To a Young Writer

Your note asks advice on some purely practical matters, and to most of your questions the answers are deadeasy. 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 11w 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 on 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 goose flesh 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It is no trouble to tell you that you indeed are good, much too good to remain unpublished.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 of common 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 marsh light 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 turn 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.

Presented by

Professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Center at Stanford, Wallace Stegner is widely known for his novels and short stories and for his encouragement to young authors. He has twice been a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and three of his stories have been awarded O. Henry prizes.

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