Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite writers. Specifically, he is one of my favorite short story writers. I consider him one of the greatest American short story writers of all time. I of course would be more than happy to hear who your favorite shorty story writers are since I love discovering new writers. If this post is the first time you’ve heard of Tobias Wolff, then I hope you read some of his work and come to enjoy it as I do.
I first discovered Tobias Wolff in a college course. If I remember correctly, the first story I read of his was “Bullet in the Brain.” I recently discovered that this story was made into a short film, and there is a recording online of it being read by Tobias himself. This story remains one of my favorites and it is a great introduction to his work. It may also be the best known of his short stories because it is often used in classrooms alongside several others he has written such as “Powder,” “Say Yes,” or “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” There is something about Wolff’s stories that capture what I like to refer to as human moments. He is able to weave a story together that could seemingly be about nothing in particular, but then can also be read as a revelation about a core element of human nature. Enveloping an entire species and capturing it within a single moment. His stories often linger with you afterwards and prompt an introspection of our own lives. He often pinpoints moments that define, in a that single moment, the entirety of a character. It is this aspect that I admire to great degree, and I aspire to write stories that have similar moments the readers keep with them. I think any fellow writers can learn a lot about the craft from reading his work as well.
Wolff’s works include several collections of short stories, a novel (Old School), a novella (The Barracks Thief), and two memoirs. I’ve written book recommendations about several of these. His memoir, This Boy’s Life, reveals much about himself through the lens of his childhood. It was made into a movie not long after it was first published. His second memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, provides a description of his time in Vietnam during his military service. I found the man himself as interesting as his writing. I even built up enough courage to write to him. It was my first and only time (as of this writing) that I’ve written to a writer who I admire. This was about three years ago now. I wasn’t sure what to say, so all I ended up saying was a general thank you for his work and an offer to buy him a drink if was ever in my area. To my surprise, he responded with equally kind words.
There are several interviews with Wolff that you can find online. I recently found one by The Creative Process that I found really interesting. They have interviews with other artists as well. I learned a few things on this site as well, like Tobias Wolff taught George Saunders and was rewarded the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama.
I don’t have any fun stories about gong to see him or things that have happened to me while reading his works. I haven’t really found many people who have read his works or at least have talked to me about them. I know short stories aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but every so often I can convince someone to try one and I usually recommend one by Tobias Wolff. I do remember one occasion where I did have a coworker/friend read “Bullet in the Brain.” The story itself is quite short but has incredible impact. He loved it and agreed with my initial comments I used to try and “sell” the story to him. Those comments being that Wolff’s stories have an unclear but substantial human moment. It’s hard to describe but easy to understand once you’ve read the story. If you want ever want to pick up a collection of his, I definitely recommend Our Story Begins. It has 31 short stories including several I have mentioned above.
I would love for the chance to meet Tobias Wolff one day. But if that never comes around, I know I can always pick up a collection of his stories, flip to any title, and be reminded once again what any amazing, intricate, and simple thing it is to be human.