Thoughts on writing—his own and a healthy selection from those he admires—from the late Stegner (Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, 1998, etc.), who along his protean way started the Stanford Writing Program.
Stegner (1913–93) is not especially concerned here with how to write but rather with what to get at when writing: “an artifact, something shaped and created and capable of communicating whatever wisdom it has arrived at.” In these eight essays, one of which includes the short story “Goin’ to Town,” he makes no bones about the seriousness of the matter. There’s no place for the pretentious or the vain, for a piece of fiction is “a trial of the writer's whole understanding and a reflection of his whole feeling and knowing”; the writer is “a vendor of the sensuous particulars of life, a perceiver and handler of things,” on a search for meaning, wonder, discovery, involvement. This comes out of life, experiential and inspiriting; the writer arrives at something to say of value and insight, takes the chaos of reality and works it into the picture without blurring the artistic frame: distilled, sharpened, purified. When teaching, “encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and don’ts . . . certain tested literary tools and techniques and strategies and stances and ways of getting at the narrative essence.” To give advice, Stegner calls up the heavy artillery: Conrad, Frost, Hemingway. Sometimes he’s high on imagery (“like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” writes Frost), other times he extols the value of practice and rewriting, cutting the prose clean, honing the exigent art of seeing straight, taking what you want to say and stating it with the aim of “communicating not only its meaning but its quintessential emotion, the thing that made it important to you in the first place.”
You write what you are, asserts Stegner, one of those truths no artist escapes.