WALLACE STEGNER (1909-1993)
"Letter to A YOUNG WRITER"
Your note asks advice on some purely practical matters, and to most of your questions the answers are dead-easy. No, you don't need any agent yet; later you probably will. Yes, you might try lifting sections out of your book and trying them on magazines; it can do no harm, and it might get you an audience or make you some money or both. No, there is no reason why you shouldn't apply for one of the available fellowships:
Guggenheim or Saxton or, since you are uncommitted, one of those offered by publishers. By the same token, you are eligible to submit your book to any prize contest and to apply for admission to any of the literary and artistic colonies, such as Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony or the Huntington Hartford Foundation. Even a brief residence in one of these would give you a place to live and write and would remove at least for a few weeks or months the insecurity that has nearly unnerved you. Of course I will write letters to any of these places in your behalf, of course I will give you letters to publishers, and if we happen to be in New York at the same time I will be happy to take you up to an office or two or three and introduce you.
But when I have said this, I am left feeling that most of what you really hoped to hear has been left unsaid. I suspect that much of the reason for your writing me was a need for reassurance: Your confidence had suddenly got gooseflesh and damp palms; you came up out of your book and looked around you and were hit by sudden panic. You would like to be told that you are good and that all this difficulty and struggle and frustration will give way gradually or suddenly, preferably suddenly, to security, fame, confidence, the conviction of having worked well and faithfully to a good end and become someone important to the world. If I am wrong in writing to this unspoken plea, forgive me; it is the sort of thing I felt myself at your age, and still feel, and will never get over feeling.
It is no trouble to tell you that you indeed are good, much too good to remain unpublished. Because publishers are mainly literate and intelligent, most of them are sure to see the quality in your novel, and one of them is sure to publish it. But that is as far as I can honestly go in reassurance, for I suspect he will publish it with little expectation of its making much money, either for him or for you.
Naturally I am not saying anything as foolish as that literary worth and popularity are incompatible. They are proved compatible quite frequently, but almost always when the writer in question possesses some form of the common touch-humor, sentiment, violence, sensationalism, sex, a capacity for alarm—and raises it to the level of art. Shakespeare and Rabelais and Mark Twain didn't exhaust the possibilities of lifting a whole mass ofcommon preoccupations into beauty and Significance. But it is your misfortune (and also your specific virtue) to have an uncommon touch. Your virtues are not the virtues of the mass of the population, or even of the reading population. Restraint, repose, compassion, humor that isn't ribald and feeling that isn't sentimental—these are caviar to the general, whatever you and I might wish.
You write better than hundreds of people with established literary reputations. You understand your characters and their implications, and you take the trouble to make sure that they have implications. Without cheating or bellowing or tearing a passion to tatters, you can bring a reader to that alert participation that is the truest proof of fiction's effectiveness. You think ten times where a lot of writers throb once.
And there is very little demand for the cool, perfect things you can do. You have gone threadbare for ten years to discover that your talents are almost sure to go unappreciated.
It is one thing to go threadbare for five or ten years in show business or to spend eight or ten years on a medical or legal education. A man can do it cheerfully, for the jackpots are there in those professions and may be expected by the talented in the course of time. And I suspect that you have had somewhere before you the marshlight of a jackpot, too. After all, every publishing season produces that happy sound of someone's apron being filled with solid, countable money. Your own seven years in college and two and a half years of apprenticeship on this first novel should entitle you to at least the milder sorts of expectation.
Since I participated in it, I know something about your education, and I know that it took. A literary education does not necessarily tum out even a good reader, much less a good writer. But with you it did both. You are a sharpened instrument, ready and willing to be put to work.
For one thing, you never took writing to mean self-expression, which means self-indulgence. You understood from the beginning that writing is done with words and sentences, and you spent hundreds of hours educating your ear, writing and rewriting and rewriting until you began to handle words in combination as naturally as one changes tones with the tongue and lips in whistling. I speak respectfully of this part of your education, because every year I see students who will not submit to it-who have only themselves to say and who are bent upon saying it without concessions to the English language. In acknowledging that the English language is a difficult instrument and that a person who sets out to use it expertly has no alternative but to learn it, you did something else. You forced yourself away from that obsession with self that is the strength of a very few writers and the weakness of so many. You have labored to put yourself in charge of your material; you have not fallen for the romantic fallacy that it is virtue to be driven by it. By submitting to language, you submitted to other disciplines, you learned distance and detachment, you learned how to avoid muddying a story with yourself.
That much the study of writing in college has given you. It might have given you worse things as well, but didn't. It might have made you a coterie writer, might have imprinted on you some borrowed style or some arrogance of literary snobbery, might have made you forever a leaner and a dependent. How many times have I backpedaled from some young man furious to destroy with words the father he thinks he hates; how many times have I turned cold to avoid becoming a surrogate father or even mother. How much compulsive writing have I read, inwardly flinching for the helpless enslavement it revealed. How often the writing of young writers is a way of asserting a personality that isn't yet there, that is only being ravenously hunted for.
None of that in yours. In yours, sanity and light and compassion, not self-love and self-pity. You know who you are, and you are good. Never doubt it-though you could not be blamed if you wistfully wondered. To date, from all your writing, you have made perhaps five hundred dollars, for two short stories and a travel article. To finance school and to write your novel you have lived meagerly with little encouragement and have risked the disapproval of your family, who have understandably said, "Here is this girl nearly thirty years old now, unmarried, without a job or a profession, still mooning away at her writing as if life were forever. Here goes her life through her fingers while she sits in cold rooms and grows stoop-shouldered over a typewriter." So now, with your book finally in hand, you want desperately to have some harvest: a few good reviews, some critical attention, encouragement, royalties enough to let you live and go on writing.
You are entitled to them all, but you may get few or none of them. Some good reviews you undoubtedly will get, but also many routine plus-minus ones that will destroy you with their impercipience, and a few flip ones by bright young men who will patronize you in five hundred words or spend their space telling how trying was the heat on the New Haven as they read this book on the commuters' special. Your initial royalty statement, at an optimistic guess, will indicate that your publisher by hard work built up an advance sale of 2,700 copies. Your next one, six months later, will probably carry the news that 432 of those copies came back and that altogether you fell just a little short of earning the thousand-dollar advance that you spent eight or nine months ago.
All this you are aware of as possibility, because you have the habit of not deceiving yourself and because you have seen it happen to friends. Learn to look upon it as probability.
Having brought yourself to that glum anticipation, ponder your choices. To go on writing as you have been doing—slowly, carefully, with long pauses for thinking and revising—you need some sort of subsidy: fellowship, advance, grant, job, marriage, something. In the nature of things, most of your alternatives will be both temporary and modest. Of the possible jobs, teaching probably offers most, because its hours are flexible and because it entails a three-month summer vacation. You have the training, the degrees, some teaching experience, but for you I would not advise teaching. For one thing, you are so conscientious that you would let it absorb your whole energy. For another, I am sure you can write only if you have full time for it. Your distillation process is slow, drop by drop, and you can't make it produce enough in a few broken weeks of summer. So you will undoubtedly try the fellowships and the colonies, and perhaps for a year or two get by that way.
After that, who knows? You might sell enough to squeak by; you might get a job caring for people's cats while they travel; you might work for a year or two at a time and save enough to take every third year for writing; you might marry. You might even marry and keep on writing, though it often happens otherwise. By the same token, you might find that marriage and children are so adequate a satisfaction of the urges that are driving you to write that you don't need to write, or you may find all the satisfactions of marriage and a family and come back to fiction when your children are grown. You and I both know those who have, and we both know some of the special difficulties they met. However you do it, I imagine you will always be pinched-for money, for time, for a place to work. But I think you will do it. And believe me, it is not a new problem. You are in good company.
Barring marriage, which is an alternative career and not a solution of this one, you may say to yourself that you can't stand such a narrow, gray life, that you will modify your temperament and your taste, and work into your books some of the sensationalism, violence, shock, sentiment, sex, or Great Issues that you think may make them attractive to a large audience. I doubt that you could do it if you wanted to, and I am certain that you shouldn't try, for you cannot write with a whole heart things that are contrary to your nature. The fine things in your first novel are there because you wrote them with a whole heart, from an intense conviction. Trying to write like those who manage a large popular success, you may succeed, because you have brains and skill; but however proper success may be for others, in you, and on these terms, it will not be legitimate, for you will have stopped being the writer that you respected.
You are as whole an instrument as a broom. The brush is no good without the handle, and the whole thing is good only for sweeping. You are scheduled—doomed—to be a serious writer regarding life seriously and reporting it to a small audience. Other kinds of writers are both possible and necessary, but this is the kind you are, and it is a good kind. Not many of your countrymen will read you or know your name, not because they are Americans, or modems, or especially stupid, but because they are human. Your kind of writer has never spoken to a large audience except over a long stretch of time, and I would not advise you to pin too much hope even on posterity. Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.
The readers do exist. Jacques Barzun confidently guesses that there are at least thirty thousand of them in the United States, though they may have to be found vertically through many years rather than horizontally in anyone publishing season, and though the hope of your reaching them all is about like the possibility of your tracking down all the surviving elk in America. But any of them you find you will treasure. This audience, by and large, will listen to what you say and not demand that you say what everyone else is saying or what some fashionable school or clique says you should say. They are there, scattered through the apparently empty theater, listening' and making very little noise. Be grateful for them. But however grateful you are, never, never write to please them.
The moment you start consciously writing for an audience, you begin wondering if you are saying what the audience wants or expects. The peculiar virtue of this audience is that it leaves up to you what should be said. You have heard Frank O'Connor speak of the difference between the private and the public arts. Unless it is being dramatized or read aloud over the radio, fiction is one of the private ones. The audience has nothing to do with its making or with the slant it takes. You don't discover what should go into your novel by taking a poll or having a trial run in Boston or Philadelphia. You discover it by thinking and feeling your way into a situation or having it feel its way into you. From inside a web of relationships, from the very heart of a temperament, your imagination creates outward and forward.
You write to satisfy yourself and the inevitabilities of the situation you have started in motion. You write under a compulsion, it is true, but it is the compulsion of your situation, not of a private hatred or envy or fear; and you write to satisfy yourself, but you write always in the remote awareness of a listener O'Connor's man in the armchair. He responds to what you respond to and understands what you understand. Above all, he listens. Being outside of you, he closes a circuit, he is an ear to your mouth. Unless at least one like him reads you, you have written uselessly. Your book is as hypothetical as the sound of the tree that falls in the earless forest.
Nevertheless, I repeat, except for vaguely imagining him and hoping he is there, ignore him, do not write what you think he would like. Write what you like. When your book is published, you will have a letter from at least one of him, perhaps from as many as twenty or thirty of him. With luck, as other books come on his numbers will grow. But to you he will always be a solitary reader, an ear, not an audience. Literature speaks to temperament, Conrad says. Your books will find the temperaments they can speak to.
And I would not blame you if you still asked, why bother to make contact with kindred spirits you never see and may never hear from, who perhaps do not even exist except in your hopes? Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won't pay you a living wage for it?
Well, what goes on in your novel-the affectionate revelation of a relationship, the unraveling of the threads of love and interest binding a family together, the tranquil and not so tranquil emotions surrounding the death of a beloved and distinguished grandfather-this is closer to what happens in church than to what happens in the theater. Fiction always moves toward one or another of its poles, toward drama at one end or philosophy at the other. This book of yours is less entertainment than philosophical meditation presented in terms of personalities in action. It is serious, even sad; its colors and lights are autumnal. You have not loved Chekhov for nothing-maybe you imagined him as your reader in the armchair. He would listen while you told him the apparently simple thing you want to say: how love lasts, but changes, how life is full of heats and frustrations, causes and triumphs, and death is cool and quiet. It does not sound like much, summarized, and yet it embodies everything you believe about yourself and about human life and at least some aspects of the people you have most loved. In your novel, anguish and resignation are almost in balance. Your people live on the page and in the memory, because they have been loved and therefore have been richly imagined.
Your book is dramatized belief; and because in everyday life we make few contacts as intimate as this with another temperament and another mind, these scenes have an effect of cool shock-first almost embarrassment, then acknowledgment. Yes, I want to say. Yes, this is how it would be.
I like the sense of intimate knowing that your novel gives me.
After all, what are any of us after but the conviction of belonging? What does more to stay us and keep our backbones stiff while the world reels than the sense that we are linked with someone who listens and understands and so in some way completes us? I have said somewhere else that the aesthetic experience is a conjugal act, like love. I profoundly believe it.
The worst thing that could happen to the ferocious seekers after identity is that they should find it and it only.
There are many who do their best to escape it. Of our incorrigible and profound revulsion against identity, I suppose that physical love is the simplest, most immediate, and for many the only expression. Some have their comfort in feeling that they belong to the world of nature, big brother to the animals and cousin to the trees; some commit themselves to the kingdom of God. There is much in all of them, but for you, I imagine, not enough in any. For you it will have to be the kingdom of man, it will have to be art. You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories like the one you have just finished, and so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.
But isn't it enough? For lack of the full heart's desire, won't it serve?
KEYWORDS: becoming a writer, become a writer, how to become a writer