I drove up to Georgetown, Texas, to hear Tobias Wolff speak and it was pretty good. I’ve been a Wolff fan since I first read his short stories in The New Yorker, specifically “Nightingale” and “A Bullet in the Brain.” “Nightingale” is what I call stealth fantasy — it’s when a mainstream author writes fantasy, or horror, or science fiction when generally such an author holds the genre in disdain. “Nightingale” is a gorgeous story about a father who drops off his son at a military school that may or may not actually exist. And when he has second thoughts, he can’t find it again. “A Bullet in the Brain” is exactly what it sounds like, except that the ending is pure and sweet and utterly beautiful.
Wolff is an engaging speaker and touched on many topics that are close to the hearts of fans. No one asked him where he got his ideas, thank goodness, but he did talk about his influences in a funny and self-deprecating way. For instance, he compared himself to Susan Sontag and poked fun at her at the same time — she was inspired to write by reading Kirkegaard, he said, but he was inspired to write by reading Albert Payson Terhune, author of Lad: A Dog (I still have my copy from when I was a kid. I gave it to my son to read and he loved it. To find out that Wolff was also so enamored of it was just wonderful. I loved that book.) The Sontag anecdote dovetailed into Wolff’s discussion of memory and memoir, and how we make up stories to ourselves about our lives. The Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled,” Wolff said, is less about making hard choices and more about making up the stories we tell about our lives at the end. (Read the last stanza. It’s right there. I’ll never look at that poem in the same way again.)
Wolff believes in the art of writing, especially of writing about something and in which a plot and character take center stage. He says that there’s been a “return to story” by modern writers, and they have given up the “mockery of belief” that has, I believe, plagued mainstream literature for far too long. Wolff was using language that most of the students and readers in the audience would understand. He bandied about “postmodernism” and “return to story.” But look, we, we being the science fiction and fantasy reader, we know what he really means. Plot. Theme. Character. Setting. Idea. All the things that we read for. And if that’s making a comeback in the mainstream world, then bravo. Because it’s been missing for far too long.
He talked about the immersive experience of getting lost in a book by looking at what are essentially black marks on a white page and how the dearth of readers among young people is a great loss and worries him. Who will be my readers? he asks.
And lastly, he touched on a topic dear to my heart and here I wrote down his words.
“People think they ought to be able to write like great writers right away. They say, ‘But I know all these words.'”
That got a laugh. I think the statement was directed at the students in the audience, as Southwestern has a prestigious writing program. But it works for all of us. Writing is a craft, and a craft takes hard work. We don’t expect to get other art forms right away, and yet we think that because we “know all these words” we can write. This is part of why I think NaNo is a problem because it devalues the process and turns it into a stunt. But here’s the deal. To become a better writer, of course you have to write, but you also have to read. Read the best. And let the best influence you. In return, find your own voice, your own characters, your own words.
I picked up a copy of Wolff’s collection Our Story Begins, and read “Nightingale” while waiting in line for it to be signed. I’ll read it again tonight. That story is one of the best of the last century and maybe one of the standouts of American literature. When I got up to him, I stammered out how much I loved that story and looked forward to reading it again and again. He seemed genuinely pleased