Tobias Wolff at the White House for the National Medal of Arts!


“A social act, in solitude.” (Screenshot from the White House)

“Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing,” Tobias Wolff once wrote. It certainly seems to be the case for him: he just bagged one of the top awards in America, a few short months after his formal retirement!

Toby was at the White House today, where President Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for writers, artists, and art patrons.  Who could deserve it more? He has been a generous mentor and guiding spirit to so many at Stanford and beyond – and I, personally, am grateful for many kindnesses. And that’s before we’ve even gotten to his novels, memoirs, and collections of short stories! Oh, and the articles, most recently in The New Yorker – I wrote about one of them here. The Book Haven has written about him here and here and here and here. And he was on the Colbert Report here.

medal_big-revA video of the White House award is on youtube here. According to the citation, “With wit and compassion, Mr. Wolff’s work reflects the truths of our human experience.” Well, others have put it better. Wyatt Mason wrote in the London Review of Books, “Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing, and Wolff’s main theme.”

Here’s what Toby himself said on the occasion of his glory: “Every award is special to me, as a reminder that the work you perform in solitude is also a social act – that you’re not just talking to yourself, that what you do can stir a response in others. It’s easy to forget that, when you spend your hours sweating over the choice of a word, taking semicolons out and putting them back in. But of course I’m not so jaded as not to feel particular gratitude at receiving this award from the hands of our president – a man I greatly admire.”

It’s not his first award by a longshot. By my reckoning, that would be way back in 1981, when Toby received the O. Henry Award for “In the Garden of North American Martyrs,” and the following year for “Next Door.” He won the same award a third time, in 1985, for “Sister.” The same year he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for The Barracks Thief. 1989 brought two more awards: a Whiting Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography for This Boy’s Life. In 1989, was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story. In 2006, he won the PEN/Malamud Award. In 2008, he was awarded The Story Prize for the Our Story Begins: New and Collected Stories. That’s a lot of awards. (And his film adaptations are another kind of accolade – This Boy’s Life became a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Ellen Barkin; in 2001, his short story “Bullet in the Brain” was made into a short film.)

What can we say besides … Congratulations, Toby! So much has been said about him, and I’ve written about him so much myself – in addition to the links above, here and here and here and here. And on one of his birthdays, I reprinted some of his excellent words about being a writer – it’s here. But I never really thought of him as epigrammatic, until I found these passages in the course of an online search. So I share them, in the spirit of celebration:


Presiding over Another Look book club last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness.”

“Lose Faith. Pray anyway. Persist. We are made to persist, to complete the whole tour. That’s how we find out who we are.”

“Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”

“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.”

“I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is “depressing” because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; “witty stories,” in which every problem is the occasion for a joke; “upbeat” stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown ups now.”


With Stanford Humanities Center Director Caroline Winterer for Another Look book club. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was the pleasure of having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”

“I was giving up – being realistic, as people liked to say, meaning the same thing. Being realistic made me feel bitter.”

“When your power comes from others, on approval, you are their slave. Never sacrifice yourselves – never! Whoever urges you to self-sacrifice is worse than a common murderer, who at least cuts your throat himself, without persuading YOU to do it.”

“Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.”

“The very act of writing assumes, to begin with, that someone cares to hear what you have to say. It assumes that people share, that people can be reached, that people can be touched and even in some cases changed. So many of the things in our world lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts. A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.”

“Want! You must want something. What do you want?”

“There’s no right way to tell all stories, only the right way to tell a particular story.”

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