Posts Tagged ‘Tobias Wolff’

Tobias Wolff on race: “None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any.”

Sunday, August 17th, 2014
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Toby explores race and illusion. (Photo: Sonia Lee)

With chaos and curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, race has been everywhere in the news this weekend. A few wise words are welcome, so please don’t miss award-winning author Tobias Wolffs “Heart of Whiteness,” his powerful piece on race in this week’s New Yorker. It opens with Toby going through stacks and stacks of old correspondence, including letters from writer Raymond Carver – “the tone so immediately and unmistakably his that I felt almost as if he were reading them to me.” Funny, that’s exactly what I felt about reading Toby’s own words. We work together on Stanford’s “Another Look” book club  (I’ve written about it tons – try here and here and here and here and here), and I could hear his voice behind every phrase.

He continues: “Then I put the file aside and began glancing through some of my own. And I was disheartened by what I found there. Clumsy, effortful wit. Vulgarity. A racist joke. Sitting there alone, reading my own words, I felt humiliatingly exposed, if only to myself; naked and ashamed.” He recalls his early gifts as a clown and satirist, with “plenty of company in this line of banter.”

None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any—and the atmosphere of right-mindedness could become so absolute, so cloying, that one was sometimes compelled to say the unsayable just to break the spell, make some different music. But this was always done with a dusting of irony. After a black family bought a house on Ray’s block, an unredeemed neighbor complained to him that “a certain element” was taking over, and the word “element” immediately entered our lexicon as an irresistibly sublime piece of swamp-think. So, too, the word “Negro,” as if delivered by an out-of-touch white alderman seeking votes from that highly esteemed, if underserved, corner of his ward.

Could I have played with these words if I had been a racist? No—I couldn’t be a racist. Even as a boy I had been shocked by what happened in Little Rock, the spectacle of pompadoured thugs and women in curlers yelling insults and curses at black kids trying to get to school. With my brother, I joined the March on Washington. We were there.

When I joined the Army, at eighteen, I was trained by black drill instructors, marched and pulled K.P. and showered and bunked and jumped out of airplanes with black troops. If it hadn’t been for a black sergeant I served with in Vietnam, I doubt that my sorry ass would’ve gotten shipped home in one piece.

Baldwin

James Baldwin with Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte are also in the crowd.

I read Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes and, especially, James Baldwin—“Jimmy” to my brother, Geoffrey, who was his friend when they both lived in Istanbul. I even almost met Baldwin! He was supposed to drop by the apartment in New York where Geoffrey and I were staying, Christmas of 1963. We waited all night, drinking, talking nervously, but he never showed up; one of the great disappointments of my life. It turned out that he’d been stopped by the white doorman.

Yet there was that joke. And a couple of other cracks.

I didn’t like meeting the self I had been when writing these letters—still playing the rake, tiresomely refusing to toe the line and speak the approved words in the approved way. Mostly I didn’t like the sense of exertion I found here, the puppyish falling over myself to amuse and impress another man. The result was coarse and embarrassing. I wanted to think that this wasn’t really me, just some dumb, bumptious persona I’d adopted, which, to some extent, it was.

But I had, after all, chosen this persona rather than another. And I had to wonder why. When we speak with a satiric voice, in mimicry of the unredeemed neighbor, aren’t we having it both ways? Allowing ourselves to express ugly, disreputable feelings and thoughts, under cover of mocking them? I didn’t want to believe that there was anything of me, the real me, in this voice, but, given the facts of my past, looming in piles around me, how could there not be?

It’s a beautifully written piece. Please do read the whole thing here.

 

 

Happy birthday, Tobias Wolff! A few of his words on writing…

Thursday, June 19th, 2014
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Birthday boy.

birthday cakeHappy birthday to one of our favorite people, the award-winning novelist and short story writer Tobias Wolff:

“Writers are superstitious. I don’t mean knock on wood, throw salt over the shoulder—let me try to explain. I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life. But I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.”

From “Tobias Wolff: The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, no. 183. (See him on the Colbert Report here.)

Tobias Wolff on the Colbert Report

Thursday, September 12th, 2013
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TobiasWolffOkay, I’ll admit it’s a tiny little square below. But it’s worth watching. The backstory:  Stephen Colbert admits that J.D. Salingers Catcher in the Rye is his least favorite book, “the most important American novel I don’t get.” He prefers the Glass family stories. So he invited Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life, to convince him otherwise. “You will never convince me,” he warned on the Colbert Book Club.  Toby agreed it shouldn’t be taught to kids as mandatory high school reading:  ”Part of the experience of finding that book is that it felt really subversive reading it.” The adult world is unmasked as “a nest of hypocrisy and phoniness. That’s something you want to find on your own. You don’t want your English teacher to be introducing you to the hypocrisy of adults.” So why doesn’t he, too, prefer the Glass family stories? Toby relaxed back in his chair and presented a rhetorical question: “You like to read sermons all day?” Colbert responded in a beat: “I like to give them.”  Who can argue with that?

See it all for yourself:

Catcher-in-the-rye-red

Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
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Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here

***

“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved.

After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him.

“He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

(more…)

William Maxwell: “In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.”

Friday, October 19th, 2012
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Alberto Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.” (Photo: Antonio Villar Liñán)

Earlier this week, I announced “Another Look,” Stanford’s book club for the best books you’ve never read.  But I didn’t have a chance to give my pitch for William Maxwell‘s masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Let me make amends now.

I read the book on the strength of Tobias Wolff‘s powerful recommendation several months ago.  The graceful, elegant, and melancholic writing is infused with the Midwestern attitudes and turns of phrase still extant in my own Michigan childhood.  As I read, I wondered where those phrases, metaphors, and mindsets have gone since.  Maxwell’s excavation of memory has become more urgent with the passage of time. “I didn’t want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them,” he said in an interview.

Toby called the book “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic — which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed. It is a work of consummate literary artistry, and a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

When I read the book, I hadn’t yet seen the work Maxwell uses as a metaphor for his childhood, Alberto Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.,” in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Google found it for me, and when assembling materials for the Another Look website, I thought I would do new readers the favor of including an image of it.

I prefer some of Giocometti’s other work, which is reminiscent of the work of his mentor, the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle.  My own father was a sculptor;  Bourdelle and Sir Jacob Epstein were perhaps his favorite masters of the medium, and hence became my own. But for Maxwell, Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.” had a special poignance.

Here’s his ekphrastic turn in So Long, See You Tomorrow.  I liked the last line so much, I used it in our bookmark for the event – you can pick up one of the bookmarks at the Stanford Bookstore, or at the Stanford Libraries – or drop me a line and I’ll save one for you.

From Maxwell:

“When, wandering around through the Museum of Modern Art, I come upon the piece of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti with the title ‘Palace at 4 a.m.,’ I always stand back and look at it – partly because it reminds me of my father’s new house in its unfinished state and partly because it is so beautiful. It is about thirty inches high and sufficiently well known that I probably don’t need to describe it.  But anyway, it is made of wood, and there are no solid walls, only thin uprights and horizontal beams.  There is the suggestion of a classic pediment and of a tower.  Flying around in a room at the top of the palace there is a queer-looking creature with the head of a monkey wrench.  A bird?  a cross between a male ballet dancer and a pterodactyl?  Below it, in a kind of freestanding closet, the backbone of some animal.  To the left, backed by three off-white parallelograms, what could be an imposing female figure or one of the more important pieces of a chess set.  And, in about the position a basketball ring would occupy, a vertical, hollowed-out spatulate shape with a ball in front of it. …

“I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms.  It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience.  What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.  Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.  In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”

Best books you’ve never read: “Another Look” explores overlooked masterpieces

Monday, October 15th, 2012
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"I didn't want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them." (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

Finally, the news is out! For several months, I’ve been working with author Tobias Wolff on a new idea for a book club, “Another Look.” First book we’re going to feature on November 12 at Stanford:  William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Here’s the announcement:

Book clubs have proliferated across the United States, though most stick to middle-of-the-road bestsellers. Once in a while, however, you run across an off-the-beaten-track book you may not know about, praised by a leading literary figure. Where do you go to talk about this unfamiliar, top-notch fare?

Look no further. Stanford is allowing readers to get an insider’s look at literature via a seasonal book club, “Another Look,” which will be offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation.

“Another Look” is the brainchild of award-winning writer Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English, who will kick off the event with William Maxwells 144-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Interested readers are invited to a discussion of the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in the Levinthal Room of the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free. Wolff will talk about the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.

For Wolff, “Another Look” started in a conversation with colleagues: “We had occasionally held lunchtime discussions of a story or novel or poem for interested students and members of the department, and these had proved popular. Well, why not open our arms a little farther and invite the university community to participate; or, better yet, open our arms out wide to the community at large?”

Said Wolff, “Each of the faculty members are choosing books that really matter to them, and that they feel have not earned the readership they deserve.”

The books will be on the short side as well. “We recognize that the Bay Area is a busy place – and we recognize that people have limited resources of time. We don’t want to suggest books of discouraging length,” said Wolff.

So Long, See You Tomorrow was originally published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. The book, set in rural Illinois, describes the effects of a murder on the friendship of two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Wolff called it “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic – which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed.”

He called it “a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

“It’s been a project of mine since 1980 to make people read that book. Whenever I sit down with people to talk about books I love, I always make sure that I mention that one. I give it to people as a gift,” he said. “This is my attempt to give this novel to the whole Bay Area as a gift.”

Wolff hopes to encourage a rich community discussion of the book on Nov. 12. “The conversation will be much richer if people have read and thought about the book first,” he said.

“The book club offers a wonderful opportunity for the writers and scholars of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to introduce these neglected classics to a broader audience,” said Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department. “I’m excited at this opportunity to continue our literary conversations beyond the classroom.”

For the second event in February, poet Kenneth Fields will present Janet Lewis‘ 1941 The Wife of Martin Guerre, a 109-page novel. The name might ring a bell with some Bay Area readers: Poet Janet Lewis was also the wife of Stanford’s eminent poet-critic Yvor Winters.

On Lewis’ death in 1998, the New York Times wrote: “There are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written … in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.”

Although the Nov. 12 event is free, seating is limited. Reservations on the website anotherlook.stanford.edu. The website includes Wolff’s introductory remarks, as well as Cynthia Haven’s [dat's me – ED]  retrospective on Maxwell’s life, with interviews of his colleagues and daughter.


The writer’s life. It’s not what you think.

Thursday, September 27th, 2012
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Skip the therapy. Write books instead. (Photo: Sonia Lee)

Two troubled childhoods.  Two men who grew up absent the parental care all children need.  One homeless child spent time living in an urban sewer system, the other boy bounced from city to city, state to state.

A recipe for lifelong failure and therapy, yes?

Nope.  Both grew up to be award-winning writers:  one is Tobias Wolff, author of Old School, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, the other is  Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-awarded author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and, more recently, the acclaimed Hedy’s Folly.  The two friends  spoke at a private, invitation-only only event in the Bender Room in Green Library on the evening of Sept. 17 about what it takes to become a writer.  It’s not what you think.

Both talks were so good I can do no better than share my notes with you.

Richard Rhodes: “Urban Hucky Finns”

Rhodes was born in 1937, and his mother committed suicide the following year.  He lived in a series of boarding houses in Kansas City, Missouri.

From sewers to Mars in one lifetime

Could it get worse?  It did.

His father remarried and his stepmother was abusive, not allowing the brothers in the house during the daytime.  At some point, he and his older brother Stanley did what so many abused children do:  they took to the streets of Kansas City.

Rhodes recalled “I think of us as urban Hucky Finns,” he said.  Far from feeling sorry for himself, he recalled it as an adventure.

“The big city junkyard wasn’t fenced off from the world. I could wander around there and discover pieces of the world,” he said.  “The vacuum tubes smelled of hot varnish.  Baby strollers and tricycles and all those wheels.  Pieces of automobiles.”

At one point, he took apart a sewing machine he found and put it back together again – and had two extra pieces leftover.  “I felt that I had made a breakthrough.”

“It doesn’t surprise me I became interested in science and technology,” he said.

The brothers went through the dumpsters for food.  A half-eaten hamburger was something to be prized: “To brush off the cigarette ash, was to have something really wonderful.”

Ethical robots

Sewers were for the summers.  He remembers tunnels that were 12 feet in diameter. “They didn’t have sewage in them, they just had water in them … and a healthy population of rats.”

The brothers would pop up for fresh air at various points in the city through the manhole covers in the street, “no doubt scaring people.”  At that time – he was about 10 or 11 – he remembers reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It matched his life.

“It was so wonderful … it was still the first big novel I ever read,” he said.

“By the time I got to adolescence, I was really fascinated by science fiction.”  In particular, he was impressed by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, exploring the ethics of being a robot.”

“Trivial as it sounds, it was my first encounter with philosophy and ethics.”  Then Albert Schweitzer’s My Life and Thought showed him “a way to think of moral issue of world.”

In 1949, his older brother went to the police.  The brothers were told that they were “obviously starved.” Stanley Rhodes was  5’ 4” and weighed 98 pounds.

The boys went to a farm – a “very empowering business,” Rhodes recalled.  Then, the miracle, or as he put it, “I got lucky.”  He was offered a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship to Yale.

Yale was not exactly like home.  “I was feeling as if landing on Mars.”

Tobias Wolff – call him “Jack”

“My folks separated and quickly divorced when I about 5,” Tobias Wolff said. “My father was not good about support.” His mother worked at the Dairy Queen during the day, while she took nighttime secretarial classes.

"Books seemed to come from another planet."

The local library was his babysitter. “I found myself going to the library a lot.”

“I spent a lot of time in those libraries, feeling safe.” Palo Alto’s cozy College Terrace branch library is akin to the libraries he remembers.

Although he is “not at all nostalgic for world grew up with” in the 1950s, “there’s an intimacy about that world I remember fondly. It’s one of the things that stayed with me.”

He developed an addiction for the novels of Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote such immortal classics as The Faith of a Collie.  “I read all those books, one after another.”

“He wrote about Collie dogs. That’s all he wrote about. He had no other subject,” he said.  “He did his best to stay within bounds of Collie psychology,” said Toby – even to the edges of canine ESP.  In one novel, “the Master joins up in the great effort of World War I.” Back home, the dog suffers, knowing his Master has fallen in Belgium.  “This dog gets himself to Belgium, finds the man and pulls him to safety.”

Relief was on the way.  When he was 10 or 11, one prescient librarian asked him read the works of Jack London.  She pulled White Fang off the shelf for him. “Then I read everything by Jack London.”

He changed his name to Jack Wolff.  “My mother agreed to let me change my name on condition I was baptized at the Church of the Madeleine.” In Salt Lake City, where they lived, he was one of two children in his school who was not Mormon. “She was terrified I would become a Mormon.”  Baptism was a fair trade for a name like Jack.

Inspiration ... where you can find it.

“I was beginning to write imitations. To build a fire,” he said. “Books seemed to come from another planet. I really did it out of love, and for the pleasure of writing down stories that were read only by my mother for years.”

If being a “professional writer” means making a profit on one’s writing, he made it early, giving copies of stories to his friends to turn in for extra credit.

When his memoir This Boy’s Life came out, he got a call from one of his boyhood pals from Washington state, who was living in Alaska. “I hear there’s this book and I’m in it,” he said.

The pal had turned in for extra credit the far-fetched story of a family of Italian acrobats and domineering patriarch. In the finale, he dives  into pool of water from great height.  The family had taken out insurance on his life, drained pool, and painted it blue.  The End.

“What grade did she give you?” he asked.  “She gave me a ‘C’,” he replied.

“I thought it was an ‘A’ story,” Toby replied thoughtfully.  Apparently, the teacher agreed. “I think it’s an ‘A’ story,” she told the budding plagiarist.  “But you didn’t write that. Jack Wolff wrote that.”

His attendance at Pennsylvania’s Hill School changed his life.  The school emphasized literature, and writers like Robert Frost, William Golding were treasured.

The rest of that story is told in his memoirs.  He lost his scholarship for repeated failures in mathematics. He went into the army, and then to Vietnam.  “Even in army kept writing. I was conscious of myself as someone who wanted to be writing.”

Stanford writers bag an awful lot of prizes this year

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
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It’s easy to forget the caliber of the people you are rubbing elbows with every day.  So let me take a moment to blow their collective horn – especially since they’re so humble.  Many of you may have seen the recent New Yorker article about high-tech Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley.  Fewer people, alas, know that it also has one of the top-rated faculties in English and Creative Writing anywhere.

This year has been a banner year.  Stanford and its alums have bagged a Pulitzer, a Ruth Lilly Prize, a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, a presidential awards.   Everything short of a Nobel. Are you listening, Stockholm?

From a piece I wrote recently:

Turning 40 is a landmark for many, and poet Tracy Smith was no exception. She planned to celebrate in style with champagne. But what she didn’t expect was the biggest present ever: her husband told her The New York Timeswebsite had just announced that she’d won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry.The new Pulitzer for Smith, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is one of several awards that have put a spotlight on Stanford’s top-ranked English Department and its renowned Creative Writing Program– a sometimes overlooked triumph on a campus that more often prides itself on its technological savvy.

Simone Di Piero, Photo credit: David LiittschwagerPoet W.S. Di Piero got the news that he had won the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize on April 1.  “They called me on April Fools Day.  So I had to ask twice if they were serious.  They said it was on the up and up.”

“In the land of poetry it’s a big prize,” said the emeritus professor of English.  His new collection of poetry, Nitro Nights, was published in December, but the $100,000 award honors lifetime accomplishments.

According to Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, “He wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before. He’s a great poet whose work is just beginning to get the wide audience it deserves.”

Poets weren’t the only ones to get prizes: English Prof. Denise Gigante got a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, topping a year that had already brought stunning accolades: The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Denise Gigante, photo credit: Raul DiazThe Guggenheim will give her time to work on her new book, The Book Madness: Charles Lamb’s Midnight Darlings in New York, a study of 19th century bibliomania, the formation of important libraries and literary culture in America, and the half-forgotten English essayist Charles Lamb.

“Americans were fascinated with the figures of British poets,” said Gigante.  “Culture was imported from Britain – that’s not true today.  And library-makers were the cultural brokers of the time.”  Her book will be “an experiment in literary critical form,” she said.

Gavin Jones, English Department chair, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

The list of awards continues:  President Obama awarded Prof. Ramón Saldívar a National Humanities medal in February. (Arnold Rampersad, emeritus professor of English, received the same award a year before.)

The English Department has consistently been at the top of U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate programs. The creative writing program, which does not confer an MFA, is considered by many to be the best in the country.  Its Stegner fellows form a tight-knit, ongoing society.

Pulitzer prizewinner Smith, at Stanford from 1997 to 1999, said her years at Stanford “pushed me to move towards a mature sense of what I was doing. To be honest, I didn’t know how to do that.”

The program’s focus on moving from manuscript to book “frees you from the person you were as a student and into what you will be as a poet.”

Smith, now an assistant professor at Princeton, was awarded for her collection Life on Mars. The New York Times called her “a poet of extraordinary range and ambition” whose book “first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”

Although many may have seen The Descendants, a critically praised film with George Clooney that won two Golden Globe awards (for best picture and best actor in drama), few know it was born in the English Department. Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Stegner Fellow from 2002-2004, was working on the novel while at Stanford.

Jesmyn Ward, photo credit: Adam JohnsonJesmyn Ward became the out-of-nowhere winner of the prestigious National Book Award for 2011 with Salvage the Bones, a novel about a working-class family confronting the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

Novelist Tobias Wolff said, “One of the great pleasures of teaching in the Stegner program is seeing the manuscripts we discuss in our workshops turn into books, distinguished, remarkable books, and recognized as such by the larger world.”

“Jesmyn Ward’s recent success is but one of too many examples to list here,” said the professor of English.

Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s leading poets and director of the Creative Writing Program, called it “a stellar year” for the English department – but cautioned that  “our entire focus has to be on the writing and not the recognition. The writing life is an end in itself – that’s what the program stands for.”

“We have many outstanding Stegners who don’t win awards and go on to be significant writers through their commitment to that life and its outcomes.”

For the award-winners, however, the recognition certainly doesn’t hurt: “I’ve done a lot of the research, but the writing needs the fellowship,” said Gigante. “I needed to have this award. The timing seems perfect.”

For Smith, now working on a memoir, the birthday bash was even bigger than she had planned. “A lot of champagne was involved,” said Smith. “It was put to good use, very quickly.”

What will Di Piero do with all the money? “Of course the first thing that came to mind a really hot, fast car.  I don’t own one, so if I’m going to buy one, I should get serious.”

“But in order to buy a car, I need a parking space, and to have a parking space, I should buy a house. And even the Lilly prize doesn’t go far enough to buy a house in San Francisco.”

Tobias Wolff: “Tell the truth.”

Thursday, February 24th, 2011
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At Kepler's in 2008 (Photo: Mark Coggins)

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff shares his own evolutionary path in the Los Altos Town Crier this week.

“The first step to becoming a writer is to be a reader,” Wolff said. “I remember being huddled under the blankets with a flashlight reading Albert Payson Terhune. I loved those collies. Being able to see the world through the eyes and the mind of a dog captivated me. I read all his books.”

As a boy, Wolff was also taken with with the works of Jack London.  “I was so enthusiastic that I changed my name to Jack,” he said. “I was writing all the time and began to try to imitate London’s style. I learned a writer reads differently. He notices the form, language, sense of character and voice.”

In fact, he said:

“You need to imitate until you find your voice,” he told the audience. “It’s just like listening to great music before you play. I assign my students an essay to be written in the style of Henry James,” he said. “One of the most difficult parts of writing a book is selecting names for your characters. They need to fit like a suit of clothes.”

His final advice to those writing memoirs:  “Tell the truth.”

Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien on the kitschification of Vietnam

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011
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Every cliché marks a little dead spot in the brain.  Yet after any intense experience — sex, childbirth, love, death, war — they are on-the-ready to frame our experience the way we’ve heard before, in ways that dull our own rough, unwelcome, and unmanageable perceptions.

Giving into them is like sinking comfortably into a jacuzzi.  Resisting is like swatting at the nasty flies buzzing around your head.

That’s precisely the role of the writer.  It’s got to do with staying honest.  Joseph Brodsky referred to it as resisting the “vulgarity of the human heart” — which is endlessly inventive in creating new clichés (yes, I’m aware of the irony) to do our thinking for us, to digest and regugitate our experience in pre-packaged, socially acceptable, and often sentimentalized ways.

We can jeer some of these prefabricated phrases, stereotypes, and the habitual ways of thinking and feeling into a well-earned oblivion — one by one, or, on occasion, in groups.  So when writers Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien appeared  in an onstage conversation Monday night to talk about writing and war, it was a rare opportunity.  I wrote about their discussion here.  Excerpts:

Wolff, author of Old School, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, noted that war writing is “so encrusted with cliché,” replete with images of “helicopters coming out of the mist” and jazzy lingo among soldiers. Wolff recoils at the clichés, adding that, for him, “When people use the word ‘Nam’ it’s like salt on a slug.”


Wolff: Keeping honest

Wolff, who has received two PEN awards and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, said war writing typically features “ossified conventions” – soldier teams that inevitably include “a Polock,” and “a guy who wears glasses; they call him ‘Doc.’” Wolff recalled hammy stereotypes of more recent vintage – a recent portrayal of a vet as an amputee, wheeling himself on a sort of scooter, “like Porgy.”

“It took years before I could deal with my memory honestly,” he said.

Wolff said he already had literary aspirations when he went to Vietnam. He wrote letters home with the idea that they would be the basis of his future writing. On reviewing them years later, he said, laughing, that “they were just crap.”

“They were totally untrue. They were literary. I was actually there, writing home literary experiences from books I had read,” he said.

His letters failed to capture the “growing corruption,” “the horrible way we treated people,” “the ironic vocabulary around every corrupt thing you did, how you became habituated to it, callous.”


O’Brien: No “male adventure”

O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, and July, July, noted that

he didn’t have the expected “shoot ‘em up stuff” in his books for a simple reason: “Part of it is that I can’t recall well. There was a general atmosphere of chaos, fear-based,” he told an overflow crowd at Cubberley Auditorium. “Memory evaporates,” said the writer, who has received a National Book Award. …

He added that he never saw war as “male adventure,” but was drafted: “I went to war kicking and screaming. I was terrified of dying.”

O’Brien considered how he writes about war:   “You do it sentence by sentence, line by line, character by character, even syllable by syllable,” said O’Brien. “You have to have a poetic sensibility – that language matters.” He approaches his books not first by theme, but by language (another part that didn’t make it into the story) “out of that, your body as a writer is moving — I’m not talking mystically about hearing stuff coming at me.”

O’Brien turned audience expectations upside down again when a woman asked him about treating post-traumatic stress disorder.  O’Brien took an unconventional stance: “One of the ways to deal with trauma is to be traumatized,” he said.  “I worry that there’s not enough trauma,” said O’Brien. “We seem to heal too quickly, too easily, too smoothly. I think you’re nuts if you come back from what I went through and aren’t nuts,” he said. “If you don’t have anger issues, I think you’re crazy, you’re not human.”

Actually, I’ve often thought that myself:  Why does therapy attempt to smooth out the rough edges of our life, to level the hard iron ore of experience? We talk about “processing” our emotions.  What exactly do “grief counselors” do?  We talk about “not being bitter” when people undergo experiences that are, essentially, bitter.  Drink it down to the bottom and then move on … well, “move on.”  There’s another one, eh?

Just when the audience was convinced that Vietnam was a meaningless horror, expectations turned again, with the poignant witness of a Vietnamese-American young woman, presumably a Stanford student, who said she felt “blessed” to be in the room — and without the American soldiers, she would not be privileged to be here.  She asked about “demonizing the enemy,” and said when she visits Vietnam, it’s hard to believe anything ever happened.

O’Brien, who has returned to Vietnam in recent years, grew thoughtful. “There’s a beauty that I missed, the first time around. The tree was ugly to me because someone might be behind it, shooting at me.”

He recalled returning to Vietnam and feeling “forgiven.”  He even went drinking with his erstwhile enemies, who joked about how easy it had been to find “big and noisy” Americans.  For the Vietnamese, “Our American War was just a blip on their radar screen. Not as big as the China War.

“There was none of the bone-killing animosity,” he said, “which makes you wonder: Which is the real world? That one or this one?”

Postscript on 2/2: The video of the event has just been posted — included below.

Tim O’Brien in Conversation with Tobias Wolff on “Writing and War” from Stanford Humanities on Vimeo.