Ships at Sea

The Invitation 620
Above image: The Invitation (Boat Series), Rosemary Starace

I just lower my standards. So said the poet William Stafford,* in answer to a question about how he navigated his daily writing practice and avoided “writer’s block.” It’s generous, practical—and much quoted—advice, offering writers a way to engage the featureless expanse of the blank page, an end-route around doubt, hesitation, fear.

When I first encountered this idea, I heard it in terms of standards of quality—the thought being that we writers might simply put down some words no matter how poorly formed, and accept that there will be days when our work will not live up to our ideals. Then at least we will have fulfilled our commitment or quota, and created an opening for inspiration and revision on another, better day. This lets us proceed—no small thing, for we know how uniquely difficult that can be.

I valued this, even while I disliked abandoning messy, unresolved pieces even overnight. They wailed at me, “How could you?” and “See, you’re a fraud!” I was a perpetrator and an incapable rescuer all at once. Where was the life ring? Though I would tell students and artist friends to “trust the process,” and I knew that to be true, I had an inner Ahab who interfered. I was accepting the process conditionally while I pursued perfection—and the redemption of a more successful tomorrow. My low-quality output was ok only if I could anchor to the notion that I would eventually prevail, through talent or determination. What could be limiting about that?

There’s another meaning of “standard:” A standard is a flag or set of flags announcing the identity and status of a ship, its ensign. When, in the 1600s, it became technologically possible to attack ocean vessels from a distance (with ship-mounted cannons), it also became essential to be able to signal surrender from afar. At first, ships displayed the white flag of truce already used in land war, but this was ambiguous; some countries’ ensigns included a white flag. So, the practice of indicating surrender evolved from flying a white pennant at full mast to lowering the ship’s standards.**

One day, discussing Stafford’s remark with a friend, we realized that he may have meant his statement this way as well: When you come into the presence of poetry, it is helpful to lower your standards—to enter the space of writing with humility and openness, no matter what your reputation or need. To refrain from announcing, especially to yourself, who you think you are or should be. To jettison ambition and the desire to be great as you approach the majestic vessel of language, or as it approaches you. Stafford’s navigational principle not only references the quality of the words you put down, but the quality of self or ego that you bring to the act of writing. Lowering your standards comes to mean surrendering yourself to the process.

This relieved me, and relieves writers and artists in general, of a heavy burden. Jumbles of words and hazy images no longer reflect personal shortcomings nor call for heroic intervention. Determination is only the willingness to continue, not with striving but with presence and attention.

Presence and attention create a kind of open water, encouraging what is new and not yet known to appear, like a whale spout or gleam. Our attention is wide, up in the crow’s nest, not down at the ship’s wheel, focused ahead. This produces a sense of impending discovery, giving pleasure and satisfaction in the work itself. And our presence is unique; the less distracted we are by false goals, the more likely our seeing will be original, un-beholden. Artists can have confidence, not in the questing, determined self, but in the sea-worthiness of “the craft” that carries us. Process is nearly autonomous. We don’t steer it, we learn to ride it. It’s also a gift, available to everyone, wind to a sail.

The quality of our presence is therefore essential to the quality of what we make. But the desire for a great outcome, while entirely human, is something better kept in the hold as we enter the writing. When we work, we are necessarily at sea.


* William Stafford, 1914-1993, American poet and pacifist. A search of the Internet did not produce the actual interview in which he uttered that now-famous statement, but revealed many hundreds of references to it in dozens of contexts. Also see “When I Met My Muse.”
** Information from British Flags, W. G. Perrin (1922), as referenced here.