Tobias Wolff: A Profile

Tobias Wolff lecturingAuthor and Stanford Professor Tobias Wolff spoke Tuesday evening, Nov. 5, for this year’s Writer’s Voice event. Entitled “Saved by Stories: This Writer’s Life,” Wolff discussed how the events in his life, from boyhood to his return from the war in Vietnam, and up to his present experience as a professor, led him to become the talented writer he is today.

During his visit here at Southwestern, a few groups of students had the opportunity to meet with Wolff for different special topic discussions. Beginning his eventful agenda on Monday evening, Associate Professor of English Dr. Piedmont-Marton and her senior Capstone students met with Wolff to discuss topics related to the theme of their Capstone, “War in American Literature.” On Tuesday, through recommendations by various professors, several students were invited to attend a lunch at the San Gabriel House in which Wolff participated in an informal discussion, answering questions offered by students as well as asking students about their experiences with literature. Shortly after, on Tuesday afternoon, Wolff held a creative writing workshop which gave him an opportunity to share some helpful tips in writing fiction. A faculty panel selected 15 of the 30 creative pieces that were submitted by Southwestern students to participate in this workshop. Wednesday morning Wolff was kind enough to lend some of his time to be interviewed before heading off to meet with a class taught by Dr. Evans.

Wolff expressed during his public appearance Tuesday evening in the Alma Thomas Theater how impressed he has been with Southwestern students’ engagement in their academic studies. In fact, he even mentioned how grateful he is to not have to write the Capstone paper he heard discussed in Dr. Piedmont-Marton’s class. Wolff also went on to discuss his experience in writing memoirs – being the “lead actor” in his own memories and wading through the process of imposing form on his memories in order to help them make sense as well as to enforce a structure with a beginning and an end.

As with many writers, Wolff’s fiction often stems from true-life events. When asked during the interview how he decides whether to create a short story from a specific memory or to embark on a memoir, Wolff states that it’s an “instinctive choice” and that “you just have to know” when a “memory isn’t enough to carry a story.” Along with his success with the memoir, he is renowned for his mastery of the short story. His fascination is attributed to its fragmented form and the variety that it allows the writer. Having such variety is especially significant in collections of Wolff’s short stories, noting that he pays particular attention to the “movement” that each story takes to the next and how it leads the reader.

However, the authorial intention is certainly not always the same as what the reader infers. When asked about his thoughts on different interpretations of his work, he admits that his “best work is complicated,” and he has no problem with others’ interpretations of it “if evidence can be found in the text.”

On this subject, Wolff stresses the importance of readers to “think for themselves,” and he often asks his students not to consult secondary sources for this reason. He considers reading to be “transformative,” making one more “imaginative,” lending “empathy” and a “mastery of language.”

In addition to teaching a course on creative writing at Stanford, Wolff also teaches literature courses on various topics such as the short story, the modern novel and novella, and a course titled “Great Books.” In his writing workshops, Wolff incorporates a selection of readings for the class to think critically about, to provide common references and vocabulary and to set a higher standard than if the class were only reading other students’ work.

For example, if the short story form is being taught, Wolff will assign several examples of short stories by acclaimed writers to illustrate how the language and form works. He enjoys being a professor because of the “freshness” in interacting with students who have a love for literature. In addition to the pleasure Wolff receives in helping others and making a difference in their lives, he also admits that his students occasionally turn him on to new music and writers that he may never have discovered. The greatest advice that Wolff has for aspiring writers is to have patience. Overcome the frustration by understanding that it takes time to become a good writer; “Writing is a kind of instrument that you have to learn to play,” and once you do it becomes easier and fun.

Wolff stated that he is currently working on a novel, although still in its early stages. He was unable to say much more about it, confessing that he is superstitious and did not want to “talk it away.” For those interested in a reading list, perhaps for the upcoming holidays, Wolff’s recommended greatest works in American literature are as follows: F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby, Mary McCarthy Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, James Baldwin The Fire Next Time, William Maxwell So Long See You Tomorrow, and Ernest Hemingway The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.

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