Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kim Stafford's Muses

It's becoming increasingly obvious that I'm unable to manage writing about each book I read, as I'd hoped when I began this blog, and managed up until this year. The choice of stopping the blog, though, is unacceptable to me for now, so I'm going to compromise by posting a year-end record of the year's reading -- I keep an ongoing Draft Post, so that will be easily done. And whenever I can manage it, I'll say a few words about the titles that so move me, even if it's just telling you about some mystery novels I think are worth your time.  I also find the blog a very useful place to plunk down quotations that I want to keep track of, so I'll continue transcribing passages here from time to time.

In that spirit, I'll tell you that I very much enjoyed the essays that Kim Stafford wrote and collected in The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft. I've wanted to read this collection ever since I came across a wonderful phrase of his in Laurie Ricou's Salal (or was it in Arbutus/Madrone? -- I'll have to check that!): Coherence is born of random abundance.

Stafford describes the palm/pocket-sized notebooks he folds and stitches together to record the abundance around him. As he says, his "life of writing is rooted in the fragment. And the tiny notebook is [his] tool" -- I was on page 31 when I found the paragraph I'd been reading for:
Coherence is born of random abundance. Memory begins by releasing my attention from the official task at hand. The palm-sized book folded open is where every piece of my writing has its beginning. Some twinkle in the language around me makes me raise my head, listen close, and jot.(31) And two pages later: This kind of collection makes me realize how life is a universe of fragments yearning for coherence. (33)

By then, of course, I was hooked, and read the slim book greedily, savouring essay after essay, finding such gems as We live a sequence of limited sensations threaded by time into a longer curve of developing experience. This is why we are required to honor small moments of learning, to have faith in fragments, and over time to quilt our solitudes into whole structures. I can't tell you how much I appreciate the notion of having faith in fragments. (45)

He quotes himself, at a writing workshop, telling students that Confusion is a rich source. . . You can write from that, if you pay close attention, coax a speaking voice out from the snarl of it. Really good sorrow has served me well sometimes, I said. They looked at me. (53)

And this really resonates with me, as a teacher: Speaking of preparing for a class by stepping back a bit, allowing the lesson to unfold rather than scripting it too carefully, Stafford says, this approach to teaching is the educational equivalent of what Ishiguro was talking about [He's quoted Kazuo Ishiguro speaking about "the 'vacuum' surrounding certain fictional characters [who] are defined by what they don't say, what they don't do]. Maybe the vacuum surrounding the teacher's intention becomes the opportunity for students telling stories to each other--the deepest source of learning.
"How long did it take you to prepare for class?"
"All my life." (75)

If you're looking for inspiration for your own writing, or simply want to spend some time with a writer who shares the profound connections he makes between life and writing, this slim book of essays is a lovely choice. Have you read it? Or any of Stafford's other writing?

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