Monday, September 15, 2014

Faculty Voices with Jackie Briggs Martin: William Stafford Sitting in My Straw Bale Garden

Straw bale garden in June
It's interesting, curious, how these Inkpot blogs seem to be related, though they come from different writers, located all over the world. We want to write about what keeps us from writing. Recently Laura Ruby has written  a wonderful blog about losing heart. Vanessa Harvey has written movingly about the difficulty of finding time. And I want to look at the fear of not being good enough.

straw bale garden in September (note tomatoes)
I have a gardening failure this summer—my straw bale gardens. I wanted to try growing vegetables in straw bales to see if people who did not have good dirt would be able to use straw bales on top of the questionable soil in their yards. 

So I bought some straw bales, set them down in the back of my garden, did the prep steps, and popped in some pepper plants.

What happened was that the tomatoes I planted in front of them grew so tall that my straw bale gardens were in deep shade all summer.  I have, so far, harvested two peppers from these straw bale gardens.

But I did learn some things. Next summer I’ll put the straw bales in a different spot, where I’m sure they’ll get good sun all summer. I won’t plant a tall plant like snap dragons on the sides (what was I thinking?!?) and I’ll probably pay more attention to the straw bales, check in with them once in a while. It wasn’t that easy to get back to those straw bales once the tomatoes took over. 

This failure doesn’t seem to bother me. I see gardening as process. Every failure is a learning opportunity.

Why is that attitude so easy with gardening and so difficult with writing? Why do I want it to be perfect as it comes out of the pen?  And why is it so easy to think what I am writing doesn’t really matter, that it's trivial, not connecting with anything important.

Sometimes the universe gives us what we need. On a whim, I pulled a book of essays off the shelf called Creativity and the Writing Process (eds. Olivia Bertagnolli and Jeff Rackham; 1982) and it fell open to a piece by William Stafford, who begans his writing day by getting up early. And then he got out paper and pen.
To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs…If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come and I am off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started….And if I let them string out things will happen.

If I let them string out. …Along with initial receptivity, then, there must be another readiness: I must be willing to fail. If I am to keep writing I cannot bother to insist on high standards…I am thinking about such matters as social significance, positive values, consistency, etc. I resolutely disregard these….So receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes.

There is the rub. The willingness to fail, the resolve to keep writing in the face of doubt. It sounds easy enough not to worry about significance, values, consistency, worthiness. But in fact those are the questions lurking in our pencil holders, under the notebooks, behind the printer. 

William Stafford is not saying we should accept without revision these first spinnings onto the page, but that we should let them be the beginning, not wait for perfect, or  powerful, just take what comes, trust that something will come and work with it. Stafford also believes that not all of what comes will "amount to much....I launch many expendable efforts."

I recall another saying from William Stafford. When asked what he does when he runs into writers block, he replied, “I lower the bar.”  The trick is to keep writing and something comes. “Something always occurs…and things will happen.” 

The only real failure in gardening might be not to plant the seeds.  On my best days, with the help of William Stafford, I think there are no failures in writing: whatever we do, whatever happens, whatever flops or sloppiness, if we work long enough, hard enough, well enough, we can make a story out of it.


  1. Thank you for this lovely post, Jackie. It will get me to my keyboard today. And maybe even tomorrow. And that, my friend, is something I have to be grateful for.

    1. I'm glad too, Swati, when you go to your keyboard. Anyone who loves good stories is glad.

  2. Thanks for this, Jackie. It's about a willingness to fail, but also a willingness to be patient. We're in a hurry just to get something DONE.

  3. This has been happening to me too. I enjoy the free writing stage until the doubts creep in and I wonder if my work is relevant, or strange, or distorted in some way. I even took a few days off to give my work some space. But of course, being an artist first (and believing that if you know one thing well enough you can learn another in the same way) I see these free flowing drafts as just like art sketches. When I was an art teacher I pounded the motto "do not erase" into my students as much as possible. I always said. You need to have that line in the wrong place in order to find the right line. Without it, you won't find it. I guess I think you have to have a mistake first, in order to find out what you even intended. So I'm leaving my bad wonderfully fun free writing down on the page in hopes that when I do go back, I will find I was very very close, just need to move slightly in one or two places to find my line. I'm beginning to realize that writing has so many stages, and you use different muscles for each one.

  4. What a beautiful post, Jackie. I have been up in Alaska with family, seeing old friends. One of our family friends is working on her doctoral dissertation on arctic indigenous plants and we talked about the need to write with trust, no matter what the day brings. I just sent her your link. It will be the perfect inspiration.