The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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The Breathings of Your Heart

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart – William Wordsworth

 

Someone remarked to me the other day that writing isn’t craft, it’s art. The commenter stated she isn’t a writer, but an avid reader who can tell when a writer has crafted the story, rather than allowed it to unfold.

This came in response to a discussion of a recently-published writing guide I had read, enjoyed and learned buckets from, though with a solid caveat emptor. There were elements to the guideopinions posited by the author as writing shoulds and muststhat made me twitch. At times it seemed I was reading the Starbucks business plan: no matter where you arebe it Seattle, Shanghai, Salamancathe store, the coffee and the service will be exactly the same. In other words, just stick to the blueprint for guaranteed success. Although I applaud Starbucks for its acumen, the coffee is unpalatable. And so it is with story.

Perhaps my fellow bibliophile was offering an antidote to the writing guide: respect the process of creation and value writing as an art form, not as a craft with a set of rules.

Yet, I disagree that writing is only art and not craft. Just as a photographer must know her camera and understand composition, a painter must know how to create perspective, understand human anatomy and mix paints on his palette, a dancer must spend hours at the barre or a pianist at the keyboard, practicing the same pieces over and over, so too must a writer understand and practice plot and structure, be proficient in grammar, and revise revise revise, becoming a better writer through the magic of hard work. Reading widely is a natural companion to writingI’m a voracious reader and can’t imagine my life without booksbut only by writing can a writer become a better writer.

And yet. My friend has a point. A very, very good one. It’s art über alles. But what is the art of writing? Hell if I know, I just got here. Ask that guy at the barhe looks like he knows the place.

Perhaps art is imagination or inspiration, perhaps it is an ear intrinsically attuned to the music of language. Perhaps it is the calling or compulsion to create. Art is passion. Passion for the subject, certainly, but more than that. It is passion for the act of writing, it is a helplessness that says “If I didn’t write, what else would I do?”

Art is beyond rules. It is emotion. It is the breathings of your heart. It is, as Richard Hugo so poignantly stated, the way of saying you and the world have a chance.

Perhaps craft is the ability to make art that people enjoy and/or find meaningful. It is the means by which we harness the heart just enough to put words and structure to our passion.

I have a small library’s worth of writing guides. I adore them, for it is like having a shelfful of mentors who are there when, and only when, you really need them. One in particular, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, gave me the courage to commit to the writing life; others provide motivation, inspiration, direction and enlightenment. But they are only guides. In the end, the writer must move forward on her own.

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. — Neil Gaiman

 

P.S.:

1) Butt in Chair.
2) Write Words.

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A matter of perspective

The Light That I Have: Reflections On A Winter Solstice

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Storm clouds over Elliott Bay, Seattle

You wouldn’t know looking around our small apartment that Christmas is but a few sleeps away. We’ve forgone our annual wet and windy visit to the Boy Scout Troop 100 Christmas Tree lot at St. Alphonsus Church across the street from Ballard Market. Although the stack of holiday greetings grows daily, the cards and letters remain unopened, as do the boxes of cards I bought for our own missives. I won’t be watering poinsettias well into March because neither red nor white bloom graces our table. I can hardly be bothered to light even a candle.

We’ve decided to keep our heads down and plow through the rest of this year without celebration. Maybe we fear attracting any more attention from higher powers that seemed to hold the screw to us during 2012. Maybe we’re just weary. Maybe celebration right now feels wrong.

But I can’t stop myself from yearning for light, from reaching for the promise of renewal that the Solstice offers. It is not Christmas that holds my wonder and feeds my anticipation. I absolved December 25th of unreasonable expectations and spiritual significance some years ago. I just like the lights on the tree.

It is this ancient tradition of honoring evergreens and the burning of bright light in the darkest days that allows me to find solace in the Solstice. I think upon this day as the year’s end, the time to pause and reflect as the seasons shift and the earth stutters, then marches resolutely toward Spring.

This was a year when light and dark were in constant flow, when the weight of deepest sorrow was counter-balanced by the relief of joy. Yet I come to the Solstice feeling smaller somehow, a bit shrunken and defeated by the 365 days that have passed since the night last receded, then grew full again. I watched as a loved one received the death sentence of a terrible, prolonged disease. A few weeks later life inside me stilled once again, even as I imagined names and hair color, tiny hands to hold and a little voice calling after me. I’ve had to stand idly to one side, fists clenched, heart pounding in rage, as the person I adore and respect most in the world agonizes over present and future and what little control he has over each seemingly stolen away. I’ve looked in the mirror at a body that seems hell-bent on thwarting every good thing I try to do for it, forcing me twice under a surgeon’s knife and taking away in recent weeks the one thing that brought me endorphin-surging physical release. I’ve had to accept that many of those who’ve known me the longest are the least interested in discovering who I have become. And then, in the last days of this year, my voice joined the chorus of rage and grief as a stunned nation absorbed, helplessly, the news of the slaughter in Newtown.

And yet.

And yet there is light. There is laughter. There is deep happiness and certain peace. There is the celebration of twenty years of marriage – defying odds set against two very young people who knew one other five months before vowing to spend a lifetime together, listening to their hearts instead of their heads. I’d do it all again. One hundred times again. It takes my breath away to think how easily we could have slipped past each other during that busy, distracted spring of 1992, never to know what soul mate meant.

There were winter days in medieval ruelles of Paris and late summer afternoons in Irish meadows. Hundreds of miles of Seattle pavement under my running shoes (and there will be hundreds more, believe me: Body and I are working out the terms). Sunsets over Shilshole Bay. The sweet joy of new friendships blooming. The unexpected embrace of a colleague who says, “Things are better with you here.” Laughter, dancing, beer and music in a beautiful community that is home, with spirited and loving people who are my family.

And there are my words, my sentences, paragraphs, pages. The slowly but steadily growing word count on a manuscript which has become my anchor, my refuge, my way – thank you, Richard Hugo – of saying the world and I have a chance. Perhaps Hugo meant that by the act of creating art, the world and I have chance together. And that perhaps I can, I should, I must, use my words to pursue what I believe is right and try to create good out of so much sadness.

Brendan and I went for a long walk late in the afternoon of this, the shortest day. I’m not one for portents, but I’ll share this photo I captured of a Bald eagle against the cerulean sky and diamond-bright moon. I’ll take the raptor’s presence as the last blessing of this long season of darkness and be grateful for a moment of grace, no matter what the next seasons may bring.

Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice
Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice

I am ready to meet this longest night and then watch as, minute by minute, it shrinks into the New Year and succumbs to the light of Spring.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have.”
Attributed to Abraham Lincoln. No matter who said it, I like it.

Yet the Edge of Day is Bruised

It is a singularly beautiful day. Brendan and I are walking through one of our favorite haunts – a stretch of beach on the Puget Sound north of Seattle. Nature is shaking her hair free, sending droplets of rain one moment, a burst of sun the next. The wind is whipping up secret scents from the forest behind me, the kelp and seaweed at my feet weep a salty tang. Seagulls coast on air currents and fall in flocks to the water, whistling and laughing in jovial competition; geese march in armies across driftwood to the wetlands hidden among giant cattails and Lady ferns. The autumnal equinox occurred on Friday, yet there is only a slight shift of color, an occasional rash of plum red or burnt sienna staining the leafy arm of a maple or ash.

On this windy afternoon the tide is high and waves spin and slap against the shore. The water is surprisingly rough in this sheltered finger of water. The rush of whitecaps in the cobalt water mirrors the bundles of clouds rushing in the forget-me-not blue sky. Wind surfers twist in the cool air, fish trawlers crest the heaving water. A towering city floats past – a cruise ship bound for Alaska that seems outlandish in this solemn stretch of bay between Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula. Shadowed by clouds, the Olympic Mountains beyond are a primordial and ominous barrier to the Pacific Ocean.

This is a peaceful, beloved place only a few steps removed from the chatter and traffic of a city. It is not far from where a friend recently ended his life.

I am acutely aware of Jeff’s absence as I walk along the sand, so near to where he spent his final hours. It is hard to imagine that anyone would choose to forgo this beauty, that there could be any sorrow so deep it could not find comfort in a place so unblemished and whole.

After Jeff’s body was found and his death ruled a suicide, we wondered why he didn’t ask for help, why we didn’t see it coming, how such a warm, generous, open-hearted man could hide such unhappiness and continue to function in a job he loved, to care for an ill wife of whom he spoke in the most tender terms.

But the mine shaft of depression is deep and the slide into its depths can be swift – the trapdoor opens and swallows you alive, leaving behind your skin and a shadow of your soul. You remain in the close, dark place alone, your voice silenced, like those nightmares when you try to scream, but only a croak escapes your throat.

Some are able to crawl their way back to the surface, to emerge panting and dazed. Their visible scars will fade in time, but there will be wounds which never fully heal. Others slide deeper, until the only way out becomes the only choice they believe is left to them.

We cannot know another’s heart. We cannot judge their response to or tolerance of pain any more than we can begin to understand our own. We will regret missed clues, we will feel anger at what we perceive as a selfish act, we will mourn the beautiful days they will never experience.

I am deeply sorry for the choice Jeff made. I am beginning to accept that it cannot be undone. But I’m certain he is with me on the beach today. And now I know he’s okay.