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The Spectator Bird
by Wallace Stegner


Topic: Stegner on Writing (1 of 9), Read 25 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 08:59 AM As the great discussion of SPECTATOR BIRD begins to wind down, I feel moved to post a few samples of Stegner's philosophy of writing, as found in his neat little (72 pages, large print) book ON THE TEACHING OF CREATIVE WRITING... At Stanford we dealt with hundreds of applicants for fellowships. Candidates wrote a letter saying what they hoped to do, and sent along a sample of what they had done. I remember one year when I picked up two application letters together. One was full of pretension, metaphysical conceits, strained metaphors, flowers of rhetoric. It was Faulkner crossed with Tristan Tzara or Monty Python--so turgid that one strained for its meaning--and it was four pages long. The other one was four lines long. It said only that what spoke to this candidate, in our program, was its willingness to give every talent a chance to be itself; she hoped to write stories and hoped to write them well. The second candidate's name was Tillie Olsen, and she did write stories, and write them well. We gave her a fellowship, and did not give one to the other applicant, because what spoke to us from her letter was directness and honesty, and what spoke to us from his was pretension and self-consciousness. He wanted, terribly, to be "literary." She wanted to write stories. Not all prediction is as easy as that, of course, and all such decisions are harrowing to make, because they mean so much, so personally, to the people you make them about. Ultimately, what one looks for is sensibility--which need not be as effete as it sounds--and sensibility is essentially senses. One looks for evidence that eyes and ears are acute and active, and that there is some capacity to find words for conveying what the senses perceive and what sense perceptions do to the mind that perceives them. What one looks for in language is not mechanical perfection of syntax. What one looks for is accuracy, rightness, vividness. And beyond that, of course, some notion, however rudimentary, of the seriousness of good writing, some sense that literature should enhance life... >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: Stegner on Writing (2 of 9), Read 21 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 09:09 AM And one more quote, for now... If you have to urge a writing student to "gain experience with life," he is probably never going to be a writer. Henry James has some useful advice in this regard. He urges young writers to be people "upon whom nothing is lost." But in another essay, one on Maupassant, he is dubious about Flaubert's celebrated instruction to observe the cart horse until you can render him distinct from every other cart horse on earth. Note-taking, James suggests (and he was himself a great note-taker, so that his advice may be ambiguous) is hardly the best way. You don't go out and "commit experience" for the sake of writing about it later; and if you have to make notes on how a thing has struck you, it probably hasn't struck you. The people who are really going to be writers don't need urging to pay attention to their lives and experience. Experience strikes them. Even James, whom one critic describes as having proceeded through his life from inexperience to inexperience, was never in any doubt when one of his inexperiences was memorable. He was one of those upon whom nothing, even an inexperience, was lost. Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to. Willa Cather said that a novel is what happens in this room, today. I think it is. No urging is necessary. The ones who are going to do something will know what struck them. >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: Stegner on Writing (3 of 9), Read 19 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Barbara Moors (bar647@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 09:36 AM This is wonderful stuff, Dale. I prevailed upon my 18 year old to come up and read it. He's going off to college this Fall and said that he was afraid that he would be one of the first types. I'm just glad that he would be concerned about it. Have you ever read any Tillie Olsen? I recognize that name I think, but that's all. Barb
Topic: Stegner on Writing (4 of 9), Read 21 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 09:43 AM Barb: I've read a few of Olsen's stories over the years. She's won a ton of awards and some of her stories have been anthologized more than 100 times in various languages. Probably her best-known are "I Stand Here Ironing" and "Tell Me a Riddle." The stories in general are long (one collection contains just four), lyrical, and at times emotionally intense. One critic has said she's a cross between Balzac and Emily Dickinson, if you can imagine that. {G} The Amazon site says she's also published a nonfiction book on the relationship between mothers and daughters, which sounds intriguing. >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: Stegner on Writing (5 of 9), Read 21 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 09:55 AM Here's one more, Stegner on the art and joy of reading... We learn any art, not from nature, but from the tradition, from those who have practiced it before. Hemingway said you can steal from anybody you're better than. But you can steal--in the sense of being influenced by, and even improving upon--from those who are better than you, too. People do it all the time. You can hear Joyce in Dos Passos' U.S.A., and Dos Passos' U.S.A. in Mailer's THE NAKED AND THE DEAD. Writers teach other writers how to see and hear. The possibility that illumination will come to your mind straight from personal experience is about as likely as that a boy will show slick basketball moves without having watched or played with older boys in some playground. Furthermore, what influences you will change with time. You begin, after all, with what your taste and intelligence and experience will permit you to begin with. Though it is always helpful to the young to be steered and guided toward what may catch their interest, I would be inclined, also, to throw open the library and let them find many things for themselves. The delight of discovery is a major pleasure of reading; and discovery is one of the best ways to light a fire in a creative mind. In fact, it's remarkable how wide and varied is the reading of most of the writers I know. They read for curiosity, for the purpose of keeping an eye on the competition, for the pleasure of discovery in their own field. But they also read archaeology, biography, history, physics, geography, the revelations out of biochemistry labs. Anything that is intelligible to an intelligent layman is a way to the understanding of the world they live in and write about. The most casual acts of their characters may touch areas outside their own immediate experience, and states of mind other than their own. So they read, not committing reading for the sake of the information, but picking up all sorts of information in the course of reading that is done with only curiosity and interest as its motivation. >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: Stegner on Writing (6 of 9), Read 18 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Steve Warbasse (wk4@uswest.net) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 10:32 AM Writers teach other writers how to see and hear. George Saunders says exactly the same thing in the transcript of that interview that you sent along, Dale. (Thank you.) Here is his take on the very same subject: Interrogator: How did this experiences inform your work? Saunders: I always wanted to write but had never read anything contemporary. When I was in Asia there were all these great things to write about during the oil boom, but I didn't have the vocabulary. I found myself drifting and not knowing how to put the stuff that was happening into the work because I had never seen it done before. But then I read that story "Hot Ice" by Stuart Dybek and that was basically my neighborhood where I grew up. To see that in prose. . .I couldn't pretend that only Hemingway mattered after that. Dybek was a big breakthrough because I could for the first time see what you had to do to reality to make it literature, because I knew the neighborhood and I knew the people and I could see what he'd done to it. Steve
Topic: Stegner on Writing (7 of 9), Read 20 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 10:45 AM Steve: Isn't that a great line from Saunders? Dybek was a big breakthrough because I could for the first time see what you had to do to reality to make it literature, because I knew the neighborhood and I knew the people and I could see what he'd done to it. The experience that did that for me was reading Flannery O'Connor's COLLECTED STORIES for the first time. The book was a going-away gift when I was drafted, and I read the whole thing from start to finish while undergoing the cruelty and idiocy that is basic training, as well as the worst homesickness of my life. Seeing what Flannery had done with "my people" was one of the things that pulled me through. >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: Stegner on Writing (8 of 9), Read 18 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Pres Lancaster (plancast@slip.net) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 12:11 PM By sheer coincidence, I am reading a book called "Parthian Words" by the novelist Storm Jameson - literary criticism and very good. But it turns out to have a blurb by Wallace Stegner on the back. Boy! Wouldn't you like to have a blurb like this on the back of your book? "There are few recent (1979) books that say anything sensible about the novel, that understand it's function and respect its durability, that avoid treating it either as a corpse or as an abstract design. Parthian Words is one of the few. I like Miss Jameson's stubborn Yorkshire habit of holding every new book up against the best; that's a harsh grindstone but salutary. . . .Reading this book along with her Journey from the North (surely one of the great autobiographies of our time), I can't think of any other writer who could have written these two books simultaneously. There isn't a nonsensical or pretentious word in either of them, and there is in both an exhilarating clarity of mind." Wallace Stegner That last sentence blows my mind. pres
Topic: Stegner on Writing (9 of 9), Read 19 times Conf: READING LIST BOOKS From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 27, 2000 12:28 PM Pres: Now, that's one hell of a blurb. I'm as envious of it as I am of the one that appeared on Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, from John Leonard of the N.Y. Times: You emerge from this wonderful novel as from a dream, the mind on fire... I've got to find some Jameson. >>Dale in Ala.

 
 
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