Posted by: Nancy | May 13, 2009

‘Writing is the clay I work with’

Tobias Wolff spoke and read from his works at the Kansas City Public Library yesterday, part of The Big Read.  As a professional storyteller myself, I found his musings fascinating. There was a clear bridge between his careful, probing thought process and his brilliance and mastery of writing.

In his novel Old School, one of his characters takes the step of writing out (retyping) great works, to learn and appreciate the craft and mastery of the author.

In a way, I’m doing the same — I listened to his eloquent and thoughtful discussion, and by hand, I copied his spoken words out into my notebook. Here, (hoping I will continue to absorb his teachings) I offer another form of my notes,  some of my favorites of his comments, mostly imperfectly paraphrased.

Talking about Old School:

  • It’s a story of moving from one world into a different one, a completely different on with different speech, culture, pasttimes, and so on.
  • It’s an exploration of the idea of vocation — how we decide what we will do with our lives. And identity — how do we become the person we are going to be?
  • I wanted to explore imagination, the role of imagination in forming identity: “We can only be who we can imagine being.”

On his writing & approach:

  • For me, getting it down is the hard part; it produces terrible anxiety: there’s nothing there, I’m fooling myself, I’m  impersonating a writer.
  • But after the story is down, I enter the process of re-writing with real joy. It’s the artistry. I love shaping the thing, writing is the clay I work with.
  • It’s not the same with other writers. Updike, Chekov, could write good drafts; they write in their heads before it gets down on the page.
  • There are as many writing styles as there are writers.
  • I like a schedule but it’s not rigid. It’s better to have a loose hand on the reins to be equipped to deal with the things life throws at you — the car will need an oil change or someone will need to be picked up from soccer practice. You can’t just say ‘no, I have to write…’
  • He described how growing up he always felt like an outsider. He said he suspects most writers feel like outsiders:  “If you’re comfortable, there’s less impetus to write.”

Guidance for writers:

  • I take for granted that if you want to be a writer, you read alot. You read great writers. You have to marinate in it.
  • Your critical capacity may develop earlier than your own writing ability. This caries a danger of frustrating yourself. Apply patience, be patient with yourself.
  • It happens over and over, with practice, with time. “Time is your enemy in almost everything in life, but not in writing.”

Kudos to the library for such a great event. More details on The Big Read available on the image at right.

For another view of Tobias Wolff, check out his performance with the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, singing “Woke Up New:”

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