Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction

Picked up this Wallace Stegner book at a local used bookstore, and what a treat it turned out to be. For readers who value clarity and linear writing, humor amid serious topics, sound advice for writers, readers, and teachers, delivered with challenging claims in aphoristic style, Stegner’s your man. Published posthumously, this short book of 121 pages collects all of Stegner’s writings on writing, proportionately small compared to his total output, some pieces previously unpublished.

So what’s he have to say?

“It is a common misconception that an image invariably involves a figure of speech” (p. 19)…. “…comparison is a sort of judgment” (p. 20).

“In spite of the exercise books and the negative approach of our schools, language stays alive; it is often more alive in the mouths of truck drivers than in the correct mouths of people who feel that there is a single proper or correct way to say everything” (p. 24).

“…a playful way with language is always better than a solemn one” (p. 27).

“The words that fit are the words to choose, and it does not matter whether they come to us from the Greeks or from a singing commercial” (p. 28).

“Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing” (p. 34).

“…good writing is an end in itself…” (p. 35).

“…many people don’t know their own potential…some misread their potential…different kinds of writers display very different stigmata of gift” (p. 36).

“Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to…Any experience, looked at steadily, is likely to be strange enough for fiction or poetry” (p. 41).

“Writers teach other writers how to see and hear” (p. 43).

“It is fairly easy for teachers of writing to become ex-writers” (p. 51).

“Fiction always moves toward one or another of its poles, toward drama at one end or philosophy at the other” (p. 76).

“They [critics] tend to run in packs…we ought to have pluralist literature and pluralist literary criticism” (p. 88).

“…reality is not fully reality until it has been fictionized” (p. 98).

The little book closes with a short story illustrating Stegner’s values: “…I believe in fiction, not only in its do-ability but in its importance. For the writer, whose life is as often as not a mess, it can clean up a murky and littered mind as snails clean up a fish tank” (p. 97).

Stegner, W. (2002). On teaching and writing fiction. New York: Penguin Books. Edited and with a foreword by Lynn Stegner.

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