"A Way of Writing"

by William Stafford

From "The Book of Urizen," Wm. Blake

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. That is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity
that brings to him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays, laws,
philosophies, religions, or--but wait!

Back in school, from the first when I began to try to write things, I felt this richness. One
thing would lead to another; the world would give and give. Now, after twenty years or so
of trying, I live by that certain richness, an idea hard to pin, difficult to say, and perhaps
offensive to some. For there are strange implications in it.

One implication is the importance of just plain receptivity. When I write, I like to have an
interval before me when I am not likely to be interrupted. For me, this means usually the early
morning, before others are awake. I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window
(often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there
is always a nibble--and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything
that occurs to me. Something always occurs, of course, to any of us. We can't keep from
thinking. Maybe I have to settle for an immediate impression: it's cold, or hot, or dark, or
bright, or in between! Or well, the possibilities are endless. If I put down something, that
thing will help the next thing come, and I'm off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to
me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be,
are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen.

If I let them string out.... Along with initial receptivity, then, there is another readiness:
I must be willing to fail. If I am to keep on writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards.
I must get into action and not let anything stop me, or even slow me much. By "standards"
I do not mean "correctness" spelling, punctuation, and so on. These details become mechanical
for anyone who writes for a while. I am thinking about such matters as social significance,
positive values, consistency, etc.... I resolutely disregard these. Something better, greater,
is happening! I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory
that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on. I am
making something new, something that has not been judged before. Later others--and maybe
I myself--will make judgments. Now, I am headlong to discover. Any distraction may
harm the creating.

So, receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom
comes. If something occurs to me, it is all right to accept it. It has one justification: it occurs
to me. No one else can guide me. I must follow my own weak, wandering, diffident impulses.

A strange bonus happens. At times, without my insisting on it, my writings become
coherent; the successive elements that occur to me are clearly related. They lead by themselves
to new connections. Sometimes the language, even the syllables that happen along, may
start a trend. Sometimes the materials alert me to something waiting in my mind, ready for
sustained attention. At such times, I allow myself to be eloquent, or intentional, or for great
swoops (Treacherous! Not to be trusted!) reasonable. But I do not insist on any of that;
for I know that back of my activity there will be the coherence of my self, and that
indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again.

This attitude toward the process of writing creatively suggests a problem for me, in terms
of what others say. They talk about "skills" in writing. Without denying that I do have
experience, wide reading, automatic orthodoxies and maneuvers of various kinds, I still must
insist that I am often baffled about what "skill" has to do with the precious little area of
confusion when I do not know what I am going to say and then I find out what I am going to
say. That precious interval I am unable to bridge by skill. What can I witness about it? It
remains mysterious, just as all of us must feel puzzled about how we are so inventive as to be
able to talk along through complexities with our friends, not needing to plan what we are going
to say, but never stalled for long in our confident forward progress. Skill? If so, it is the skill
we all have, something we must have learned before the age of three or four.

A writer is one who has become accustomed to trusting that grace, or luck, or--skill.

Yet another attitude I find necessary: most of what I write, like most of what I say in casual
conversation, will not amount to much. Even I will realize, and even at the time, that it is not
negotiable. It will be like practice. In conversation I allow myself random remarks--in fact,
as I recall, that is the way I learned to talk--so in writing I launch many expendable efforts.
A result of this free way of writing is that I am not writing for others, mostly; they will not see
the product at all unless the activity eventuates in something that later appears to be worthy.
My guide is the self, and its adventuring in the language brings about communication.

This process-rather-than-substance view of writing invites a final, dual reflection:

  1. Writers may not be special or talented in any usual sense.
    They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all
    have. Their "creations" come about through confident reliance on
    stray impulses that will, with trust, find occasional patterns that are

  2. But writing itself is one of the great, free human activities.
    There is scope for individuality, and elation, and discovery, in
    writing. For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what
    occurs to him, the world remains always ready and deep, an
    inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an
    actuality and flexibility of a dream. Working back and forth between
    experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can
    offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision.


Back to Essays, Issues, Poetics