I picked up this little booklet on a whim at the public library last week. It’s the transcript of a Q&A with Stegner, Pulitzer-winning novelist and the founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, and in the same way that fiction writing advice often crosses genre boundaries and offers help to nonfiction writers, this book — aimed at writing teachers — is equally thought-provoking for any writer looking to improve their work.
I’ll likely post a few quotes from it over the next couple weeks. To start with, here’s Stegner on that essential question: Can writing be taught?
[T]here 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…
In my experience, the best teaching that goes on in a college writing class is done by members of the class, upon one another. But it is not automatic, and the teacher is not unimportant. His job is to manage the environment, which may be as hard a job as for God to manage the climate.
I’m only partway through and I’ll be interested to read what’s left — I spent my high school years enrolled in an intensive creative writing program and I’ve always thought that its greatest value lay in its ability to expose me to new writing styles and genres and to make me attempt them all, and then to force me to edit the results mercilessly.
No single piece of advice from any of my teachers sticks out: Mostly I remember being forced to read, read, read; write, write, write; edit, edit, edit. It wasn’t always a fun process, but it certainly got me writing more — and eventually, writing better — than I ever would have on my own time.