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.