Wallace Stegner on books and teaching as exploration

I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction. Wallace Stegner wrote two novels that I consider life-changing in their wonderfulness–Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety. I also very much loved Wolf Willow, though it is not a novel; it’s a memoir. I first encountered it in an American Studies class years and years ago during my undergraduate days at the University of Iowa. Wolf Willow made an impression, but not such an impression that I raced out to get more of Stegner’s work, which was, in retrospect, a mistake. Instead, I just bumbled upon Angle of Repose many years later, during exactly the right moment when I needed to read it. I can’t really explain what that reading experience was like, except one word: magnificent.

I was in Prairie Lights bookstore during my recent trip back home, and I again stumbled upon Stegner’s book on teaching and writing fiction. I spent many good hours in whirlpool tubs trying to warm myself during the SINGLE DIGIT TEMPERATURES WE HAD during our Iowa visit. I marked a number of passages, but the wisest advice concerns teaching students (or yourself) to write books:

Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing. Any voyager may be lost at sea, like John Cabot. Nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered. All he can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and the don’ts of voyaging.

If there is one thing I wish I could truly help PhD students understand, it’s this. I don’t really know what’s going to happen with your project, as I don’t really know what’s going to happen with my own next project. All my experience has given has me is the ability to know what places are likely to be worth exploring and how to help others see what you’ve found.