On Teaching and Writing Fiction

Wallace Stegner
Edited by Lynn Stegner
Penguin Books, New York, 2002

The tough gentle spirit of a real teacher and master of his art is evident in this collection of eight essays. Moving the reader along in long hypnotizing sentences, I compare the writing style to being carried downstream on intelligent water that knows exactly where it’s going whether the sailor does or not.  There is empathy and sympathy for the new and struggling writer, but just as in strong high running water, the reader shouldn’t expect to be coddled with assurance there will ever be success in where he’s going.

Stegner’s subjects cover ground writers face today that they did fifty years ago. The following sentence could have been in the article I read a few months ago in Poets and Writers: “The worst writing classes with which I have had any experience have been the soft ones–the mutual admiration societies in which whatever is said, if it is said well, is right.” A sentence that is well aimed at both students and teachers, it underlines Stegner’s constant striving in his work as well as a persistent call to his students.

Different than many of the how-to write books on the market today, an abiding rule of Stegner’s is the writer must dig deep within the self to develop a personal style. That’s mouthed today, but then quickly followed up by homilies such as “show, don’t tell,” and “your turning point needs to be ten pages earlier”. Instead, he reviews the conversation between Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald who argued between themselves about being a “great putter-inner” and a “leaver-outer”.

Written for the serious writer who wants to improve his writing though no one may ever read it, Stegner seems to be leaning against the barn with his arms comfortably folded, a cowboy hat hiding sardonic eyes and a slight smile on his lips that say, “Well, little partner, now that you know the truth, you still want to ride that herd?”

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