Wallace Stegner Espouses Some Unpopular Ideas

I’ve been flipping through Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction. Look at this bit:

The apprenticeship for poets is likely to be shorter than for fiction writers, because (at least in our time) poetry is essentially lyrical, which means personal, and the person is aware of himself well before he is fully aware of his entanglement in a society and a culture—the sort of entanglement out of which fiction most often arises.

Key phrase is maybe “in our time”. It’s no longer fashionable to assert that the fiction writer is concerned with the individual’s place in society, and yet you won’t be able to pick up a book from the 20th century on fictional structure and form that doesn’t assert this is the A-number-one characteristic for the novel.

Many of these texts are in my office right now. Otherwise, I’d be a good boy and quote from some to back this claim up.

At any rate, Stegner is among the first people in the U.S. (and thus the world) to get a master’s degree in creative writing. He pretty much singlehandedly began the now unimpeachable program at Stanford. And yet here’s an idea I’ve never run across, writing maturity as a factor of genre, not individual talent or ability.

It gets better:

I have never believed in assigning an entire writing class a certain body of reading. That will do for literature classes, where the problem is different. But a writer is a whole individual, stealing from whoever can help him, and ranging all of life and literature for his clues. Assigning him set readings would be like sending a young Dali or Braque or Monet to copy the Mona Lisa or Blue Boy. It would be a way to make academic writers, not good ones.

Can you believe it? I’d never be caught dead asserting that there are “good writers” and “academic writers” and that they are separate entities. How, goes the argument, are we as writers to come together and agree on a set of standards (a.k.a. the contemporary canon) without assigned readings? Stegner seems to be arguing that coming together to agree on a set of standards is a bad idea for the writing classroom.

It’s curious to me as a new teacher of writing that neither of these ideas has been carried on in the discipline. Are they so terrible? Are they more terrible than “Write what you know” or “Setting is character”? To buy them as ideas seems to result in your job as a teacher getting a lot harder. They point to the notion that there is no universal approach.

Ted Kooser, at UNL, stopped teaching workshops in the last few years I was there. He still taught, but he taught exclusively in one-on-one conferences. I like being in the classroom, and I’m excited about my courses this term, but it’s hard in putting those courses together not to fall back on received fixed ideas on How The Writing Class Should Go.

One thought on “Wallace Stegner Espouses Some Unpopular Ideas”

  1. “To buy them as ideas seems to result in your job as a teacher getting a lot harder. They point to the notion that there is no universal approach.”
    Agreed. This approach doesn’t work in the context of creative writing programs because even hiring adjuncts can’t allow for this in depth guiding of source material (not to mention the ability of the teacher to determine what might be good source material for a particular student). The model isn’t set up for one on one, except maybe at the graduate level. I don’t teach in a class room, but any time I’m getting someone into/writing poetry, I’m trying to find them a reading path that interests, challenges, and motivates. Even casually it isn’t easy. I can only imagine teaching four classes of undergrads.
    I also find the assertion that genre factors into writing maturity to be interesting. I write poetry because stories seem too complex (and I’m a bit of a neurotic perfectionist type) to master fully. I also feel that fiction almost expects a certain type of resolution you don’t need to find in poetry (which often means resolving part of a poem while opening up a new batch of questions/openings) I often chalk it up to immaturity.
    I like this, good work!


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