Posts Tagged ‘W.S. Merwin’

The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice.

April 13, 2019

The teaching of writing has evolved over the decades. Teachers used to praise students for duplicating what they were instructed to write, or criticized and graded poorly for not meeting established norms. This practice of praise or blame created consequences that were detrimental to the writer. They doubted their own natural ability to express themselves in writing, wondering whether it was good or not.

W.S. Merwin, in his poem, Berryman,* about his college professor John Berryman, asks him “how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all?” He gives him an unexpected honest answer.

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers in this Paris Review interview, on the perils of praise and blame.

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

It’s interesting to see this explanation—how praise (fame) or blame (criticism) might influence a young writer’s psychology, and therefore his or her creative output and development as a writer. Advising them to stay true to themselves, remain unswayed by public opinion, would allow them to maintain their own integrity as artists.

David Lynch is another artist who always follows his own muse and tells young filmmakers to do the same. Answering a student’s question about his creative process, he says we’re nothing without an idea. Using a fishing analogy, he explains that a desire for an idea is like a bait on a hook. He gives a detailed account of how he falls in love with ideas, turns them into a script, and transforms them into a film, or other works of art. To catch bigger fish, you have to dive deeper. David describes daydreaming and TM as ways to get there. He tells students to stay true to their vision, to meditate, and most importantly, to always have the final cut.

In this interview, he answers the same question, but from a different perspective: In the other room, the puzzle is all together, but they keep flipping in just one piece at a time.

Learning by doing: writing and teaching

When writers and poets were asked to teach creative writing, some conveyed the enterprise as a process to be explored and unfolded, not as a specific product to be reproduced. What they said made sense. I practiced their suggestions and discovered my own process of becoming a writer and a poet.

I also shared their strategies with my students facilitating them as writers. The most important takeaway was this: If you took care of the writer, the writing would take care of itself.

I enjoyed asking younger students questions to find out what they were passionate about, to help them uncover their own voice. If they said something interesting, I had them write it down, then asked them to combine their thoughts into a rough draft. I had them listen to what they had written by reading it aloud to me, to use their skills as a reader. Once involved in the process they naturally wanted to clarify their writing, to include relevant details, to edit their work. They had become intrinsically motivated writers!

Here are a few favorite writers who inspired me along the way.

What some favorite poets, writers and teachers say about writing

(more…)

Every War Has Two Losers, a Haydn Reiss film on poet and conscientious objector William Stafford

October 18, 2009

EVERY WAR HAS TWO LOSERS

A Poet’s Meditation on Peace

A FILM BASED ON THE JOURNALS OF WILLIAM STAFFORD

Haydn Reiss (producer/director) has been making independent films for twenty years that often focus on writers and poets. As a producer for hire his clients include organizations working on the front lines of education, the environment, culture, human rights, politics and health. In 1998, Reiss directed the award-winning RUMI: Poet of the Heart, which was seen on over 100 PBS stations and screened in festivals around the world.

EVERY WAR HAS TWO LOSERS tells the story of how one man, William Stafford (1914-1993), chose to answer the call to war. It is a story of confronting beliefs that swirl around war — Isn’t war inevitable? Even necessary? What about the enemy? Stafford refused to fight in World War Two and served four years in camps for conscientious objectors. Later he was the winner of the National Book Award for poetry.

Other participants appearing in the film include Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, John Gorka, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Meade, W.S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kim Stafford, and Alice Walker.

Director Haydn Reiss first met Stafford in 1990 and later produced a one-hour documentary, William Stafford & Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship. That film chronicles the similarities and differences between these two close friends and great poets. Approaches to writing, teaching and the meaning of poetry are all explored in this lively and engaging film. (The film is included as a DVD extra on EVERY WAR HAS TWO LOSERS)

Interview with Haydn Reiss:

Q: What’s the genesis of the film?

HR: In 2006, I read the book the film is based on and that was edited by his son Kim, “Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace & War” (Milkweed Editions 2004). It’s fifty years of excerpts from Bill’s journals related to war and reconciliation. As with all of Stafford’s writings, there is a sense of a deep intelligence at work that stays human and available to the reader. There’s humor, heartbreak and a general sense, or assertion, that we human beings are capable of doing better with each other. I’m a father of young children and I have to believe that’s true. More importantly, I had to try and make a contribution to that effort and that’s what I attempted with the film.

Q: How does the book differ from the film?

HR: Obviously there’s a lot more writing and poems in the book than the film. The challenge was to pull journal entries that could be arranged in some form or fashion and create an overall arc to the film. A beginning, middle and end has not been much improved upon in the world of storytelling. All the material could be endlessly mixed since there was no inherent order to it other than chronological. So mix it we did some untold number of times until the cylinders seemed to line up and my editor and I had something we liked. The film brings in its own ingredients of music, images and a remarkable collection of participants.

Q: What do you hope the film does for the viewer?

HR: It would be very satisfying to think that after viewing the film you would ask yourself, at a deep level, what you really believe about war. And the follow-up question of “How did I come to believe that?” I think we have been very successfully indoctrinated into accepting that war is a given, it’s what human beings do. The distinction is, and I think this is what Stafford is saying, is “Yes, we do and can make war. But what else can we do?” The undiscovered possibilities in human behavior are what we should pursue. The die is not cast; imagination and creativity are not in short supply. That this is the real, pragmatic work of the world.

View trailer, download PBS station airings August-September 2010, bios, and purchase a DVD of Every War Has Two Losers.

Also see PEACEFUL POETS: Filmmaker Haydn Reiss on Rumi and Stafford and the Power of Words and A Fascinating Approach to Peace.


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