Surprisingly Stegner

On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Wallace Stegner

How a book comes to hand fascinates me. In 1965 when my brother returned from the University for winter break, he poured forth stories of his hazing at the hands of the Deeks (Delta Kappa Epsilon), tales of the personalities of his new ‘brothers,’ and the list of books he had been reading. I looked forward to his vacations to augment my reading list. Prior years he had preview the books I was to read following him through high school at a two year distance.

Stegner’s posthumous publication – edited and prefaced by his daughter-in-law Lynn Stegner – fell off my writer-daughter’s shelf. She let it go reluctantly, loath to part with a friend, I think. Her reticence helped. Sometimes, when someone gives you a book, for instance, maybe as a gift or perhaps as ‘the best thing he has read,’ the urge to read grows less. It becomes more burdensome to read it. It is recommended, but not something you yourself have chosen. Stegner’s book – along with Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story which caught my eye there as well – came off Amy’s shelf with a dusting of that onerity that comes with a gift, but came also with the goad of her hesitation to let it out of her sight. I had better read it (them) not just drag it (them) to Honolulu and back. Coming hard out from her library, too, signaled that she had read it and profited by it. Prying the book out of her hands was like staying up late to get a recommendation from my college-boy brother.

Stegner is helpful.  A student and a teacher of writing for a life time, 25 years teaching writing at Stanford, how could he be otherwise. I take what is useful for me and leave the rest, but I find a great deal that is useful here.

To start he develops two major points:

First, there is a direct relationship between life (as differentiated from ‘lies’) and literature.

Next, there is a direct relationship between truth in fiction and the moral make-up of the author (or his moral intention at least)

The first heartens me. It tells me that I do not have to invent monsters from the lagoon or whip-smart iconoclasts stalking the urban alleys of the future in order to write ‘modern’ fiction. Contemporary may be the better word, as 2014 is nearly a century past ‘modernismo’ and for me ‘modern’ connotes 1966 far more than does the current calendar page. I’m not going to argue the case. Stegner does that job too well. He reminds us to write what we know, to use imagination in the service of life.

The second, truth and moral constitution, worries me a bit. Wallace Stegner appears solidly adept at moral life: exudes humility as well as control; regards his fellow writers, and all people, with compassion and care; and protects his own righteousness from deleterious invasion by wayward spirits – the anger of his father, for example. I worry about living up to that standard. That Stegner finds probity necessary to effective fiction might also worry a Keroac or a Salinger. Kiese Laymon would have something to say on the topic as well. Some may say Stegner’s position is that of a fair-haired boy (was it good fortune or parentage?) extolling his example of a well-lived life. Certainly, not everyone can qualify.  Would his ad for a writer say ‘Cynics need not apply’?

Never mind. Stegner is steadily generous with tips, quips, and slips of and on writing.  The forms – essay, question and answer, and analysis  (of his story ‘Goin’ to Town’) – allow Stegner to advise from a variety of angles.  It is also short, and though dense easily read (and reread).

A caveat to children of the 80’s and beyond, Stegner’s formative years were early 20th century. The writers he most points to suffered through the Great War and WWII. That is not a reason to cast him off as old fashioned (moral good is still in fashion), but may require more careful consideration and application of his thought to current ideas of writing. For instance, he spends (some might say ‘wastes’) time admonishing any writer who might lapse into profanity arguing that the shock value soon wears thin and distracts, though he does approve of using those select five or eight words when the situation calls for it. (Nadine Gordimer’s use of ‘fuck’ in My Son’s Story would be on his ‘yes’ list, though I doubt Stegner ever published that word.)

Stegner differentiates both between literature and commercial fiction, and between great fiction and fiction that is true but not great. If his integrity gives a young (or aged) writer pause, relief comes as he encourages literary pursuit whether ‘greatness’ be achieved or not. ‘Just be yourself’ might sound all right to Stegner if amended by ‘but write truth.’

Despite that he taught writing and studied writing in the workshop setting, Stegner’s observes that writing is a private act. In the age of tweets and blogs, in the world of writing-as-a-business attendant with retreats, MFAs, and clubs, Stegner’s insistence that the writer is ‘a man with a sending set but no receiver, broadcasting messages into space . . . .’ surprises and refreshes too. He warns us not to write to a particular audience.  The audience ‘can’t be safely imagined or predicted,’ he says. My god, it sounds like heresy in the age of sequels, trilogies, and series. Doesn’t the man know this is a business?  It is hard to believe, but he says (quite seriously, I think), ‘if they could [be predicted] there would be a great deal more pressure by publishers upon authors to satisfy the definable wants of these definable readers.’

Whether the test is audience, foul language, intention, or moral standing of the writer, this little book has something fine to say to any who would write.

For teachers the questions raised are obvious. That Stegner was involved in American fiction moving from a journalistic base (which it still enjoys) to an academic base provides a rare look at that movement and a not-too-apologetic expose of the reasons it works in America, if nowhere else. Again, those coming from outside this new tradition (or coming from neither the older or new) might find pause in Stegner’s defense. Still, he gives enough heart to any writer who ‘has anything to say.’

Lastly, Stegner is a great teacher by example. He teaches as he writes. His prose is a fine study in style. Seven points in his short chapter on technique – start with action, continue action, ‘say goodnight’ cleanly – are one’s to post on the wall. His analysis of “Goin’ to Town” is a look at a writer speaking honestly about the source of his writing.

Tell it like it is!

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