You Must Revise Your Life

When I taught various sections of Interpretation of Literature in graduate school over the course of some years, my major texts would shift and change.  Pride and Prejudice one semester.  Frankenstein another.  Love in the Time of Cholera one semester. Everything is Illuminated another.  And drama?  Never the same play twice.  Swapping out texts was an opportunity to experiment with more literature in the classroom as well as a chance for me, in some cases, to read something I hadn’t before.

One text, though, stayed on my syllabus for every one of my sections:  a poem by William Stafford called “Traveling through the Dark.”  If you’ve never read it, go!  I’ll wait right here.  If you have, read it again!  If you’re anything like me, it’s a poem you’ll never get over.  So when, at a recent conference I attended, I learned that Stafford’s You Must Revise Your Life was on a reading list for an artist and teacher I admire, I picked it up.  First published in 1986 as part of the Poets on Poetry series by the University of Michigan Press, this book is a collection of essays and interviews both about Stafford’s journey toward becoming a poet and his approaches toward writing and teaching.

The reflections on his childhood are captivating.  Stafford, who lived from 1914 to 1993, grew up in Kansas, living in a number of different towns and always on the edge, next to the countryside and adventure (he also fondly remembers the local Carnegie libraries as “another kind of edge,” ripe for exploration).  As a parent, I especially took this anecdote to heart about a walk one morning Stafford took with his father:

We were out rambling the countryside, and we saw a hawk land in a cottonwood far across a field.  When we got there we couldn’t see it, and I stood waiting for my father to show me where it was.  He said something that marked a phase of my life: ‘Bill, maybe your eyes are better than mine.  Maybe you will be the one to see the hawk.’  This remark was not the only move he made of that kind, of course; but it sticks in my mind as an emblem.  I was a partner; I verged on being grown-up.  My father was contending, ready to win, ready to lose.  And when my parents talked now, and understood each other about things beyond my understanding, maybe I could follow them.

To hear how that moment made Stafford feel as a child is persuasion enough to try to treat children as partners as often as possible.  And it may explain, in large part, the approach to teaching he later describes.  In the classroom, he avoids assuming a position of authority in order to allow the students to navigate the course as equal partners.  He tries not to be carrying papers of any kind.  He doesn’t bring books.  He spells out no schedule or agenda.  He doesn’t give specific assignments, choosing instead to leave a box at the library where people can turn in whatever they’ve chosen.  He avoids giving criticism, praise, or for the most part, grades.  Stafford writes,

If I start in the stance of being the judge, the advocate of culture, the parental figure, I will have a hard time reaching into the spontaneous thoughts and feelings of the group.  At almost any cost, I must avoid that stance… ‘How much do we have to write?’ someone may ask.  I am puzzled by such a question and allow myself to appear so.  If I am lucky enough, some brash student will opt for writing very little, and I can drop into position one: being solicitous instead of firm.  For that option is so insane — to take a class and then try not to do it.  I let myself be stunned by so odd an idea. But I do not contend against this manifestly confused (and valuable to me) student… ‘What if my work isn’t good enough?’ That will be impossible: in this class, by definition, what you can do is all right.  Here, you start where you are and go somewhere.

I have never been that teacher.  I come in with syllabi.  I pass around handouts.  I have specific assignment requirements.  Granted, I have never tried to be the “judge” or to lord any particular authority over the classroom, but still, I have always longed to have a more open and exploratory approach like this.  My second day of my freshman year of college, I entered a Rhetoric and Composition class, and the professor, whose teaching style was somewhat similar to Stafford’s, said we had to turn in a piece of writing the following day.  No page length requirements.  No prompts.  No limitations of any kind.  I was absolutely immobilized and spent the entire day in a panic.  Where on earth does a person begin with nothing but possibility to stare at?  But the assignment forced out of me something authentic and earnest — something that came, genuinely, from me.  And four months later?  That was one of the single most powerful, transformative classes of my educational life.

This book is many things but most of all a wonderful resource for writers and for teachers — especially of creative writing.  Stafford covers a variety of topics from getting the most out of writing workshops (he is a Writers’ Workshop alumnus) to performing poetry to the religious dimension of his work.  It also includes a handful of his poems that are germane to the current topic at hand.  Stafford’s perspective through all of these matters is refreshing and unusual, full of wisdom and authenticity.  Because I have really only read Stafford’s anthologized poetry, it’s high time I picked up some of his collections to see what else I’ve been missing.

In the meantime, I have impatiently been waiting to hear:  what do you think of “Traveling through the Dark”?  Perhaps we will have to return to this in a future post.