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A Voice in the Wilderness

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -- William O. Douglas

Monday, June 14, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Fiction - by Wallace Stegner - My Review

Wallace Stegner was a writer who hailed from the Western United States. He wrote novels, short stories and I came to know about him while watching Ken Burns' TV Series, "The National Parks" which aired on PBS earlier this year. Further research revealed he was a prolific writer and he wrote passionately about environmental preservation.

Educated in the Western US - receiving his Baccalaureate degree (University of Utah), to his Masters and PhD Degrees from Iowa where he also studied at the Iowa Writer's Workshop - he went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard and Stanford University. His students included many famous American writers such as Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Ernest Gaines, and Larry McMurtry, Wallace Berry and the poet, N. Scott Momaday.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't offer so much background on Stegner but I believe knowing his background is important in setting the context for someone who had so much influence - not only on the environment but on contemporary American writing. I picked up several of his books and started "Crossing to Safety," "Beyond the Hundredth Meidian, "Angle of Repose," - which he won a Pulitzer prize for, "The Spectator Bird," - which he won a national Book award for, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," "Joe Hill," and "On teaching and Writing Fiction.

Stegner's style is easy and unpretentious and this particular book, "On Teaching and Writing Fiction" is one of the few books I will re-read in the future. While it is short, it is filled with useful pointers and advice for anyone who loves writing.
At points throughout the book, I found myself lamenting the fact that he had passed away and that I would never get to meet him. And yet, his words still live on so, not all is lost for me. I suppose that elusive quality of immortality is something that I enjoy so much about writing.

There are so many quotable thoughts Stegner offers in this book that I was tempted to write in the margins. I thought better about the sacrilege and instead began to hand copy the salient points. That proved to be comical because I was actually copying whole paragraphs and even sentences so, I finally began marking pages with post-it notes. That's when I decided maye I ought to just resign myself to re-reading the book again. That is a rarity for me. But, Wallace Stegner is that good.

Of the many quotes I enjoyed, I managed to distill this gem from the bunch;

"...The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It is not a story in the modern vein. I choose it not because it reveals the world to our suddenly unsealed eyes, or because it demonstrates anything about the changing form of the short story, or because I think it is the best thing I ever wrote, but because it is simple and undevious and unambiguous. I know what experience it comes from, I know what's in it, I know why I wrote it, I know what I got out of writing it. As well as any story I might have picked, it can be used to substantiate my faith that fictionizing is an essential function of the mind and emotions - that reality is not fully reality until it has been fictionized."

I am half way through, "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian," and a quarter through "Crossing to Safety." Both are very different and yet, there is a thread of continuity through them both that is unmistakably Wallace Stegner. My life is richer for having met him - if only through the written word.


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