National Writing Project

Book Review: The Muses Among Us, by Kim Stafford

By: Richard Louth
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Richard Louth reviews The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft, an autobiographical collection of essays by and about the writing life by Kim Stafford.

 

The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft
Written by Kim Stafford. University of Georgia Press, 2003. $17.95; 138 pages. ISBN 0-820-32496-5.

The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft is an autobiographical collection of twenty-one connected essays about the writing life by Kim Stafford, director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College. A published poet, fiction writer, and essayist, Kim writes from experience, but what he has to say about his craft, while intensely personal, will speak to other writers, teachers, students, and thinkers. The theme of the book is simple—"listen to the world around you and write"—but the book is about so much more. Stafford's voice is engaging, and reading this book is like having him sit beside you sharing his thoughts, asking you questions, offering you advice, inviting you to write. Practical, philosophical, inspirational, and original, the book is short enough to be read in one sitting, but it is more likely to be read, reread, pondered, and exchanged among friends. It should be in every writing teacher's library and will appeal especially to those who have enjoyed Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones or G. Lynn Nelson's Writing and Being.

Writer as Professional Eavesdropper

The original title of the book was Scribe to the Prophet, and in an early chapter by that same title, Stafford sets up his theme by describing an epiphany about writing that occurred when visiting the Amana colony in Iowa, a religious community where he was told how their prophets are followed day and night by scribes who record every utterance.

I close my eyes, and suddenly, I feel a great burden lifted from my shoulders. For it comes to me that I am not the prophet, but scribe to the prophet. When I write, I am secretary to a wisdom the world has made available to me. The voices come from the many around me, and I need more to be alert than wise. (4-5)

How many writers, faced by the blank page, have asked, "Who am I?" and thrown aside the pen? Stafford addresses this problem by redefining the role of the writer, who as a scribe rather than prophet need only listen to the world, not create it out of whole cloth. Stafford's first step in the book is to make writing seem simpler and less intimidating than it was before.

Building on the writer as scribe, Stafford locates the muses and prophets of the world and then shows how the writer can listen to them. While the author quotes liberally from Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and other literary figures, his muses and prophets are more down to earth: cowboys, bartenders, students, hitchhikers, family, and strangers. Calling himself a "professional eavesdropper," he listens to their words, reads their handwritten notes, graffiti, and discarded letters. His writer is a searcher, open to the world, and Stafford trusts the reader to be a searcher too, often using narrative, metaphor, and indirection rather than exposition to drive home a point. For instance, in "Live Free or Die," he tells the story of sneaking away from a professional conference, wandering the nearby woods, reclining in a hobo's hut, and discovering a walking stick with "Live free or die" scratched into it. He takes the stick and returns to the conference. What's the point? The point is as much in the telling as in the tale, for Stafford's ideas are usually not explicit but implicit. Underlying this narrative is his belief that the writer-as-scribe is more likely to find muses and prophets in the woods (or on the streets) than in academe, with its books, closed-mindedness, and jargon. However, rather than pontificate (as an academic might), he crafts a story about a seemingly trivial moment in his own life, filling it with crystalline details from the world, weaving within it a web of mysteries about the writing life.

When writers act as scribes and dedicate themselves to hearing the world, their writing journey has begun. According to Stafford, their next step is to record what they hear in a pocket notebook. Finding the typical "journal" endorsed by many other writers (such as Goldberg) too large, bulky, and likely to be filled with emotion rather than fact, he recommends keeping a pocket notebook on hand at all times. In loving detail, he describes how he creates his own pocket notebooks out of folded paper, brown cover stock, and black thread flavored with beeswax. However, the construction of the pocket notebook is not as important as its use. (I use a spiral-bound memo book, sticking my retractable pen in the spirals for safekeeping.) Stafford's recommendation is to record the world daily in small notebooks, to put those notebooks aside as they accumulate, and then periodically to leaf through them for "rich beginnings." That way, the writer never faces the blank page. The essays in this book provide ample evidence of his method's success, as they often begin with a nugget from his notebooks and are chock-full of observations, eavesdropping, and other such treasures.

Sample from Richard Louth's journal...

Ever since first reading Stafford's book, I have been carrying a pocket notebook wherever I go. Here are some recent jottings:

Getting locked out of a hotel room in pajamas putting out a room service tray. Story of who you meet. (2/28/04)

Who owns art?

"I'm still wondering where the last egg is. We'll never have a year where we discover every single egg." (Son Kevin on Easter egg hunt, 4/13/04)

Doris clinking used beer bottles in the other room, her own sort of music. (4/13/04)

I have lost my best tie pin and tie.

"If they ticket that truck, beat the !#&! out of them and I'll give you $1000," says a guy who drops his keys right in front of me outside a bar. "Ok," I say, "I will." A few minutes later I see someone else speed away in the truck, tires screeching.

"There is no place/Like this place/Near this place/So this must be the place. (Sign outside The Station at Fells Point, MD.)

"My passion and my obligation." (Linda Hanson)

"In my next life . . ." (Bonnie Hain)

"When was the point that I realized what it was all about?"

"Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again." (Funky Fish, Fells Pt., MD)

I notice that the yellow awning over the corner eatery that says "Au Bon Pain, Au Bon Pain, Au Bon Pain," to another set of eyes says only "Pain . . . Pain . . . Pain."

How Do You Write an Essay?

The best essay in the collection, "Looking for Mr. Nu," begins with the $64,000 question, "How do you write an essay?" Essay writing, Stafford surmises, is "a matter of living towards some dense kind of mystery" (52). Seemingly unsatisfied with his own answer, he repeats the question two more times before launching into a story about a trip home from the writing workshop that brought up the question. The journey seems to have nothing to do with the question. Along the way, the writer encounters a policeman, reads a sad letter about a lost dog in a store window, purchases a blanket and a cross made out of sticks, and then returns to his question, which has been riding silently along with us in the car. Again, he refuses to answer directly. Instead, he reflects on the creation of the blanket and the cross, and on Mr. Nu, and realizes, as if for the first time, "You start with the words of a letter to the world, about an old dog loved, and you find what wants to go with that." Students who want a simple answer and teachers who want a simple essay are likely to be disappointed, for the writer's conclusion is enigmatic, and his essay elusive. But readers willing to indulge the writer will be moved, and will understand the purpose and process of essay writing in a new way.

Students and Teachers, Self and World

While all of Stafford's essays address writing, some are especially appropriate for students and teachers. "Quilting Your Solitudes," one of the longer, looser essays in the collection, discusses twelve steps of a writing process, showing how a sample essay evolves through several drafts. Here the author recommends composing letters during the process and also notes how writing groups can sometimes be counterproductive; he also provides a useful list of six annotated readings for further study. In "The Random Autobiography," the prompt "I remember" and the random autobiography format provide students with copious details for drafts, while the essay "Pepper" describes how to spice up one's writing through contrast. Teachers who want to improve students' sentence construction will find two useful exercises in "Sentence as a River and as Drum." In addition, teachers will appreciate "Happy Problems," an essay that describes how to treat problems as potential learning experiences and how to "tease forth" a class through inquiry. "Personal Memory and Fictional Character," which begins with the line, "For years I have gone to class unprepared to teach" (69), will appeal to teachers who regularly question their practices.

Intertwined with Kim Stafford's central theme of writing are two others—autobiography and democracy—that amplify or diffuse his message, depending on your point of view. A significant number of the essays revolve around Stafford's life: his travels, his past, his brother's suicide, his father (poet William Stafford), his other relatives. The ghosts and demons that haunt "Scribe to the Prophet," "Looking for Mr. Nu," and "Fame" demonstrate the author's range of emotions in confronting personal history. A different theme can be found in the afterword, where Stafford is tempted to cross the line from "scribe" to "prophet" in a Whitmanesque wrestling with history, politics, and American democracy. In one sense, this conclusion provides a kind of apocalyptic, prophetic, Blakean vision that the author perhaps earns the right to utter after paying his dues as a scribe in the rest of the work; in another sense, while powerful, the final essay stands apart from the rest of the book. The afterword is beautifully written, deeply felt, and timely; however, while its message could be interpreted as the natural conclusion to the book, its audience, message, and style suggest otherwise.

Conclusion

While its primary audience is teachers and students, this is a book about writing, by a writer, for writers. It does not pander. It is not afraid to be personal. It is committed to the deep mystery and profound pleasure of writing. Unlike most books on this subject, it does not use the words thesis, analysis, rhetoric, or critical thinking. Unlike most books on the subject, it makes you want to pick up a pen and write. That is why this fine book will not grow old.

About the Author Richard Louth is the director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project.

Note: Both "Sentence as River and as Drum" and "Happy Problems" have appeared in previous issues of The Quarterly. "Sentence as River and as Drum" appeared in volume 25, number 3 (pages 35–36) and "Happy Problems" appeared in volume 20, number 3 (pages 1–4, 35).

Also see "On the Experience of Writing The Muses Among Us" by Kim Stafford. The Quarterly editors asked Kim Stafford to write a few words about the process of writing and publishing a book.

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