The Brothers Wolff

This afternoon I had the honor (and I don’t use that term lightly) of seeing two icons — Geoffrey Wolff (left) and his little brother Tobias Wolff — have a conversation about writing.  What a pleasure.

They’ve published about 20 books between them, and they spoke quite a bit about their memoirs.  Their parents divorced.  Geoffrey was raised by his father and Tobias by their mother.  Their childhoods rarely overlapped and their books helped them learn about each other and also about their parents.  Through their books they’ve educated each other on their family history.

What if you and your sister (or brother) wrote your most honest memories of your family and both of you were open to seeing your family through each other’s eyes?  I am trying to imagine the possibilities of this.


The brothers told stories and laughed.  And laughed some more.  They were clearly at ease and having a great time together.  That’s what I’ll remember most about them.

Here are a few gems from my notes:

On writing:  Tobias has always felt he was building castles in the air when writing stories.  He never worried about what was publishable, and still doesn’t.

On their mother’s response to being written about:  She was unsentimental, which was her nature, and she said she’d have felt worse if Toby had “prettied her up” in his portrait of her.  She was flawed, but his story shows that he loved her anyway.  His book showed her he accepted her the way she was.

On the debt of memoir:    The most interesting points in a memoir are the intersections of characters, of real people.  Otherwise you don’t have a story.  You have to be willing to take on that debt, to tell their stories alongside yours.  And you also must be willing to turn an equally strong microscope on yourself: how do you look to them?

A good book:  Genre doesn’t matter.  A good book is a good book.  And the challenges in writing your first book will be the same regardless of the genre.  Write your best book, period.

23 thoughts on “The Brothers Wolff

  1. erikamarks

    This is fascinating to me–and I have seen their names countless times and never knew the details of their work. Imagine it: separate childhood experiences–just the idea of them being split between the parents makes my heart ache–I will have to pursue these memoirs now, Teri. I’m far too intrigued not to get further in.

    And what an idea you’ve posed–what if we each as siblings wrote our memoirs and we were able to do so with impunity? Would we dare?

    1. Teri Post author

      You often hear writers talk about writing autobiographical novels as their early (or first) work. Geoffrey’s first was a novel using his father as the template. Months after it came out, he was ashamed of it. He realized how uncaringly he’d treated the subject of his father (regardless of their history) and he also realized how he’d lived on telling stories about his dad. He wrote the memoir as a correction, to fix the “mistake” that was his first book.

      I found this fascinating. He and Toby never intended to write memoirs, yet both of them wrote 2 of the best out there.

  2. CJ Rice (@leapof)

    I love THIS BOY’S LIFE.

    Before fhey started reading my blog my younger siblings were under the impression that the one who got away had somehow lived the earlier better life with our mother–when she was younger and more loving. They didn’t think I understood their experience. Now they know otherwise.

    Still nothing explains the unexplainable and the unimaginable. And many will guard against the most difficult subjects of maternal rejection.

    1. Teri Post author

      I was particularly taken with how lovingly they discussed their parents (and their series of stepfathers) with compassion and care. And a sense of humor.

      1. CJ

        So there’s no place for the fierce and the unforgiving in memoir? Or auto-biographical fiction? All must be caramelized into loving forgiveness?

        I should never have read Medea.

      2. Teri Post author

        I’m commenting strictly on the Wolff brothers’ opinions, and of course focusing what I’m trying desperately to do in my own book. All stories are certainly not the same.

  3. macdougalstreetbaby

    Recently I was talking to an old friend who suddenly started telling me about his childhood. After his mother had died, he and his two brothers separated and became wards of the state. They didn’t see each other again until they became grown ups. He was the older brother and always felt a responsibility for taking care of his two younger siblings, even as an adult. Talk about a debt!

    1. Averil Dean

      I’ve been so close to my sister all my life, and she’s my best friend even now. Reading this, I wonder how much of our love is shared experience, how much genetic, how much a simple meeting of like minds. I wonder if we would be this close had we met as adults.

      Such an interesting topic. And I love that last point about writing. It’s hard! Whatever we choose to write, it’s going to be a challenge.

    1. Teri Post author

      Rex and I often say that one of the best things about where we live (besides the scenery and weather) is the ability to see so many writers and artists. This event was a small one at the university and I was literally sitting within a few feet of them. It was like we were at the dining room table.

  4. Lyra

    “The challenges of writing your first book will be the same regardless of genre:”

    What a timely quote, Teri. Thank you.

    I have no doubt that were my sister and I to each write a memoir, no one would guess we were raised in the same house. I think there’s a solid chance we would have had more similar recollections if we were raised seperately.
    What an interesting thing that both brothers went on to become writers. Did they speak to that, how they each ended up writing?

    1. Teri Post author

      One of the things I’m finding in writing my book is how hard it is to see myself in the eyes of my brothers/mother/stepparents, etc… As Geoffrey said, you can’t write about everyone else as the angel floating (blameless?) above it all.

      On becoming writers: Geoffrey had just graduated from Princeton where he’d had a great poetry teacher and wanted to write. Toby was 15 and had just been accepted into a private boy’s school he was completely unprepared for, and he’d come to stay with his Dad and brother for the summer in San Diego. The dad was suddenly “institutionalized” and Geoffrey (who was working) gave Toby reading and writing assignments to keep him busy and to prepare him for the school. That’s when Toby decided he wanted to be a writer.

      (that’s my best short version description, but the entire story is more interesting, and in their books)

  5. amyg

    what a treat! the wolff brothers talking about writing. memoir writing.
    it’s like the most perfect dinner followed by an indulgent dessert all in the same night.

    1. Teri Post author

      They were as entertaining as they were wise and smart. I admit, I have a little literary crush on them both.

  6. Downith

    Yes, you do go to the best events and thanks for sharing them with us.

    Write your best book,period. Thanks for the reminder.

    (And I love your new header!)

    1. Teri Post author

      Yes. These little snippets remind me I’m not building a combustion engine from scratch. I’m writing a story. And all I can do is write it the best I can.

      Of course this concept is hard for the control freak in me, but I’m doing my best.

    1. Teri Post author

      Of course he doesn’t worry. He is Tobias Wolff —- and I must say I love his short stories more than anything else he’s ever written.

Comments are closed.