TOBIAS WOLFF: … I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life.
But 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. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.
Do you write in the house?
No, I have a study in the basement of the university library. They offered me a nice place to work with a view of the Stanford hills, and I turned it down for this dump in the stacks because I’m so easily distracted. All I need is a window to not write. The only books I keep with me are a dictionary and some other reference books. If I have a good novel in the room with me, I’ll end up reading that. Writing’s hard. You’ll take any out, if you can. I work best away from the house because I’m too tempted to check for calls and my mail and deal with tradesmen and run an errand, go out for lunch.
Serious writers don’t strike me as lazy—just the opposite, in fact. So why the compulsion to do anything but write?
I don’t know if that’s true for everybody. I hesitate to generalize. I’m sure there are writers who don’t feel that tug away from the desk.
What’s your writing day like?
Boring, if you’re not me. I take a walk or go for a swim, then go to work, eat, take a walk, write, come home. I never go to movies about writers because writers lead very boring lives if they’re actually working. When I was a kid and saw these pictures of Hemingway on safari or fishing in Idaho, or Fitzgerald in Paris, I thought, What an exciting life writers must lead. What I didn’t know is that’s what they do when they’re not writing. What’s exciting is finding a word that’s been dodging you for days, or deciding to cut something you’ve spent weeks on. The excitement’s in the writing. It doesn’t offer much in the way of drama, I’m afraid. Routine becomes invaluable to writers, and that’s why once they hit their stride, their biographies make very poor material.