Q&A with Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English

Jan. 12, 2016, 1:50 a.m.
(NINA ZUBRILLINA/The Stanford Daily)
(NINA ZUBRILLINA/The Stanford Daily)

Celebrated author and professor emeritus of English Tobias Wolff M.A. ’78 first came to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow in 1975. He returned to Stanford as a professor in 1997 and has taught here ever since. Wolff was set to retire at the end of the last school year but ultimately stayed to teach creative writing for one more year. The Daily sat down with Wolff to discuss his time here as well as his plans for the future.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why did you decide to continue teaching for another year?

Tobias Wolff (TW): I had not taught undergraduate workshops here in many years. I’d been teaching the graduate workshop and literature courses, so this was an opportunity to teach undergraduates one more time. Also, we had hoped to appoint someone to replace me — he will be coming next year, but he couldn’t come this year, so it left an opening for teaching workshops that I was happy to fill.

TSD: How does teaching undergraduates differ from teaching graduate students?

TW: I love their enthusiasm. This isn’t to say that I don’t have enthusiastic older students, but there’s a sense in these undergraduate workshops of experimentation. Not everyone in there is committed to being a writer for the rest of their life, as in the graduate workshop. One of the charms of teaching undergraduate workshops is that many of the students are putting their toe[s] in the water for the first time. They haven’t internalized rules and conventions; they’re apt to produce some pretty surprising work, and that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.

I like the liveliness and warmth of the undergraduates here. For example, I’m teaching two workshops this quarter: In both, most of the people didn’t know each other, and none of them knew me, but in our very first workshops we had great conversations. Breaking the ice took about three minutes, and after that we were off and running.

TSD: Why did you continue teaching even after achieving professional success as a writer?

TW: I’ve never been much attracted to the idea of the solitary life. I like being with other people who care about books, and with whom I can have sustained and interesting conversations… In some universities there’s a tension between the English department and creative writing, and that just isn’t a problem here. We all see each other as involved in the same enterprise.

I could have left teaching 15 or 20 years ago if I’d wanted to live just on the writing… But I don’t think I would have had as interesting a life or been as excited by the company I keep.

TSD: In a Daily article from 2013, you said of Stanford’s creative writing program, “Our undergraduate program is the best in the country — there’s nothing to compare it to.” Why do you think the creative writing program here is so strong?

TW: To begin with, there’s nothing comparable to the Stegner Fellows program in this country… Last year we had some 1,200 applicants for five places in fiction and about 1,000 applicants for the five places in poetry. I don’t think there’s any kind of program anywhere that’s that selective, including medical and law schools. We choose our lecturers from that select pool of Stegner Fellows… They’re all published; they’re young; they’re extremely literate. There’s no other program that gives quite that offering to undergraduates. And the roster faculty, look at them — they’re amazing.

The other difference is that every Stanford student can take a creative writing course from one of these fine writers. By way of contrast, a friend of mine had two sons who went to Yale and were both really interested in writing, but neither of them was ever able to take a workshop in their four years there… Here, the way is guaranteed for somebody who wants to write to have a chance to study writing with an outstanding teacher and practitioner, and that’s something Stanford can be very proud of.

TSD: What do you find most challenging about teaching creative writing?

TW: People ask: Can you really teach creative writing? Well of course you can’t. But what you can do is help people become good readers and better editors of their own work… We have to learn as writers a certain detachment from our work. We can’t be sentimentally involved, or we’ll never be able to rewrite it, and that’s the key to most successful work — the writer knows how to rewrite that awkward, clumsy first draft.

TSD: Any idea what the future holds for you after you retire?

TW: Well, you know the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” I hope that I’ll be able to finish a book that I’ve been working on… that I’ll find a good writing pace. Otherwise my life won’t change that much. I wasn’t so hard-worked here that I couldn’t swim and hike and spend time with my family. But the extra time and freedom from distraction will certainly put a demand on me to make good use of my time.

TSD: Will you stay connected to Stanford?

TW: Oh yeah, I live here. I love coming to hear music at Bing. I love going to the “Another Look” book discussion group. I go to readings. My friends here will still be my friends. They’ll have to carry me out of here feet-first.


Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

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