Tobias Wolff (born in 1945) is the author of Old School, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, and the fabulous short story, “Bullet in the Brain.”
Here are four of his terrific quotes to inspire your writing!
1. There’s a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.
Even if your primary focus is writing novels, you should take the time here and there to experiment in short story writing. I love writing a short story for many reasons. It allows you to do something radically different you might not be afforded to do in a novel. It allows you to write something fast, in a week or two. And, as Tobias Wolff says, it allows a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.
I’ve been teaching English at the college level for many years now, and one of my favorite works of short fiction to teach my students is Wolff’s electric short story, “Bullet in Brain,” which has been heavily anthologized throughout the years. It’s so great because it starts one way, you have a pretty good sense as to where it’s going, and then about halfway through, Wolff takes you in a totally unexpected direction that could have flopped hard but instead works beautifully, like a minor miracle. Wolff took a chance with this story, and collected a huge reward in the end. Try to write short stories when you can. They can be so much fun to do, and so very satisfying!
2. I try to help people become the best possible editors of their own work, to help them become conscious of the things they do well, of the things they need to look at again, of the wells of material they have not even begun to dip their buckets into.
Wolff teaches English, too, and his dedication to his students is apparent from this quote. It’s not enough as a teacher to tell your students what’s working in their latest story and what isn’t working. It’s not enough to say what they’re good at and what they stink at. You have to dig deeper than that to bring good, thoughtful writers out of your students. Helping people become the best possible editors of their own work is a great place to start since at many points during a project the only editor you can truly rely on is yourself.
But going beyond editing, you want them to discover what talents they hold buried deep, down down and what kind of material that can slowly rise to the surface. Some writers, especially young ones who haven’t written much, are scared to tap into their secrets and fears and dreams. Some want to just work at the surface level of things and not offer us anything more than that. These writers won’t get far in their work, but if they have a teacher or a mentor who can help them recognize what they do well and what they can improve on, and then bring out the wells of material they can use for future work, that’s always going to be a great place to start.
If you’re an aspiring writer, it might be worth your time to seek out a teacher or a mentor who can help you. Inspiration, as you probably well know by now, can go a long way in your long writing life!/media/c701c4f3f089fca628d78c0b395a8953
3. There are writers who do start doing the same thing again and again and almost inevitably fall into self-parody.
One of the things you have to be especially careful of as a writer is not repeating yourself to the point where the things you fall into self-parody. It’s so hard because many writers get put into a specific kind of box, especially when they’re successful. They finally write a break-out bestseller, and they write a similar title to that first book that’s an even bigger hit, one that wins an award and is adapted for the screen, and so that author chooses to keep writing more books like that one. It makes sense, after all. You don’t want to write something that will alienate your fans.
But at the same time, there is something to be said for the pitfalls of doing the same thing again and again. After awhile you’ll get bored what the stories you’re pumping out, and your readers will eventually see that. You have to keep surprising yourself and taking chances in your writing, even if you’re writing in the same genre every time. Just because you write ten horror novels in a row doesn’t mean you have to keep repeating yourself. You can take the genre in new spooky directions and do a hundred nifty, unpredictable things with it. Once you begin veering into self-parody territory, that’s when it’s time to try something different or put down your pen once and for all.
4. When I was about fourteen or fifteen I decided to become a writer and never for a moment since have I wanted to do anything else.
Many writers are the same way. They knew from a young age that writing was something they had a gift for, enjoyed doing, looking forward to doing, and they haven’t looked back since. The truth is that writing has to be this way for you to stick with it. If you just sort of like doing it, or think of writing more as an occasional hobby than anything else, you won’t get very far. You have to have the writing bug in your blood as much as possible.
I’ve been that way for the longest time. I’ve been voraciously reading and writing since I was in third grade, and I haven’t stopped. There was a period for a few years where I only wrote screenplays, but even during that period I was writing all the time and loving the process. And in the past ten years I’ve been writing and revising fiction almost every day, and what a joy it has been. I absolutely love writing, and I can’t wait to see what I end up doing in the next ten years.
You want to feel the same way. Sure, it’s okay if you didn’t know at fourteen or fifteen years old that you wanted to be a writer. It’s fine if you didn’t get serious about writing until your twenties or thirties, or even older. Better late than never, as they say. What’s most important is that you’ve found your calling now, and you want to give yourself over to it as much as you can. You want to love writing so much that you don’t really want to do anything else.
Make writing the greatest joy in your life and give it everything you have!