From the Essay "Soul Food"
by William Stafford
in "Crossing Unmarked Snow:
Further Views on the Writer's Vocation"
(University of Michigan Press)
"We writers try to help each other, sometimes.
But there is a catch in this generosity:
if you begin to rely only on what others say
about your work, you may become like a compass
that listens to the hunches of the pilot.
You may be good company, but you are useless
as a compass--a writer, I mean.
So, when we meet, say at a conference or workshop,
we look each other in the eye with an estimate
hovering between us. We know that our kind of
activity has some complexities not evident to others,
and we wonder if those complexities will be recognized
in any interchanges about our craft.
We know that our work is insufficiently judged
if much time is given over to assessing the topics
of our work. We know that a critic who discusses
whether we talk enough about Nicaragua or not,
or human rights or not, or the general topic of enlightenment
or not, is missing the mark.
We know that there is something supremely important
in the creating of a story or poem that all too often
will escape the attention of an outsider trying to assess it.
We must have an inner guide that allows us to rove forward
throughout the most immediate impulses that come our way.
For us, our whole lives are our research; and caught up
by our best subjects we become not just an expert,
but the only expert there is.
We have to be the sole authority for what comes toward us,
where we are, with our unique angle of seeing.
If the most significant writing comes from this inner guidance,
who will help you find it? Would it be someone who interposes
the considerations of the marketplace
while the delicate time of discovery is going on?
Would it be the person who puts primary emphasis
on your imitation of forms and strategies?
Let me plead, not for ignoring advice
from wherever it comes, but for allowing in your own life
the freedom to pay attention to your feelings
while finding your way through language.
Besides that audience out there in the world,
there is some kind of ideal audience
that you have accumulated within your individual
consciousness--within your conscience!--
and abiding guidance is your compass,
one that constitutes what you have to contribute
to discourse with others.
Moving back and forth from the inner to the outer world
(it feels good)
might be the way to your best writing.
Into the unknown you must plunge, carrying your compass.
It points at something more distant than any local guidance.
You must make "mistakes"; that is, you must explore
what has not been mapped out for you.
Those mistakes come from somewhere; they are
disguised reports from a country so real
that no one has found it.
When you study that country, shivers
run down your back--what a wilderness out there!
What splendid stories flicker among those shadows!
You could wander forever.
Odd words keep occurring to you, pauses, side glances--
mysterious signals. What hidden prejudice
brought that next word into your mind?
If you hastily retreat to an expected progression,
what shadowy terrain might you be neglecting?
What revelations might you miss by any "expert" weaving
of another well-crafted story or poem?
Like Don Quixote on his unorthodox steed
you must loosen the reins and go blundering into adventures
that await any traveler in this multilevel world
that we too often make familiar by our careful threading
of its marked routes between accustomed places.
And like Don Quixote you must expect some disasters.
You must write your bad poems and stories;
for to write carefully as you rove forward is to
guarantee that you will not find the unknown,
the risky, the surprising.
Art is an activity in which the actual feel of doing it
must be your guide; hence the need for confidence, courage,
independence. And hence the need for guardedness
about learning too well the craft of doing it.
By following after money, publication, and recognition,
you might risk what happened to the John Cheever character
who in like manner "damaged, you might say,
the ear's innermost chamber where we hear the heavy noise
of the dragon's tail moving over the dead leaves."
Monday, May 18, 2009
From the Essay "Soul Food"