Sunday, August 16, 2020

Celebrating Wallace Stegner, My Forefather, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winner

Uncle Wallace, as I knew Wallace Stegner, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, the National Book Award in 1977, but on an ethical basis refused a National Medal from the NEA in 1988. My forefather was like that, always working against the grain, and in that we share common ground. Looking back, in fact, it’s remarkable how much common ground we share in our decades-long careers as writers and in our everyday lives.

Wallace Stegner was a tall man both in stature and legend. I have the tall part down pat. Like my wife of 31 years, his wife of 52 years, Mary, was short, rising only to his shoulder, and as instrumental to his work as the air he breathed. Uncle Wallace was an adopted son of Utah, as I am of Wisconsin. Our home states are where we grew up and what we think of as home even though as adults we chose to live elsewhere. I split my time between Washington and Hawaii when I can, just as Uncle Wallace travelled between homes in California and Vermont.

He and I had hard-scrabble childhoods. We were moved about by our parents, to the countryside in our youth. We experienced the worst of poverty, the failings of our parents. We learned early that you didn't complain, that you must keep a stiff upper lip, and that you never abandoned anything you started. He and I fell in love with the West, each in our own way. All of these things influenced our lives and make our writing unique.

Uncle Wallace schooled me regularly against succumbing to the trend du jour of headquarters, aka the American publishing houses in the east. I was to write whatever the hell I wanted, theme du jour be damned. Writing our way came with a heavy cost; we paid heavy penalties for being out of step with the literary establishment. He was impatient with my early writing, always wanting it to be more staid and literary. Once he understood that I saw writing as a challenge to the soundness of my character, as he did, he embraced it heartily. Although my work was eventually published and/or distributed by nearly every major American publisher, I still did it my way and bent the publishing world to my will just as he did—and when headquarters wouldn’t bend enough I went independent just as Uncle Wallace told me I should do when it was time.

Credited as the co-creator of the modern creative writing industry, having taught writing first at Iowa, Harvard and Wisconsin, and then at Stanford, where he built the prestigious program, Uncle Wallace blazed trails by teaching young people to write literature. As a respected and skilled teacher myself, I gave instruction on new technologies and am credited with transforming the computer writing industry with my plain language style. A style that Microsoft eventually adopted for its own, having been unable to bend me to its will to write in Microsoftese, that unknowable language only Microsoft itself truly ever understood. Millions of training courses taught by Microsoft and others used my words as their foundations.

Uncle Wallace wrote short stories, fiction and nonfiction. His more than 30 full-length works include 13 novels, with the Pulitzer Prize winning “Angle of Repose” and the National Book Award winning “The Spectator Bird” being among his best known works. His eight works of nonfiction include an autobiography, a biography and a book on teaching creative writing. Wallace Stegner believed steadfastly in the American West and in later years in its preservation, which he wrote about in essays and several collections. Thanks to his words and encouragement, conservation and the environment are constant themes in my own work as well and especially in my Bugville Critters books.

Most of Uncle Wallace’s correspondence from his long, storied writing career, both personal and professional, was kept and curated by his wife, Mary, and is now shared by the Special Collections Library at the University of Utah. But I know personally that the collection doesn’t contain all of his correspondence. Uncle Wallace threw a long shadow over my life and career. He’s a reason I became an editor and columnist for the school newspaper in the 4th grade and never stopped writing afterward. I wrote to challenge myself and prove my character every day, just as he did. 

He challenged me to succeed on my own, on the merits of my work, and I did. I signed my first contract and broke into publishing on my own in 1995 writing nonfiction, nearly 2 years to the day after Uncle Wallace passed away, having written many original works of fiction that garnered his approval but were as yet unpublished. He told me to never lose the writer’s voice I’d found and encouraged me to always keep challenging myself, to prove my character through my writing, to write more about my life and experiences, and to most especially continue my crusade against the literary establishment. This was at odds with the way his son, Page, wrote. Page was an academic at heart and a historian, who also taught creative writing for many years, but mostly published scholarly works.

My forefather Wallace Stegner told me winning the Pulitzer was impressive but it didn’t really help sell his books or pay his bills, nor did the National Book Award, nor the three O’Henry awards, nor the two Guggenheim fellowships. It wasn’t that he didn’t like fame, hobnobbing with the elite, or his charmed life. He appreciated the accolades bestowed upon him, but it all became a distraction from his writing. His works in his lifetime sold hundreds of thousands of copies, they did not sell millions. Because of this, he often took on projects for the money, which is something he told me not to be afraid to do. The craft of writing is about the writing. Professional writing is work. Professional writers write to pay the bills and pay the bills I did as I wrote for major publishers across several decades.

I never wanted Uncle Wallace’s academic career, awards or social calendar. Sure I’ve taught in colleges, hobnobbed with royalty, met and dined with presidents and generals, been paid thousands to speak to captains of industry, but I’ve always preferred the simple life, regular folk and the quiet comfort that comes from routine. The simple routine of putting words to paper is my routine, and that’s something Uncle Wallace would have appreciated as he always wanted to do more writing and less hobnobbing.

The name Wallace Stegner never became a household name in his lifetime. Nor has he become a literary celebrity, despite three biographies written about his life and career. He is thought of as a great but uncelebrated writer. He was okay with that and with what he’d achieved, just as I am okay with what I’ve achieved. Over the past 35 years, I’ve written hundreds of original works and they’ve been translated into 57 languages and counting. I’ll take millions of copies sold over fame and celebrity any day.

Traveling in France some years ago, I couldn’t help but smile and remember Uncle Wallace when a Parisian acquaintance told me that the American west was all cowboys riding the range and how the cowboy hat and boots he was wearing were just like the ones the real American cowboys wore. Uncle Wallace would have understood the irony in that statement because he rejected these superficial aspects of Western mythos, telling me more than once that the idea of the cowboy alone on the range was completely false. The West wasn’t about rugged, self-reliant individuals, it was about people coming together and cooperating to accomplish much more than they could alone.

Thanks for reading, I’m William Robert Stanek, Microsoft’s #1 author for nearly 20 years, and author of over 250 topselling books.

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