Tobias Wolff: “Every time you write you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Today is the birthday of an American novelist and memoirist who once said, “Memory is the story. Memories are what make us.” That’s Tobias Wolff, born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1945. Wolff is best known for his memoir This Boy’s Life, in which he writes of traveling the country with his mother, Rosemary, who was fleeing an abusive husband. He wrote about his experience forging application materials for a prestigious boarding school in the novel Old School.

Wolff had a brother, Geoffrey Wolff, but when his parents divorced Geoffrey went to live with Wolff’s father, and they didn’t reconnect until Geoffrey was in college. Their father was a con man, forger, passer of bad checks, a car thief, and once even bluffed his way into a job as an aeronautical engineer. Geoffrey turned out to be a writer, too, and wrote his own memoir of their father, called The Duke of Deception.

After reading memoirs by both of her sons, their mother, Rosemary, said dryly, “If I’d known both my boys were to going to be writers, I might have lived life a little differently.”

About writing, Tobias says: “I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous.” No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen.”. . .

And: “We live by stories. It’s the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are. We’re in an unceasing flow of time and events and people, and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things, and in that way we break the unbroken flow into stories, because that’s the only way we can give it significance.”

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