Tobias Wolff’s advice as a mentor: “Just don’t lose the magic.”

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Toby speaking at Stanford Libraries (photo: Sonia Lee)

Last fall, the New Yorker ran a story about author Tobias Wolff, recent recipient of a National Medal for the Arts. The article describes Stanford’s generous and gifted writer in his less celebrated role as a mentor. George Saunders, the author, makes a great witness; he is a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships – Toby’s mentoring, in this case, was very successful. The New Yorker piece is taken from a new book, A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, University of Massachusetts Press). 

In case there are a few others who missed the story (as I had), I humbly offer this late post, with an arrow back to Saunders’s original story, “My Writing Education: A Timeline” here. Saunders’s charming mini-memoir goes some way to explaining why Toby is one of the most beloved faculty members at Stanford. And it’s a good thing it’s charming, because, as Saunders writes later: “Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms. To say that ‘a light goes on’ is not quite right—it’s more like: a fixture gets installed. Only many years later (see below) will the light go on.”

The friendship had its beginnings in February 1986, when Toby called the home of Saunders’s parents in Amarillo, Texas to tell him he had been admitted to the Syracuse Creative Writing Program, where Toby was teaching back in the 80s: “I call back, holding Back in the World in my hands. … He’s kind and patient and doesn’t make me feel like an idiot. I do that myself, once I hang up.”

Inauspicious beginnings…perhaps, but it got better:

“After the orientation meeting the program goes dancing. Afterward, Toby and I agree we are too drunk to let either him or me drive the car home, that car, which we are pretty sure is his car, if there is a sweater in the back. There is! We walk home, singing, probably, “Helplessly Hoping.” In his kitchen, we eat some chicken that his wife Catherine has prepared for something very important tomorrow, something for which there will be no time to make something else.

“I leave, happy to have made a new best friend.”

mannerofbeing Not so fast! The next day: “I wake, chagrined at my over-familiarity, and vow to thereafter keep a respectful distance from Professor Wolff and his refrigerator.”

Perhaps my favorite passage, which is very Toby, from later that semester:

At a party, I go up to Toby and assure him that I am no longer writing the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with, i.e., the stuff that had gotten me into the program in the first place. Now I am writing more seriously, more realistically, nothing made up, nothing silly, everything directly from life, no exaggeration or humor—you know: “real writing.”

Toby looks worried. But quickly recovers.

“Well, good!” he says. “Just don’t lose the magic.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Why would I do that? That would be dumb.

I go forward and lose all of the magic, for the rest of my time in grad school and for several years thereafter.

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Gratitude. (Photo David Shankbone, Creative Commons)

Last anecdote, and you’re on your own (you’ll have to read the rest of the story here):”Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera. Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.” I’ve seen it, too. He’s a great all-round human being, and greatly adored. Perhaps he was a good role model for Saunders’s own long marriage with writer Paula Redick, a writer he met in those early days at Syracuse. They were engaged in three weeks, “a Syracuse Creative Writing Program record that, I believe, still stands.”

Oh, I know, you read all that stuff about Toby retiring last year. Yeah, I believed it, too. Read about him coming out of retirement, and much else, in a Q&A at the Stanford Daily here.


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