School navigation

The Chronicle Magazine

Your Own Way… Some Timely Advice From the Old Man

  • News Image

What was my father’s vocation when he taught English at Lewis & Clark from 1948 to 1978? And what has my vocation been, teaching here from 1979 until now? William Stafford taught literature and writing, and I’ve been teaching writing courses of all kinds, from professional writing to stories and songs. Now and then I meet someone who says, “Stafford… yes, I’ve heard of you—but I thought you would be older.” “Ah,” I say, “you mean the old man.”

Sometimes in this work there is a need for what they call academic rigor—MLA or APA style, writing designed to argue a position or report in objective detail about reading—writing that is to be, as one of my colleagues told his students, “substantive, clear, cogent, coherent, concise, precise, analytical, and critical.” But other times—in fact in most of my own classes—our writing is exploratory, intuitive, based in stories, in questions, in “memories, dreams, and reflections.” I don’t tend to push my students in particular directions. Instead, we talk about what we hope to seek by writing, and then we plunge into the act, scribbling in a fever. We share what we find along the way, and produce reams of rich beginnings, which I believe will lead my students in their own most promising directions over time.

Colleagues have told me now and then that my approach is too soft. “That way you teach writing,” said one, with a wave of his hand, “that’s just therapy.”

Well, maybe that’s so. But I teach at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling, so perhaps therapy might have some place in our inquiry. And my own brother died by suicide, partly because he didn’t turn to therapy at a tough passage in his life, so I must honor my writing practice of deep reflection in good company.

All the same, I take seriously the question of how to teach writing well, and this summer I’ve been carrying this question with me as I approach a transition in my career.

This past July, while teaching Stafford Studies, a class at the William Stafford Archives in Watzek Library—the vast collection of writings, recordings, photographs, letters, and other materials produced by my father—I stumbled across his notes from a workshop we did together in the summer of 1989.

As I read his scrawl on a sheet of pale green notebook paper, I had some counsel about this matter of how to teach writing from the old man himself.

We had been doing a writing class at the coast, in a program called Haystack, in the town of Cannon Beach, and he wrote this account of our conversation about how to teach writing well:

Last night Kim raised the question of whether we are doing right in our workshop. Yes, people seem happy. We have a good feeling going. But let’s think about whether we are doing all that we might, whether we’ll be satisfied when we look back. Are we reaching the fullest possible scope and power of writing? …

Truly I believe that our free way is both more pleasant and productive and also the right way to achieve a valid high seriousness. In my writing I welcome lightness, fun, even offensively trivial productions; but there is another side, the solid achievement of weighty works, works with impact. We can be both. The welcoming stand achieves both ways.

In his own daily practice over some 50 years, my father approached composition as an intuitive adventure that could involve, as he says, “even offensively trivial productions.” But this approach also resulted, in his practice, in a landmark body of work that people are reading with gusto 20 years after his death. In fact, we are preparing for the William Stafford Centennial 2014: 100 Years of Poetry and Peace. Through the Oregon Reads program, sponsored by the Oregon State Library, more than 90 communities will be reading works on poetry and peace by my father, and there will be five new books published, and events across the country.

On the page I found in the archives, there is a short coda to this note by my father, where he writes: “Not worldly ambition. Not ambition to publish, but to publish in your own head.”

This takes me back to my father’s poem, “When I Met My Muse,” when the true source of his genius says to him, “I am your own way of looking at things. When you allow me to live with you, every glance at the world around you will be a sort of salvation.” The writer’s task, by this light, is to begin with what you see, what you wonder, notice, remember, and what comes to the page by your most idiosyncratic and spontaneous attention. Such a friendly but persistent search for deep discovery, if my own experience as a writer and thinker and citizen is any guide, is the hardest work of all, and the work most worth doing.

My father tells me in this note that in my vocation as writer and teacher, I, too, may welcome the light touch of welcome and celebration.

Share this story on

The Chronicle Magazine

Contact Us