Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Stegner’s Centennial

February 18 was Wallace Stegner’s centennial. He has always been one of my favorites, and in a fascinating commentary in The New York Times, Timothy Egan reminds me why.

Stegner’s work was rooted in the rough reality of a thankless life in settings that, even when they didn’t (rarely) reek of the dusty sweep of a stark western landscape, you had the sense that they did. It is in his emptiness that I sense affinity; even in a crowded scene, his work breathes of loneliness, the sense that each of us is utterly and completely apart. It is a sentiment I share at the heart of my own writing, though I hide from it in my daily life as much as I can. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that sense of separation, to accept that there is nothing to support us here but the frail fantasy of companionship in the face of a vast, unforgiving universe.

I was surprised to read that Wallace Stegner’s work was shunned by the east coast literary elite, especially after having won both the Pulitzer and National Book Award. It is to me a startling example of a particular bias that views literature as flowing from a very narrow stream. His simplicity and depth, the crisp brilliance of his language, his almost spiritual sense of humanity and landscape, and his wisdom and generosity as a teacher, make him among my most beloved authors.

I have often shared with my writers circle his fatherly advice from a small collection of his essays, On Teaching and Writing Fiction. In “To a Young Writer”, composed in letter form, he warns of the pitfalls along the unforgiving path toward literary perfection; and in “Goin’ to Town: an Object Lesson” he reviews, practically line by line, the creative and critical process of writing one of his extraordinary short stories. It’s a book I return to again and again. I suggest it to every writer.

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