About twenty graduate students from various disciplines gathered for an intimate lunch at the cozy Montgomery House last Wednesday with author Tobias Wolff who, until recently, was in residence at Dartmouth as a Montgomery Fellow. Wolff is the well-known writer of the memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, as well as several novels and short stories. After a childhood of traveling around the United States with his single mother, Mr. Wolff earned his bachelor’s degree at Oxford University and his master’s from Stanford University, where he is currently the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English. He spoke with students about everything from writing to politics to his childhood, and his penchant for storytelling was evident throughout the afternoon.
Students asked Wolff questions about his success as a writer and about his thoughts on the craft in general. “Writing is hard for me,” he admitted, adding that to avoid distraction he wrote for years in an empty cellar room with no windows. He also pointed out that in a world filling up with diversions like Twitter, Facebook, and cell phones, achieving full concentration is one of the biggest challenges facing writers today.
When asked how he was able to succeed in such a competitive field, Wolff replied that the key is to not worry about others. “Someone always did it better, younger,” he mused. “Just strive to be better than you were the last time, every time you write.” He spoke also on the value of writing workshops, but warned that while we should learn to use criticisms to improve what we are trying to do, it is equally important to learn to ignore certain voices. If a writer tries to make each and every reader happy, Wolff said, his or her job becomes impossible; the real competition and most important readers are writers themselves. He went on to say that many of the decisions writers make—how to begin or end a story, which characters to include, etc.—are determined by instinct. Most often, Wolff said, writers actually discover their stories in the process of writing them. “We can only explain the decisions afterward,” he added.
Mr. Wolff not only gave advice, but he also regaled his audience with the true stories behind some of his works—including a bank robbery, a car wreck, a hunting trip gone wrong, and scenes from his tour in Vietnam. The fact that so many of his pieces are drawn from real-life experience highlights what creative writing students at Dartmouth and everywhere hear again and again: start with what you know. Students can only hope to have as rich a store of authentic adventures as Tobias Wolff.
by Chris Abell
photo by Erin E. O’Flaherty