Today is the birthday of American novelist and memoirist who once said, “Memory is the story. Memories are what make us.” That’s Tobias Wolff (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1945). Wolff is best known for his memoir This Boy’s Life (1989), in which he writes of traveling the country with his mother, Rosemary, who was fleeing an abusive husband. Along the way, somewhere in Utah, Tobias Wolff changed his name to Jack, in honor of his favorite writer, Jack London. He and his mother settled in Concrete, Washington, where she entered another abusive marriage. Wolff’s stepfather, who housed the family in a former barracks used for German prisoners of war, often stole Wolff’s newspaper delivery earnings and belittled him at every opportunity. Eventually, Wolff decided the best way out was to escape to an elite boarding school, so he fabricated his applications, claimed straight A’s, and even forged his references and transcripts.
About composing his reference letters, Wolff said proudly: “I could afford to be terse and modest in my self-descriptions, knowing how detailed my recommenders were going to be. I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself.”
He was accepted to the prestigious Hill School in Pennsylvania, but was later expelled. He wrote a novel based on his experience at Hill called Old School (2003). In 1990, after he was a famous writer, the school granted him a degree, though the headmaster took great delight in reading excerpts from Wolff’s fictitious application to the commencement audience.
Wolff had a brother, Geoffrey, but when his parents divorced Geoffrey went to live with Wolff’s father, and they didn’t reconnect until Geoffrey was in college. Their father was a con man, forger, passer of bad checks, a car thief, and once even bluffed his way into a job as an aeronautical engineer. Geoffrey turned out to be a writer, too, and wrote his own memoir of their father, called The Duke of Deception (1979). After reading memoirs by both of her sons, their mother, Rosemary, said dryly, “If I’d known both my boys were to going to be writers, I might have lived life a little differently.”
About writing, he says: “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.”
And: “We love hearing stories of other people’s misfortunes — not terrible misfortunes, we don’t like that, but if somebody has taken a really expensive holiday, we don’t mind hearing that their flight was canceled and they had to sleep on the airport floor, and that there was no snow on the slopes when they finally arrived, and that the heating crashed in their hotel and that they had to wear several layers of clothing to bed every night. We live by stories. It’s the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are. We’re in an unceasing flow of time and events and people, and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things, and in that way we break the unbroken flow into stories, because that’s the only way we can give it significance.”