A Tao of Writing

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Book Report

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

“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.”

—William Stafford

In his smart and insightful collection, Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation, William Stafford has the briefest of essays that always has something to say to me. Originally published in the second issue of the the-then-fledgling FIELD in Spring 1970, it’s called “A Way of Writing.”

Lately I’ve come to think of it as my own 21st century Lao Tzu, a simple gathering of a fairly small number of paragraphs that can swiftly reassure. Whenever I find myself doubting my poetry process, doubting the words I choose to speak my voice to the world, I remember to dip back into this collection and, in no time, all is OK in both how I approach the work and the word.

I wonder if, from time to time, all of us who write need to be reminded just how important receptivity is to any creative work. Using his own writing life as example, Stafford reminds us to open and accepting of any and every “nibble” that inevitably comes when you sit down for a stretch of hopefully uninterrupted time with the intention of courting words. Because, in his words, “something always occurs…to any of us. We can’t keep from thinking.”

There is another “readiness” that goes along with this receptivity: being willing to fail. And being willing to fail just might mean that we then take risks, we let ourselves follow our thoughts, our amazingly untamed minds, our words as channeled through our scribbling or typing hands into perhaps crazily original, yet-uncharted territories.

Which leads to another Stafford truism—make no judgment when you are first doing the work as to the significance or value of what you are writing. The time for judging is later, after your creative discoveries have been made.  Stafford believes that those discoveries may not have much to do with one’s skills but rather to a deep, mysterious connection with the process whereby “I do not know what I am going to say and then I find out what I am going to say”—straightforward as that. Indeed, in his view,  “a writer is one who has become accustomed to trusting that grace, or luck, or—skill.”

Finally—and again, this is all in barely four pages—Stafford leaves us with two other insights from his “process-rather-than-substance” perspective on writers and writing.

First, he offers a reminder that, of course, nearly all of us possess the skills of language. And that, in this regard, writers may not necessarily be special or more talented and gifted than everyone else who speaks and writes and reads.

What is it then that writers actually do that is different, that allows them to make art from our commonly shared reservoir of language, of words? For Stafford, it all swims back to a sustained engagement with language—anything created “comes about through confident reliance on stray impulses that will, with trust, find occasional patterns that are satisfying.”

And the second, even more elegant, simple, and to my way of thinking, decidedly profound insight: that “writing itself [remains] one of the great, free human activities” one that offers ample room for “individuality, and elation, and discovery…Working back and forth  between experience and thought…writers have the whole  unexplored realm of human vision.” So we wait. We listen. We dream. We wade. We practice laps. We test the waters. We venture into the depths. We skim the surface, and we dive. We keep some, toss back others. We are always willing to fail. And we are always willing to trust, and to forgive. That’s when we know we’re on the way.

Nancy Flynn
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