any other artists about what you have discovered about the intersection of art and spiritual formation.

---Jenny Jiang