Why you should join the river of stones

Fiona and Kaspa at Writing Our Way Home are once again challenging folks to “notice something properly every day during January” and write it down — to join their “river of stones.”

Writing small stones is a very simple way of engaging with the world around you, in all its richness and complexity and beauty. They are a gateway into praise and clear-seeing. They will help you to acknowledge the ugly things (the slugs in the compost pile) as well as the pretty ones (blackbird song). You don’t need to be a writer to write small stones – the important thing is starting to open up to what’s around you.

I guess I’ve been writing what you could call small stones for four years now, one a day except on rare occasions when I’m not at home. I’m a bit more focused on the quality of the writing and the accuracy of the observations than some participants in the “river of stones” writing challenge, so I don’t know how applicable my experience would be for everyone who takes part. But for what it’s worth, here are four things I’ve learned from doing it, lessons which I think might be more broadly applicable to other kinds of creative writing as well.

1) The most obvious subject is usually the best one to write about — or as the Zennists say, “first thought, best thought!” Doing the same thing every day is often a chore, and can quickly become overwhelming if you take it too seriously or hold yourself to too high a standard. Don’t be afraid to be boring or humdrum once in a while. You may say to yourself, “I always write about squirrels,” but if the neat thing you saw a squirrel do this morning is in fact what made the biggest impression on you, that’s probably what you should write about. And what I’ve found is that nine times out of ten, these obvious subjects result in the most popular small stones, measured in terms of retweets and favorites on Twitter and likes and comments on Facebook. Does that mean they’re necessarily the best? No, but since part of my agenda is to get other people interested in noticing what’s in their own yard or street, it’s important to write things that resonate with ordinary readers from time to time.

2) Unself-conscious immersion in the world outside one’s own thoughts is key to the whole process. For most of us, immersion in the creative process is addictive, a source of intense pleasure, and there’s a great temptation not to go beyond that. No doubt you can find plenty of readers just by continuing to write about the things you already know. But if you’re honest with yourself, I think you have to recognize that your best writing happens when you open yourself up to what you don’t know. Well, I contend that you don’t need to do anything more special than pay attention to the world in all its bewildering complexity to experience that kind of wonder and bafflement on a regular basis. I find that just a few minutes of mindful awareness can yield creative dividends for hours. In fact, I often purposely refrain from trying to write a small stone for a couple hours after I come in from the porch, giving my observations time to age. A mere grain can germinate and take root — or get under your skin, like a grain of sand in an oyster.

3) You can never know too much about what you’re seeing or hearing. William Carlos Williams famously declared “No ideas but in things.” But it’s hard to enter into the lives of other beings and objects if you don’t know much about them. Start by learning their names — what writer doesn’t benefit by enlarging his or her vocabulary? Even if you live in the city, there are probably birds or trees that you see every day whose exact identity you aren’t sure of, though you might not be aware of it at first because they’re such a familiar sight. Look them up. Once identified, there’s plenty of information to be found on the internet.

This is a huge part of how I’ve been able to keep my daily microblog going for so long without boring the shit out of myself or (I hope!) my readers. Sure, sometimes it might sound more lyrical to say “a bird” rather than “the Carolina wren,” and there’s always the risk that readers who aren’t as familiar with nature will misconstrue a common name to be your own, original adjective + noun combination, but nothing says you have to use the full name every time. I just think it’s a good idea to know it. (And at The Morning Porch website, I get around this by using tags, which can be more specific than the term used in the post.)

4) A practice of enforced brevity can encourage good writing habits. Twitter’s strict 140-character limit, while completely arbitrary and a little constricting for many, more conversational uses of language, is perfect for focusing attention on word choice. I make tough decisions every morning about which words, phrases and observations I have to leave out. Almost always, I think the results end up being much stronger and more lyrical than they would’ve been if I’d been able to indulge my usual verbosity. And in the four years I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed it spilling over into my regular writing as well. Bad writing happens when decent writers are unwilling to let go of any felicitous expression. It’s natural to form attachments to the products of our imaginations, but we have to be merciless with ourselves and ask, What does the writing need? What is the sound and the rhythm trying to tell us? Though I think I was already fairly good at editing my own work, daily microblogging has made me even quicker to reject words and ideas that just don’t fit.

8 Replies to “Why you should join the river of stones”

  1. I thought you set out the case very well here. Thanks. I joined The River in July and found it a very valuable experience. The brevity was a good discipline – getting every word to really do its duty. Maybe I’ll join in again in January…

  2. Dear
    Rabbi Rachael,
    Shalom i am very grateful to see these experince because i know that there is discipline in it
    thanks and shalom once more!
    yours sincerely
    victor fatherheart consoler

  3. Thanks for this, Dave. I thoroughly enjoyed the River last July, and shall certainly join you in January. The transformation to our writing brought about by succinct observation has to be seen to be believed.

  4. Hmm, I’ll have to consider this. I made it through NaBloPoMo, and most of those posts were much longer. On the other hand, writing a “stone” doesn’t necessarily take any less time than a long post. It would change things up a bit. :-)

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