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Life as Invention

For Tobias Wolff, truth trumps facts.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

WOLFF: ’You imagine who you are.’

By Cynthia Haven

When author Tobias Wolff’s latest book, Old School, came out last winter, it was trumpeted as the author’s first novel. Many asked the obvious question: Why, suddenly, a novel? Wolff, MA ’78, a professor in Stanford’s creative writing program, has long been known as a passionate advocate for the short story form. He has published three books of his own stories and edited several other collections. He called the short story “the perfect American form” in a 1996 Salon interview, saying “most of us don’t live lives that lend themselves to novelistic expression, because our lives are so fragmented. Instead of that long arc of experience, that sustained community that’s implied by a novel, there are these moments.”

Wolff is a fast talker, and words don’t fail him on this occasion. “I don’t write short stories out of any slavish devotion to that form,” he tells me, but rather “because the story I have to tell will work best in [it].”

His answer isn’t entirely convincing. But then again, it turns out that Old School is not really his first novel. His publisher, Knopf, had already printed the dust jackets when the author remembered it wasn’t. His first novel, Ugly Rumours, was published in England in 1975. Wolff told the Los Angeles Times that he leaves the book off his list of published works because “within two or three years of having written it, I couldn’t read a word of it without cringing. So I don’t call attention to it.”

Now you see it; now you don’t. That seems typical of Wolff the literary magician, Wolff the inventor, a man who extols the force of imagination in shaping destiny. “You can’t become what you can’t imagine becoming,” he says. “You imagine who you are. Your life forms itself towards that notion.”

Wolff has a certain forza del destino about him: he’s strikingly tall and muscular. His gaze is sharp and direct and he is largely bald, lending an impression of boldness. He’s a former Vietnam Green Beret officer, with “command presence,” as he explains in his 1994 memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army. He’s also a vegetarian. He’s a man of apparent contradictions. A lifelong academic thrown out of prep school for bad grades. A family man (with three children) who came from one of the most mixed-up, broken homes imaginable.

Perhaps his most revealing comments come when the subject turns to Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” and its conclusion, “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” The poem is commonly taken in a “Hallmark-card way, as inspirational verse,” Wolff says. Yet the poet remarks that the two paths are both “just as fair” and “worn . . . really about the same.” Wolff says the key lines are “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence.” The narrator is already imagining himself as an old gaffer, telling the youngsters what made him great. For Wolff, it’s the story of how we invent ourselves and the stories we will tell in the future.

“Things don’t happen to us in stories. We make the story. The very act of remembering is bending experience,” he says. “You do it unwittingly. The faculty of your memory is doing this even before you get to it.”

It’s typical of Frost, Wolff adds, to write a poem that was so greatly misread. “He was a very double guy. He didn’t like being known. He didn’t like people to have his number.” One wonders if the same might be said of Wolff—a self-invented man, a cat landing on his feet.

“There’s nothing inevitable at all in the luck I’ve had,” he admits. That includes a six-month stint as a Washington Post reporter. He landed the job shortly before Watergate, when he met executive editor Ben Bradlee at a party and asked for a job. He was hired over many applicants with journalism degrees from top universities. Why? Bradlee later confessed to him, “Because you called me ‘sir.’”

“I wasn’t a good reporter. I didn’t have any future as a reporter, and didn’t really want one,” Wolff says. “I wanted to write fiction.”

His career was launched in 1976 when Atlantic Monthly pulled from a slush pile the short story he wrote while a Stegner Fellow. “It was a great break,” he concedes. “But it could just as easily have happened that [fiction editor] Michael Curtis passed over that story, or that he was in a bad mood that day, or that somebody else at the magazine didn’t like it.”

Wolff was hardly a child prodigy. “Think of it this way,” he says. “When I was 30, my contemporaries were in big apartments, getting their first Volvos. Meanwhile, I’m popping champagne over a story in the Atlantic Monthly for which I’m paid $500.”

Leaving his office, we walk briskly across the Quad to a seminar course he’s guest teaching. Wolff’s strides are long and fast, and it’s hard to keep up as he heads towards a basement classroom.

The students are studying The Divine Comedy. On the way to class, Wolff expresses some concerns—Dante is not his field—but once he is before the two dozen students, his comments are characteristically sharp and provocative. When asked if Dante is the hero of the commedia, Wolff distinguishes between a pilgrim and a hero.

“The treasure he is after is the redemption of his soul. He makes it so actual for himself that he actually underwent it.” Wolff has returned to the perennial theme of a man creating his fate. He tells the class the “self-inventing man” is the central motif of American literature.

Inventing his own identity came early to Wolff, who grew up in a small town near Seattle. His mother is 100 percent Irish; his father 100 percent Jewish—though Wolff didn’t learn about his Jewish heritage until adulthood. He describes his father as an engaging, charming, compulsive liar.

Like father, like son. As a boy, Wolff had a similar habit of making things up. According to his 1989 memoir This Boy’s Life—made into a 1993 film starring Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin and Leonardo DiCaprio—he was always telling whoppers, always faking it in a bizarre, ruffian childhood. He had an absentee father, a beautiful, footloose mother, and a rough-cut stepfather.

Wolff wrote so tirelessly as a kid that he gave his stories to friends to submit for extra credit in school. In typical fashion, he faked his own transcript and letter of recommendation to get into the tony Hill School in Pottstown, Penn. As he recounts the experience in This Boy’s Life:

Now the words came as easily as if someone were breathing them into my ear. I felt full of things that had to be said, full of stifled truth. That was what I thought I was writing—the truth. It was truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed the facts arrayed against it . . . And on the boy who lived in [the] letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.

On the basis of his self-recommendations, he was accepted. The story is kindred to his new novel.

On the cover of Old School, a hundred or so young men, in jackets and ties dating from the early ’60s, line immaculate tables formally set with white tablecloths. Their heads are bowed, presumably for some sort of blessing, under the chandeliers.

Wolff could be somewhere among them, for the photo is of the Hill School. In the book, imagination blends with autobiography as seamlessly as the real-life school on the cover of a piece of fiction. The novel tells of a young man in an East Coast prep school that encourages aspiring writers by sponsoring a writers’ competition each year. The winner spends time with a famous writer visiting campus—Robert Frost among them.

Its most haunting theme is the way lying—whether by omission, misleading remarks or outright fraud—underpins our lives. Nothing is what it seems. Each student’s work is misunderstood by the famous writer who judges it. People lie without even realizing they are lying, and the momentary failure to correct a misunderstanding creates legends that are impossible to refute years later. The book culminates with an act of plagiarism.

Wolff’s story parallels his hero’s; however, no climactic lie caused Wolff’s departure from Hill. The cause was more pedestrian: Wolff was asked to leave in his final year because his grades were so poor. As he writes in This Boy’s Life:

“I did not do well at Hill. How could I? I knew nothing. My ignorance was so profound that entire class periods would pass without my understanding anything that was said.... It scared me to do so poorly when so much was expected, and to cover my fear I became one of the school wildmen—a drinker, a smoker, a make-out artist at the mixers we had.... While the boys around me nodded off during chapel I prayed like a Moslem, prayed that I would somehow pull myself up again so I could stay in this place that I secretly and deeply loved.

A strange beginning indeed for a Stanford professor, but one in keeping with his message that there is more to life than nature versus nurture. Wolff insists we’ve overlooked the role of individual will and imagination in forging an identity. He ought to know.

CYNTHIA HAVEN is a writer in Northern California.

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