Skip to content

Delicious descriptions: Wallace Stegner on “what writers do”

June 29, 2014

In my recent review of Stegner’s last novel, Crossing to safety, I talked a little about the nature of art (in its wider meaning). I wanted to include the following excerpt but it was a little long, and anyhow, I felt it deserved its own post. So, here it is …

About two-thirds through the novel, Sid and Charity’s daughter suggests that Larry write a novel about them, but he demurs:

– Hallie, you’ve got the wrong idea of what writers do. They don’t understand any more than other people. They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask questions they can answer. Those aren’t people you see in books, those are constructs. Novels or biographies, it makes no difference. I couldn’t reproduce the real Sid and Charity Lang, much less explain them; and if I invented them I’d be falsifying something I don’t want to falsify.

– I thought fiction was the art of making truth out of faked materials.

– Sure. This would be making falsehood out of true materials.

This leads in to the quote on writing about quiet lives that I used in my review.

Stegner did, though, draw inspiration from people he knew. In fact, Crossing to safety was inspired by the friendship he and his wife had with a couple called the Grays. They all met at the University of Wisconsin and they summered together in Vermont many times (I believe). The Grays had died by the time the novel was published, but their children did see and approve the manuscript before it was published.

I like the fact that Stegner, who wrote biographies as well as fiction, doesn’t differentiate these two forms in terms of the creation of “character”. Unlike fiction, biographies may aim for “fact” – but the facts are still selected and interpreted resulting in a version of the subject, aren’t they?

I’m intrigued though by the idea that novelists only ask questions they can answer. I wonder whether they sometimes use fiction to explore questions they can’t answer?

Anyhow, I’d love to hear your perspectives on this – particularly if you are a writer.

35 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2014 12:59

    Now there’s an interesting question! I’m always wary of writers who speak in universals, as if their own experience must be the same for everyone. I’ve read lots of writers who say that they write to sort out the chaos in their head, to find out what they think, without any guarantee that they have an answer. For myself, I’d bore myself to tears if I only wrote about what I had an answer to. In poetry, I think, it can be immediately surprising to look back and discover what I’ve just said. And the same in fiction, though you have to wait longer! I love the saying (forgotten who said it): ‘Don’t write about what you know; write about what you don’t know about what you know.’ Yes!

    • Jim KABLE permalink
      June 29, 2014 13:09

      Robyn: Excellent conclusion! Just read now – having posted my own inadequate if lengthy response!

    • June 29, 2014 13:09

      Thanks Robyn for confirming what I thought I’d heard writers say and what I imagined to be the case. I was quite fascinated by Stegner’s statement which I think was meant to be taken seriously.

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    June 29, 2014 13:07

    “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…” – blah! blah! a legal construct for many writers in order to avoid legal action. I seem to recall in my youth that there was a fairly standard line taken by writers – who were in those days in any case not subjected to the kind of public celebrity probing of writers’ festivals/interviews we know in these times – that no, they didn’t base their (literary) novels on real people. The fiction was maintained even by some of the most important literary theorists of the 20th century – the focus was shifted not to the inspiration (and in fact the author and the author’s background was treated as irrelevant) but to examination of style and structure and plot development and characterisation. I truly came to an abiding interest in literature (and firstly, primarily, Australian literature) nearly four decades ago – rejecting LEAVIS-ite cleverness (as I thought of it) in favour of finding truths – no matter how disguised/altered – of this land its society. After time in Europe/the World in my 20s my wife and I fetched up in Mudgee. The warmth of that name still floods me even as I write/word-process it here. My wife returned to teaching – there was an oversupply – so until relief teaching picked up (Gulgong, Rylstone, Kandos, Mudgee High)I spent time doing things such as book-selling, Morgan Gallup-polling, and packing gherkins on a farm at Eurunderee. Some of you will have already picked up on the resonance: it was where Henry LAWSON (LARSEN) grew up. Set many of his Joe Wilson stories. Rolf BOLDREWOOD of Robbery Under Arms lived near Gulgong – and one of the models for his composite Captain Starlight cattle duffer was Harry READFORD – born just out of Rylstone. Lived/observed experience lay thick on the ground in the latter 19th century as material feeding the writing – so why should all that dry up once we reached the 20th century. Back in Sydney – my life took other twists and I found myself seeking out writing illuminating the immigrant refugee experience – as writing to study with my students – adult and secondary. Pino BOSI (a model for John O’GRADY’s Nino Culotta), Judah WATEN, Gillian BOURAS, Rex INGAMELLS, Mena ABDULLAH (& Ray MATHEWS) Time of the Peacock – and this led to early days inviting writers to my classes, collaborating with them at conference workshops…

    Do they already know the answers, though, when they start out to write? I would think some do – but I would guess that many do not know exactly until the writing process leads them to certain unfoldings – clarifications – conclusions! And I agree with you that biographies are just one version of the person who is the subject – some handled better than others (Andrew MARR on Patrick White/Garry KINNANE on George Johnston).

    Actually I do think that writers see better than most of us – the public face, the private heart – the meanings of words – spoken as well as written – gesture and “look” – actions and consequences. But it doesn’t mean that their own lives are any tidier or messier – in the long run – than any of the rest of us. But when it comes to describing the results of things done or left undone – their dissections are cleaner-edged – and in the fictional setting can be teased apart – all the tiny accretions – so that we the reader might find ourselves nodding in agreement with that examined aspect as we see the truth it carries.

    This I believe! (Well, it seemed appropriate to channel Eric BAUME at this juncture – just in case I was sounding a little too self-assured in my chronology!) Really – This I think, maybe – is how it is – as seen from my standpoint/experience…

    • June 29, 2014 18:35

      Yes, thanks Jim. I agree with much of what you say here. I think writers (and other creatives) do probably “see” better than the rest of us – or they are better at encapsulating what they see into something meaningful that we can, as you say, read or see, and say “ah, yes” or “oh, that’s an interesting perspective to apply to this situation”. I also think that many start writing to find an answer to a question – and that sometimes they do find an answer while other times they find a few more questions!

    • June 29, 2014 19:42

      Jim, this is interesting. I’ve often thought about how many times writers are called on to give lectures or opinions on matters other than writing, and wondered whether a wider kind of wisdom is required of them. But I like your comment that they ‘see better than us’, and I do think that, often, that’s because they spend time with characters, ideas, words, and learn to see things clearly. So, I wonder if it’s the process of writing itself that helps with the seeing, rather than a previous innate perception — at least, to some degree. And thanks for the kind words!

      • June 29, 2014 21:33

        Hmmm … good question Robyn. I think there could be something in the fact that the process of writing encourages/helps writers see more but I also think that it’s because writers see more that they start the process in the first place. What’s the chicken and what’s the egg?

  3. June 29, 2014 14:12

    Well now my gum whispering friend, speaking from the slender grandeur of two ‘memoirs’ and one novel, I offer these unconsidered responses:

    1. When I wrote my father’s compass’, a memoir of my noble and loving father, I wrestled with the fact vs fiction dilemma: how to write faithfully to the facts while keeping faith with an honoured father? I enquired of a fearless truth-teller, Helen garner Her advice. – write down the true facts, put them into the bottom drawer and one day they’ll speak to you and you what to do with them

    I decided I would do as Helen advised

    Then my Dad solved the proem for me (he was still alive at this stage): I showed him a piece of my writing about his stubborn refusal at ninety to accept he was no longer the consummate motor car operator, the king of outback road and highway of my childhood I handed the piece to him, stating I had not and would not show this to anyone, save with his consent Dad read and said – you can show that to anyone – that’s how it was

    What Dad demonstrated in that moment as in his ninety years was his fidelity to truth, his integrity, his fixed true north

    That was his life

    Hence the title ‘ my father’s compass’

    So I didn’t have to choose between honouring Dad and honouring truth: the two were the same

    Elsewhere I did write more deviously: I chose the memories that seemed strongest Equally the memories chose me It was a memoir of a relationship where broad truth and narrow fact were not always congruent

    Did I fake it? Did I fabricate it? No to the first, yes to the second This ‘biographer’ selected and arranged to convey what feelings the facts created and what feelings persisted


    Sent from my iPhone

    • June 29, 2014 18:40

      That’s more than slender grandeur Mr Goldenberg! Thanks for commenting. I really hoped writers would share their views and experiences. I love the fact that you checked with your Dad, and that he was confident enough to agree with your portrayal. Great title. I like your distinction between “fake” and “fabricate”. Makes sense to me.

  4. Lithe lianas permalink
    June 29, 2014 22:45

    Characters in novels may start out as ‘constructs’ or inventions but to the admirer/lover of a well-written book they become people. I spend (too) much thinking time wondering if Elizabeth and Darcy’s lives lived up to their and our expectations, or what would have happened to Jane if Mr Rochester’s wife had not leapt to her death or … the list could go on. It is one of the pleasures of reading that, apart from what I learn about human nature, I can see real people on the pages and use my imagination to develop my own ideas about their futures. It is also why we weep over the fates of some characters and delight in the happiness of others – all of which help us develop and increase our own ability to empathise with the people around us and around the world.

    • June 30, 2014 00:08

      Very true Lithe Lianas … they very often do become people I agree, which is I think why I also enjoy Stegner’s books. His characters are very real – just like Elizabeth and Darcy!

  5. Bryce permalink
    June 30, 2014 15:22

    Very interesting discussion. It could be said that writers only ask questions they can answer even if they don’t know what that answer is until they’ve written themselves into it. I think Larry’s comments are true in some sense – even when characters are based on real people they are still only ‘constructs’, not the real people. Thus the novelist makes truth out of faked materials. While Stegner did base Charity and Sidney on real people, he did not claim that he was reproducing or explaining those actual people.
    In a conversation quoted by Jane Smiley, he said: “I was trying to get some friends of ours down where I could understand them. It turned out to be a novel because I invented a whole lot more than I intended. I was going to do this one right straight from life but I can’t do that. I’m not to be trusted with life; I keep inventing it . . . There was a Charity. She is dead. But I wanted to get her said. All of her children suffered from her inordinately because she bore down on them. She couldn’t do anything except in her own way.”
    This could be the origin of Larry’s comments: Stegner started out trying “to get some friends down where I could understand them” but, realising that would be making falsehood out of true materials, he ended up writing a novel with “constructs” instead. He asked a question for which his writing could find an answer.
    This isn’t a perfect fit for Larry’s remarks, but then again, Larry is a construct, and may be saying something his creator does not agree with.

    • June 30, 2014 15:32

      Oh thanks for this Bryce. You must have the Penguin edition with the Smiley introduction? I have an old US published Penguin edition without introduction, but a couple in my reading group had the Smiley one. I’d love to have read her intro. I like your idea that in this case anyhow, the author has written a novel that found an answer to his question. I love your final comment! You always do have to beware whether the speaker in a novel is meant to be taken seriously don’t you? I think Larry is, but we need to retain some doubt.

      • Bryce permalink
        June 30, 2014 16:16

        I have the US Penguin too (purchased after finishing the audiobook so that I could reread it), but found the Jane Smiley intro online at Penguin.

        • June 30, 2014 16:18

          Oh thanks Bryce for that link. I had a quick look at the Penguin website – but the Aussie one – when I was looking for a book cover but there was nothing there. (I didn’t specifically though search for Smiley). I’ll go read this.

  6. June 30, 2014 18:24

    I agree with robyncadwallader that writers would bore themselves and their readers witless if they only asked questions to which they knew the answers. I once heard it said that there are two kinds of fiction writers – those who write away from themselves, and those who write towards themselves. I definitely belong to the second category. I was shocked when, three quarters of the way through my novel about the British atomic bomb tests at Maralinga, I discovered that my main character was very like my father. I’d thought I was about as far away from myself as I could get!

    • June 30, 2014 20:17

      Oh that’s fascinating Dorothy … both the writing towards or away from oneself, and finding you were writing a character like your father. Perhaps there was a question there you had to find the answer to?

  7. July 1, 2014 06:41

    Do novelists only ask questions they can answer? Hmm. I would guess the mediocre and not so good writers do while the really good writers are always exploring new ground and not staying in the shallow end of the pool where it is safer. You post prompted some really interesting comments that I enjoyed reading!

    • July 1, 2014 08:00

      Thanks Stefanie … I’ve enjoyed the comments too. Interesting that most don’t really agree with Stegner’s Larry who I think is supposed to be taken seriously.

      • July 1, 2014 09:06

        Perhaps it’s the difference of time and belief about what art should and should do/be?

        • July 1, 2014 09:30

          Yes that crossed my mind, though Crossing to safety is less than 30 years old … Maybe it’s how he defines “answer”?

  8. July 1, 2014 09:44

    Belatedly: often (my, and so many others’) writing articulates a latent understanding which only makes itself know as we write. I’ve found this with personal not for publication writing as much as for published work.

    Hopefully the reader gains as much from the articulation as the writer.

    When I wrote The Petrov Poems I researched meticulously and almost footnoted every poem, but as I wrote I saw that what was fuelling the novel was deeply personal material about my own family, particularly in the post-defection stages of the Petrovs’ lives.

    Even when I was writing short fictions, I felt I was laying out my blood and guts for public perusal. (I mightn’t have done it if I’d realised beforehand.)

    Isn’t it inevitable that anything we write is us? (much as we might like to get away from her?) (and of course we do, the more we articulate her.)

    I’m straying from Ms WG’s starting point but did want to join this conversation; have been revelling in others’ contributions.

    • July 1, 2014 11:52

      Lesley, it’s never too late! Thanks for joining in. This sounds like you agree with Dorothy Johnston’s writing towards herself. I think if the writing is good, the reader does go on the journey from question to answer (or more questions, perhaps) with the writer. I think writing is a brave activity because, yes, I find it hard to imagine pretty well any writing that doesn’t in some way lay the writer bare (and that brings some real risks for the writer. You really are a brave bunch.) Oh, and I don’t think you’ve strayed at all! You’ve just extended…

  9. July 1, 2014 11:10

    I agree with Lesley’s comment too. You could spend your life pondering all this, getting lost in fogs and mirrors. I don’t believe serious writers ‘know’ what they’re looking for, in any graspable sense, before they start – not the questions they want to ask, and certainly not the answers – but ‘knowing’ on a deeper level? Personally, I’m content for that to remain a mystery.

    • July 1, 2014 12:04

      Yes, Dorothy, I thought you would … I could see your thinking in Lesley’s. I’m happy with some mysteries. This is going off on a real and somewhat superficial tangent now but I think this is one reason why I’m not a big reader of series. I don’t really want to know what happened next. I do engage with characters, and can become emotional about them, but they are always “characters”. It’s the journey, the ideas (that I think!) the writer is exploring that matters to me most. So, to take Pride and prejudice, for example. I’m not really interested in what might happen next to Elizabeth and Darcy. What matters is Austen’s exploration of women’s choices and what she thinks might make a good relationship. Of course, if Austen had lived longer and wanted then to explore how such a relationship might work, then …

  10. July 2, 2014 10:28

    I’ve been thinking about your comment overnight, and I think I might understand part of your frustration. Is it that, in a ‘mystery’ novel, or series of novels, the plot displaces the characters’ inner lives, and the exploration of ideas that you value and find rewarding? Of necessity, the authors of such series have to spend a fair amount of time on ‘what happens next’, or, in the words of Charles May, (another great book blogger), ‘one darned thing after another’? I say ‘of necessity’, but I wish it weren’t so; I wish the one didn’t have to be at the expense of the other.

    • July 2, 2014 11:22

      Yes, that’s partly it, Dorothy. Of course you rather need some sort of story to make a novel but that’s not the main reason I read – it’s the inner lives, relationships, ideas and values, that I’m interested in. I’m not sure if I’m going to express this the right way, but in some cases it’s also related to that idea of “characters” being “real”, in the sense that some readers don’t like a book because they don’t like the character. I think if you see characters as “real” you become invested in their lives and want to “follow” them. Again, I want characters to be believable/make some sort of sense but I don’t see them as “real” and therefore when the book ends I’m happy for them to end too! Does that make sense?

      (I haven’t come across Charles May … will check him out).

  11. July 2, 2014 11:14

    Ah! Have we come back to Ms WG’s starting point: the quotation from Stegner about making ‘falsehood out of true materials’? In series (and fan fiction), there’s not the motivating energy to discover the kind of something that made Austen worth reading.

    I suspect that Dorothy’s ‘of necessity’, though awfully probable, mightn’t be inevitable. Awfully probable: look what happened to Milton.

    And because as a reader who likes to find the what writers are writing towards (thanks, Dorothy), I’ve also found that I’ll have what amounts to an orgy of reading one writer (currently David Foster Wallace; [I may have to abandon parentheses in favour of the foot note in homage to him]) and then when I think/feel I’ve got what they have to offer, I don’t feel a need to read their next book.

    • July 2, 2014 11:27

      Ah, that’s interesting Lesley, that is, about once you think/feel you’ve got what they have to offer, you don’t feel like reading their next book. I can feel like that, but sometimes the, to be cliched, beauty of the writing (the characterisation, the place, etc) will keep me reading even if I think I’ve “got” them. To name names, and I’ll go American for this, I don’t feel the urgency to read Amy Tan’s latest because I’ve understand, I believe, what she’s about (though I think the latest does have an interesting story and my reading group has scheduled it!) BUT I still have some Edith Whartons to go and I’m keen to read them because though I think I’ve “got” her, she still “gets” me! There is though that since of so many books. If I’ve got someone, then perhaps then’s the time to try someone new?

  12. July 8, 2014 18:09

    Thanks for this discussion, WG, and for the review of Crossing to Safety. I didn’t want to read either until I finished reading the book, which sickness thankfully has enabled. I think Stegner did remarkable things with it, and if Larry’s manifesto as stated to Hallie is his (and it must be) he certainly succeeded. As a native American whose parents were of Stegner’s generation I found the book especially resonant on a number of levels (wrestling with antisemitism being one). I admired his powers of description and the way he developed a scene, with all the little gestures accompanying the dialogue. In other words his style and craft. But as for Larry’s assertion that writers only write about things about which they know the answers … Well, that’s bunkum of course and I think he’s playing with us there. I can only speak for myself but I’m definitely the kind of writer who’s intrigued, inspired by people whom I don’t understand or whom I feel are very different from me and my impetus has always been to ‘know’. Not always a very noble aim at all. But then a curious thing happens. The character based on that person changes, becomes different again, probably because I have draw on parts of my own inner self to continue. But it’s not even as simple as that. On several occasions I have managed to write certain things about a character that, although I had no direct knowledge of them, turned out to have actually happened to the source of my inspiration. It was as though I’d picked these out of the ether. It wasn’t that I ‘saw’ anything better than anyone else because it was entirely unconscious. (This btw was beyond any research I’d done or the time and sweat put into observation and refinement.). I’ve come to suspect that many writers have this ability – if that’s what to call it – but many significant ones have it more than the rest of us. It’s their conduit to zeitgeist. And naturally I’d be interested to know other ideas about this. Thanks again, WG, for getting these juices flowing.

  13. July 8, 2014 19:06

    That’s fascinating Sara about the characters you’ve written. Although I’m not creative, I can imagine that happening if you are in a let-the-creative-juices-flow zone.

    Re the bunkum, it seems like we all agree, but I can’t work out what the clues are to Larry not being serious (and therefore to his not expressing Stegner’s own view – but maybe that’s where I’m making the mistake. Larry is not Stegner!)

    Oh, and I’m glad there was something to be thankful about being sick for. (Have you read Stegner before?)

    • July 8, 2014 19:43

      Never read anything of his, so it’s been a discovery. Would like to read more. I know one writer who was disappointed – would like to find out why. As for the Larry/Stegner differentiation, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. And there’s also that business about his genuine modesty – the character’s that is, and not wanting to appear too much ‘better’ or cleverer than Hallie’s father – Sid. And in one of the interviews Smiley alludes to Stegner himself admits wanting to figure out the woman who was the springboard for the Charity character. So it’s all certainly complex.
      (By the way I did pick up your comment on the Charlotte blog and have replied. Still haven’t figured out how to notify but then haven’t really put my mind to it yet. And thanks.)

      • July 8, 2014 20:59

        Thanks for expanding on the Larry/Stegner distinction, Sara. That makes sense – and the fact that he really didn’t want to do the novel Hallie was suggesting.

        I’ve only read Angle of repose besides this – it’s historical, is more typical I think of his work in dealing with the east-west business. I read it a couple of years after we returned from our Southern California posting – and just loved it. I think, with your background, you’d enjoy it (or, at least, find it very interesting.)

        I think I’ve seen your reply on your blog. I wouldn’t worry about the notification business because I’ve researched and researched it – albeit I’m not techie – and think it can’t be done on a free hosted blogger blog.

        • July 8, 2014 21:30

          I think that’s the conclusion I came to as well. Am also interested in your Southern California posting. If it was LA, then you should know that I’ve read just about every book – fiction and nonfiction – that I could get my hands on about the city I’ve loved and hated. From chandler to Macdonald to Fante to West and Schulberg and Fitzgerald and Williams and Davis and Banham and I could go on even more as nausem than I’m doing now. Are you acquainted with any of these?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: