On meeting Tobias Wolff


Tobias Wolff

Last night I got to meet one of my rock star writer heroes. Tobias Wolff. You might not know him by name, but you may have seen a film that was inspired by his memoir — This Boy’s Life with Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, and Ellen Barkin.

Anyway, I was attending Harvard, and I was looking for my advisor, and I was going to need an extension for a paper that was due that day. I felt terrible, but I really couldn’t seem to get it done. It needed to be 23 pages, and that’s exactly what every other student had written. 23 pages. I poked my head around a corner, a corner near a door on which the name “Raymond Carver” was imprinted. Raymond Carver was my advisor. But he wasn’t in.

Instead, I found Tobias Wolff, amongst stacks of books, papers, and copies of Raymond Carver’s books. Literary posters covered the hallowed walls.

It was a surprise to find Tobias Wolff, because I realized at once that it was his class that my paper was due for. I fell all over myself telling him how wonderful it was to meet him, and how much his writing had meant to me over the years. Since 1981, in fact, when his landmark story collection “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” was published. It bothered him not that I’d never attended his class and that I was only just meeting him now. He asked me out for coffee anyway. How gracious is that?

Thing is, he did want to know why the paper would be late. I had to tell him the truth: my roommate had had a baby in the dormitory room the night before, and, well, the process had consumed all available space and time. In fact, the dream began with this incredible birth. It seemed as though my roommate went from barely pregnant to delivery in a matter of minutes.

Tobias Wolff seemed to understand. He did request that I make my application for an extension on paper, and he found me a pen and paper. Lots of paper, as it turned out. Every time I tried to write, it was as if the paper was coated with butter, or the paper was too wet. It was an odd assortment of paper, and apparently I was writing on recycled pieces with things already written on the other side. But where the paper was buttery or wet, the backwards writing and my writing all coincided, and I seemed to fill up recycled paper after recycled paper with my attempts at an extension request.

There is some truth to this dream. I did attend Harvard for graduate work in the late 70s and early 80s. I never did meet Tobias Wolff, and I’m pretty sure he never taught at Harvard. At Harvard I did meet Robert Penn Warren, a guest lecturer, who had been a rock star writer hero of mine since high school. No college roommate bore children within the dormitory walls. A close college friend did have an abortion, which was, I’m sure, much more traumatic for her than it was for me, although I was there. I never had to get an extension for a paper, but I suffer angst about all things scholastic to this day, including, apparently, my choice of degrees.

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