At the Alumni House this spring, Tobias Wolff, Stanford creative writing professor and award-winning author of This Boy's Life, engaged alumni and students in a wide-ranging discussion of family, writing, and memoryincluding fond recollections of attending Salt Lake City's Lowell Elementary School at age 10. Following are excerpts from the informal conversation which took place upon the memoirist's return to Utah, an opportunity made possible by the Department of English and the Salt Lake City Arts Council.
Q: What do you like least about writing?
A: Most of all is the feeling of dread that I have. I always have another cup of coffee first. There's an initial sense of frustration. And if you're lucky, you'll experience a self-forgetfulness as you begin to write. All that dreadful anticipation will lift. And you'll be in communion with another person than that person who worries and frets and whose attention is on the wrong details. You'll be in a larger kind of mind than is your usual habit.
That's why we write. It isn't just for the product of the story or the novel, but it's actually for the experience of that bliss that you sometimes do have when you write, as you're somehow transported or elevated. So that's what keeps you going back. It comes to you free, at first, and then you have to work for it.
Q: How are you able to excite the reader with such vivid imagery?
A: There's a famous paragraph in one of Chekov's letters to his brother Nikolai in which he talks about writing description. In it he says, 'When describing a starry night, don't just talk about the beauty of the heavens, and the beautiful pinpricks of stars all over the inky sky.' He says, 'describe a piece of broken glass and the moonlight shining in that, and all of a sudden a wolf runs past you like a black ball in the night.'
It's that kind of odd angle of vision that really captures those unexpected things that you would find in a good story, that broken glass. That's something very distinctive with Chekov. I translate that into the description of character as well. You can illuminate character by a similar kind of sidelong glance that you can use to illuminate that moonlit night.
There's a kind of stock repertoire that comes out of drama, mainly of gestures and actions that people perform in stories. You know: the mixing-of-drinks, the-crossing-of-rooms, the-lighting-of-cigarettes. What's wrong with them is they're essentially anonymous. They don't tell us that much. What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular.
Q: As a writer, particularly of memoirs, do you find yourself bound by facts?
A: Writers cannot let themselves be servants of the official mythology. They have to, whatever the cost, say what truth they have to say. And that can be a truth that disturbs a country, as [The Gulag Archipelago author Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn did, or it can be a truth that disturbs a family. But you're possessed of a need to tell the truth and you can't allow yourself to be coerced by this authorized version of the thing.
Q: How does one strike a balance between teaching and writing and still meet the demands of both?
A: A teaching community is ideal for a writer...we're constantly trading books, talking about things, and it's a lot like the way that a knife gets sharpened by constant friction against a stone. We're always doing that with each other in ways that we're not even consciously aware of. The same with the students I've taught...they're extraordinary young writers, and they're experienced, passionate readers. It's inspirational for a writer to experience that kind of passion for reading and for writing. It helps carry you through in your own writing to know there's a world out there that does care about what you do. In years past I've taken off from teaching, and I get a little restless to get back into the classroom.
Q: What happens when your memoirs are challenged?
A: Our memories tell us who we are and they cannot be achieved through committee work, by consulting other people about what happened. That doesn't mean that at all times memories are telling us the absolute truth, but that the main source of who we are is that memory, flawed or not. A writer is responsible to that story that the memory tells you about yourself. That is what the memoir does. It's not a documentary, it's not a work of history. It is something else; it's the story that memory tells you about yourself and who you are and it is going to be different than the story that someone else's memory tells them and that doesn't meant that theirs is right either.
Q: Your stories have such extraordinary endings. Are they just given to you, along with the idea for the story, or do you have to work to get them?
A: Usually by the time I get to the end of a story I have so altered my conception of the story in the actual writing and rewriting of it that it doesn't remotely resemble what I thought the ending would be. ...Things have to happen to me in the process of writing to change my ideas about the story or it fails to come to life for some reason....When I write a story according to plan, when I actually bring it home the way that I thought it would end when I started, it is invariably bad.
Q: How do you know when a story is done?
A: You don't. You have an intuition that to add another word would be to sink the story; that everything is there and that it would be folly to add anything else. Sometimes you just have to outlive, or outlast the damn thing in order to finish it. There isn't something you can know that will tell you that your story is there. It will be what you feel. Getting the end right is almost a tortuous process. Truly, if anyone could actually look over my shoulder, they would wonder why I do what I do for a living. They would see this is pathological. I wonder myself sometimes.
compiled and edited by Anne Palmer Peterson. For a complete transcript of Wolff's remarks, contact the Alumni Association at 581-3862.