Wallace Stegner’s Thoughts on Teaching Creative Writing

In a comment on my recent post called “Shape in Writing,” Chris Roberts writes that he “is amused when writers try to ‘teach’ writing.  The best writing is done intuitively, absent constructs and dictates.”

As I pondered Chris’s intriguing thoughts, they brought to mind a little book called On the Teaching of Creative Writing, a series of questions posed to Wallace Stegner, who was one of my writing professors at Stanford, along with his responses.  I hadn’t intended to post anything again about Mr. Stegner, having just written about him on a recent post (July 6), but the idea of bringing in a Higher Authority who could speak much more eloquently than I to the matter appealed to me.  When I took down the book, which I hadn’t looked at in years, and read what he had to say, I decided others might find his thoughts as wise and generous as I did.

I am selecting and severely editing the questions and his replies for the sake of blog brevity (not my strong suit, apparently).  You will find a lot more on the subject in this 72 page mini-book.

What, Mr. Stegner, is your reply to the question of whether creative writing can, in point of fact, be “taught”?

W.S. “That question has been coming at me, as you can imagine, for a long time, because I taught writing for something like forty-four years, before retiring…

“Within the academy, of course, there are limited things that a teacher can do, apart from encouraging the environment of interest and criticism within which writing can take place.  How can anyone ‘teach’ writing, when he himself, as a writer, is never sure what he is doing?

“Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing.  Any voyager may be lost at sea, like John Cabot.  Nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered.  All he can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and don’ts of voyaging. 

“A teacher who has been on those seas can teach certain things—equivalents of the use of compass and sextant: the language and its uses, and certain tested literary tools and techniques and strategies and stances and ways of getting at the narrative essence of a story or novel or the dramatic force of a play or the memorableness of a poetically honed thought.

“Any teacher can discourage bad (meaning, unproductive or ineffective) habits and encourage those that work.  He can lead a young talent to do what it is most capable of doing, and save it from some frustrating misdirections.  He can communicate the necessary truth that good writing is an end in itself, that an honest writer is a member of a worthy guild.  That may be the most important function of the teacher of writing.” 

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Shape in Writing: What is it and How do you achieve it?

Sometimes when I’m critiquing a piece of writing, I find myself trying to describe the indescribable. There are certain concepts that seem to be totally necessary for the writer to grasp, but I find it hard to put the idea into words. Words, that is, that will be helpful to the writer in terms of advancing his or her writing. “Shape”– both the verb and the noun – is a word that means something to me when I use it, but I’m not always sure I’m able to get it across to the writer.  I might say something like “this material needs more shaping, or “the piece lacks shape.” But what exactly am I saying? I’m left with the task of trying to explain what I mean and how to fix it.

I should make it clear that I’m not trying to talk about structure.  David Lodge describes the structure of a narrative as “like the framework of girders that holds up a modern high-rise building: you can’t see it, but it determines the edifice’s shape and character.”  I think of structure as how the material is ordered and organized in an architectural sense, such as a classic arc or a modular arrangement.  Form may be the same thing as shape, but  is a little confusing (isn’t it all) because it can be used in the broadest sense, such as a poem, story, memoir, etc., is  a literary form, or more along the lines of a piece having found its perfect form, its essence in terms of shape and structure.  For some reason I prefer the term shape to form, perhaps because I think of it as a more active verb.  Whenever I use the word shape, my hands want to make a sphere, something three dimensional in which all the parts cohere into a tight whole.

When I asked a writer friend about shape, she said it’s something that comes well into the process, not early on when the writer is generating material.  She is so right.  It’s not something even to think about until you have a solid draft.  Louise DeSalvo, in her wonderful book Writing as a Way of Healing, has one of the best models for stages of the writing process. I’ll post about her book some time, but for now, she describes the stages as germination; working stage; deepening stage; SHAPING STAGE (“during which we find the work’s order and form”); completion stage; and going-public stage.  She says “It is at the shaping stage that we take a piece of writing and turn it into a work of art.  For it is at this stage that we can finally give our full attention to form, and we can reap the emotional benefits of having turned the seeming chaos of our experience into the order of a fully realized, carefully crafted, highly original work.  The shape of our work will contribute much to its meaning, and paying attention to its form can teach us much, too, about how we’ve come to understand our experience.” One usually has to go through some form of the previous stages to get to the later “shaping” stage.

I think readers have a felt sense of whether a piece of writing is shaped well or not. To me shape is like a centripetal force that you can’t see or point to exactly, but it is what is drawing everything together.  Most writers have had the experience of writing something in which they know exactly what belongs and what does not. Sometimes this happens when the piece is delivered whole from the unconscious workshop where it has been hammered to perfection by writing elves the writer doesn’t even know exist. It seems that the writing itself knows exactly what it wants to do and be, and it comes out fully formed and shaped.  Nothing is extraneous or irrelevant.  Obviously this is easier to achieve in a shorter work than a longer one.  Other times, the sense of a complete gestalt is only achieved over a long process as one comes closer and closer to understanding what one is really writing about.

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Elizabeth Bowen’s Brilliant, Impossible Notes on Writing Dialogue

Elizabeth Bowen

I had intended this piece to be about how brilliant Elizabeth Bowen’s notes on dialogue are, from her essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” which you can read by signing up for free at http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/fall-2006/notes-writing-novel.  The whole “Notes” is brilliant, but more than I can deal with here.

I have used these notes to teach dialogue for decades, but I suddenly had the unpleasant feeling that maybe I had violated the Writing Teacher’s Hippocratic oath:  First, do no harm.

Had I been harming writers for years by giving them impossible notions a la Bowen of what dialogue must do and be?

I’ll give you a few of her key points:

“Dialogue requires more art than does any other constituent of the novel…Art in the trickery, self-justifying distortion sense.  Why?  Because dialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism—the lifting, as it were, of passages from a stenographer’s take-down of a ‘real life’ conversation—would be disruptive.  Or what?  Of the illusion of the novel. In ‘real life’ everything in diluted; in the novel, everything is condensed.”

So far so good.

“What are the realistic qualities to be imitated (or faked) in novel dialogue?—Spontaneity.  Artless or hit-or-miss arrival at words used.  Ambiguity (speaker not sure, himself, what he means).  Effect of choking (as in engine): more to be said than can come through.  Irrelevance. Allusiveness.  Erraticness: unpredictable course.  Repercussion.”

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Donald Murray’s Essential Delay in Writing

In my last blog, One Big (Dictated) Whine, I mentioned feeling stuck on the next section of my novel, and that I needed to wait until a voice started up to begin writing. Writing waiting always makes me nervous. After all, maybe it’s just plain old procrastination or laziness, or horrors, the dreaded writer’s block. Maybe I should just make myself do it. And sometimes that is necessary and works. You just start, and something comes. But I’ve been writing a long time, and struggling with writing a long time, and I have kind of learned when waiting is okay. We could even say that there are times when waiting is the best thing.

These thoughts on waiting brought to mind an article I hadn’t read in a long time, called “The Essential Delay: When Writers Block Isn’t,” by Donald M. Murray, who was a distinguished professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and died in 2006. The essay is in a collection called When a Writer Can’t Write, edited by Mike Rose, which is out of print (though some copies are available on Amazon); the Murray article is not available separately on the Internet.  You might be interested in the other articles in the book but they are more directed towards academic writing and teaching composition. I e-mailed Mike Rose to inquire if he would be willing and able to grant me permission to make the article available to you via a scanned attachment. What a swell guy!  He has an impressive career going writing books and articles on language, literary and cognition; check him out at http://www.mikerosebooks.com/Site/Welcome.html. He wrote right back that I could do with the article as I wished, so if you send me an email, either at pbalden@aol.com, or via my website contact form, I will email you the article as an attachment.

Murray makes a strong case that delay precedes effective writing. The essay is chock-full of wonderful quotes from writers such as Virginia Woolf, Kafka,  Hemingway, and many others, all testifying to the importance of waiting. He acknowledges the anxiety waiting creates, and that there is no certainty that the waiting will be productive.  Yet the experienced writer knows that sometimes you have to wait for something to form, and it seems to me that you can trust this as part of the process.

Murray feels there are five things the writer needs to know – or feel – before beginning to write.  Since I did wait, then began writing yesterday, thank goodness, it’s interesting for me to see how my own experience fits into his five categories.

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“Brainey” Ways to Write a Novel

I wish one (or more!) of you would tell me how to write a novel. I’m trying to write a new one, and can use all the help I can get.

I have written a novel before (make that several, only one of which has seen the light of day). Probably writing previous novels does help somewhat in writing a new one. Is it like climbing mountains?  If you’ve bagged Mt. Rainier and then Everest, say, you have some idea of what it’s going to take to climb Mount McKinley.  But it’s a whole new mountain.  Every mountain and novel is so different, it’s hard to extrapolate too much from one to another.  You just know eventually you’re going to have to put one foot in front of the other, one word in front of the last one—for a long, long time.

Those of you who have read about my idea for the new novel (you can scan back through my blog posts to “Here at Hambidge, #3,Willie Earle, etc.” if you want more detail) know it is based on a 1947 lynching and trial in my hometown of Greenville, S.C.  I have a wealth of research material, and I’m about 16,000 words into the thing.  Gee, only 84,000 to go….

I’m the type who needs some sort of scaffolding as I start to build a draft.  I like to know as much as possible going in, tanking up, as it were.  Here are some things I know about this novel: it will have four main characters speaking in first person, telling their stories in retrospect around the main events of the lynching and trial, with the resulting emotional, psychological and spiritual effects it had on each of them. I am borrowing this structure from an amazing novel, The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks, which has four main characters speaking in first person about a school bus accident that killed a number of children.  I admire this novel so much, and I am greatly drawn to the tone, mood, and style of it.  I’m no Russell Banks, and mine will in the end be nothing like his (not nearly as masterful, that’s for sure) but it has helped me a lot as I start to have this template in mind.

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Show AND Tell

Murf on chair

I’ve been meaning to write something about Show AND Tell, and now I have…only I’ve put it into an article, for those of you who are interested, in keeping with my new goal of making my blogs shorter!  “Show, don’t tell” is a pet peeve of mine in writing.  I think what students/writers need to learn is to do both, but some have been so brain-washed into thinking that they have to show, don’t tell, that they’re afraid to tell–anything.  And their writing often lacks density and texture because of it.  So if you’re a writer and if you’re interested in reading my rather pedantic and laborious thoughts on the subject, please look for the first “Show AND Tell” in what may be a series of articles on scenes and exposition…under “articles” on my website menu. I sense that I have more to say on the subject!

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