A Nostalgic Visit to Stanford, May, 2012


Memorial Church, Stanford
Stanford Memorial Church

I just got back from a wonderful week in California, taking a trip down memory lane as part of celebrating (and taking the sting out of) my 65th birthday.

I’ve been back to Palo Alto and Stanford a number of times since I moved away in the fall of 1974.  But there was something special about returning to the scene of my youth just as I was turning 65.  I went to Stanford right after I graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1969, as a twenty-two year old Stegner Fellow, got my Master’s (MFA, though it wasn’t called that then) there, and then taught for three years as a Jones Lecturer in creative writing.  I spent five formative years at Stanford trying to develop as a writer—an effort that continues forty years later. You’d think I’d have the hang of it by now.  Anyway, Stanford was so important to me, and so good for me and to me. 

How affluent and privileged Stanford looked.   The whole place seemed embossed with gold!  It’s got to be one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere in the world.  The center piece is Memorial Church, a Renaissance style church built in 1903 by the Stanford family in memory of their son, Leland Stanford Junior, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 15 in Florence, Italy.  Study on that heartbreak for a moment.  The large mosaic on the church’s façade appears inlaid with gold. The central quad is composed of buff sandstone buildings with open arches and red tile roofs in California mission style, creating a sense of serenity and grace.  Since I was there, the campus has expanded exponentially, with more and more buildings going up, impressive, state of the art structures around the edges of the original campus.  But there are still great open, green spaces with groves of shaggy, shedding eucalyptus trees.  Everything is lush and landscaped with native flora, plants and trees that thrive in that benevolent climate.   It feels like the Garden of Eden, North California style. 

Stanford Mission Style Architecture
Stanford Mission Style Architecture


Of course this part of California, Palo Alto and the surrounding communities of Los Altos Hills and Woodside, has a golden feel to it. I don’t think there is a more beautiful landscape in the world than the foothills directly behind the campus, gentle swells that bring to mine the human body, breasts and buttocks in particular, as if you’re viewing a monumental, living work of art based on the human form.  In May the foothills are green, punctuated here and there with graceful, craggy live oaks.  Beyond the foothills lie the more rugged low mountains of La Honda where Ken Keasey and his band of Merry Pranksters hung out.  Beyond that, Half Moon Bay and the Pacific Ocean. 

The gold feel also has to do with Silicon Valley, where people are making or have made more money than most people can imagine.  These days it’s impossible to live in Palo Alto unless you bought a house early, or are now very wealthy.  My friend Susan had the sense and wherewithal to buy a bungalow on Amherst Street for $70,000 back in the mid-seventies. It’s surely worth well over a million now.  It’s right across the street from Mark Zukerberg’s former house.  Facebook was right at the end of Amherst Street, much to Susan’s dismay. Traffic.  But according to Susan, Mark is a nice guy. His house, though large, was by no means ostentatious. He doesn’t care about those kind of things, apparently.  His yapping dog bothered Susan when it was in the front yard, so she’d cross the street to tell him and he’d take care of it, at least temporarily.  I realize that Mark Zukerberg is just another dude in the ‘hood.  But I admit I listened with undue fascination to the story of Mark’s barking dog.  Mark Zuckerberg lived directly across the street!  That was his house!  Just this week I read about Mark courting investors on Wall Street while wearing a hoodie. Hoodiegate, the news is calling it.

The temperature last week was a perfect 75, not a cloud in the bright, blue sky.  There was a peaceful, laid-back feel to the campus, with students riding bikes, going about in shorts, brainy as hell no doubt, but seemingly without a care in the world.  I remembered well the astonished feeling of having been anointed, one of the chosen, that I enjoyed when I was a part of Stanford.  I always said it raised my IQ ten points just to be there.  More than any other place I’ve experienced, it felt as if Stanford had the largess, once you were one of their own, to take good care of you.  Stanford supported me, absolutely, from the initial $3,000 Stegner Fellowship (which was enough money to live on for a year back then, along with food stamps) to funding my Master’s and then providing me a part-time teaching job.  I spent five years at Stanford and never paid the university for anything related to my time there.  Now it seems unbelievable, an incredible gift.  

I realize I’m looking back on this period of my youth through the golden glow of nostalgia. But walking around campus last week, I felt nostalgic for the time and place, and the young woman I had been.   I arrived in the fall of ’74 driving a new Chevy Nova I had bought with the $3,000 I had won from a writing contest sponsored by the Book of the Month Club.  I rented a tiny efficiency on Cowper Street at the far end of University Avenue, decorating it with a collection of hats.  Every school day I’d walk down University Avenue and along Palm Drive, the long entrance into campus, with the view of the church and foothills before me. Continue reading “A Nostalgic Visit to Stanford, May, 2012”

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.” 

Continue reading “Wallace Stegner’s Thoughts on Teaching Creative Writing”

A Wallace Stegner Reminiscence

Stegner in 1969

A friend who lives in Palo Alto sent me an article a few weeks ago about the proposed demolition of Wallace Stegner’s house and writing studio in Los Altos Hills. Seems a couple had bought the property and intended to build a two story house there.  Then recently I read on-line that the Historical Preservation something-or-other had sent a letter to Los Altos requesting an environmental review due to the home’s significance, which will delay the couple’s plans.

I have no dog in this fight, but reading the piece on Stegner’s house brought back a lot of memories.  I house sat for the Stegners during the summer of 1971.

I had arrived at Stanford in the fall of ’69 as a twenty-two year old Stegner Fellow.  As I wrote in Crossing the Moon, “The fellowship was named for a famous writer I had never heard of.  In fact, I had barely heard of Stanford, and I kept confusing the name in my mind, sometimes calling it Sanford when I told people the places I’d applied to graduate school.”

I’d like to regale you with wonderful stories of what it was like to be a student in Mr. Stegner’s writing workshop.  (Some people called him Wally.  Did I ever call him Wally?  Not on your life.  I suspect I tried not to call him anything.)  But I was nearly comatose from self-consciousness, insecurity, shyness, and fear, really, at suddenly being at Stanford, being a Stegner Fellow, and trying to write (which had come easily to me when there was no pressure).  It was a heady time, both personally and politically, on campus and in the world at large.  We were undergoing a youth revolution in the forms of the women’s movement, sexual revolution, anti-war protests, anti-authority radicalism, and overall destruction of the old order.  A lot of Mr. Stegner’s values were being trashed on the right and left, and he didn’t like it one bit.  He expressed some of his displeasure for all this uncivilized change in All the Little Live Things, an anti-hippie diatribe which was set at the Los Altos Hills house.

He was about to leave teaching, and about to win the Pulitzer prize for Angle of Repose.  It was only in reading Philip L Fradkin’s Wallace Stegner and the American West that I became fully aware of how tumultuous and conflicted those years were for Mr. Stegner.  I wasn’t privy to any of that at the time.  To me, he was “just” my teacher who treated me invariably with kindness and gentleness.  I must have turned away, as from a blinding light, from the recognition of how famous and great he was.  He was so handsome, with his white, wavy hair and weathered face, and there was always about him a sense of wisdom, benevolence and graciousness.  He had his heart in the right places, such as trying to protect the environment from the rapid, unregulated growth that was taking place in California, and in nurturing young writers.

I was one in a long line of students who helped the Stegners out.  He must have recognized that I had been raised right, and he probably knew that I’d be the type who would suffer when the deer ate the dwarf Japanese maple tree in the front courtyard on my watch, which I did.  He wrote on my recommendation for my first teaching job, “She is a South Carolina girl, and a very ladylike one, soft-voiced and charming; at the same time, she has a mind, and a willingness to use it, and no inhibitions about standing up for her opinions [he was a fiction writer].  On the one hand she is the sort of gentle girl that elderly professors wish they had for a daughter.  On the other she is a gifted writer with a set of sharp perceptions, and without being in any visible way belligerent about it, she is a child of her own generation, and quite astonishingly independent.”

Continue reading “A Wallace Stegner Reminiscence”