SAL/on air is a literary podcast featuring the best author talks from over thirty years of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ programming.
This talk by celebrated novelist Wallace Stegner, recorded in 1990, is really a master class on the intermingling of life and art. With equal measures of charm and critique, Stegner questions the very nature of storytelling: is it method, perspective, experience, or technique? The writers he admires aren’t carpenters working from blueprints, he says, but sculptors in search of “the mystery implicit in the stone.”
Many have wondered, not only about Stegner’s stories and novels, but about stories and novels in general, how a writer’s life appears in the art they make. Are novels ever complete fictions, or are there merely cloaked versions of the truth? Stegner believed that a good novel was, “a real probing of real, troubling, human confusions” and, in fiction, “we should have no agenda except to try to be truthful.”
By this, he did not mean simply recounting the events and relationships of one’s life under different names or circumstances. “A good writer is not a mirror but a lens,” Stegner says, and “skill is whatever works—but it must work toward something.” For Stegner, it was most important to clear away all but the truth by whatever method allowed the writer to lay bare even a moment of the human mystery and struggle that is living.
The questions Stegner raises in this lecture—about fact and fiction, life and art, craft and vision—are ones we continue to explore today.