Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tobias Wolff: "Powder" and "Bullet in the Brain"

At this point of the semester when you're all workshopping your own work, let's hear from Tobias Wolff on how he responds to the question: "Who do you show your work to, and at what stage?"  This is from the Paris Review, an interview which you may read the entirety of here.

Wolff: "I don’t talk about my work, and I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve brought it along as far as I am able. I show my work to my wife, Catherine, first. She knows me better than anyone else and has a good instinct for the kind of thing I’m hoping to write, so can see where I failed to get it down. When Ray Carver was alive we sometimes traded manuscripts back and forth, though I have to say that my own stories profited much more from those readings than his; I can’t join the army of those who claim to have written his work or brought it to perfection. And my brother Geoffrey—when we were younger we used to exchange manuscripts and really mark each other’s work up. Then there’s the process of getting things into print. I’ve always had very good experiences with my editors, Gary Fisketjon especially; I find it immensely helpful to be given different ways of looking at something I’ve done. And though she doesn’t edit my manuscripts, Amanda Urban has given me twenty-five years’ worth of advice and encouragement, and done her damnednest to get my work out in the world. I guess the point is, as you go on in this life you become aware of the folly of thinking you did something all by yourself. We’re held up by others all along the way."


  1. I’m probably forcing Burroway’s lens onto my readers of Wolff’s “Powder” and “Bullet in the Brain,” though setting is a cornerstone for both. In “Bullet,” Wolff takes brings us to a more intimate and focused micro-setting that no other writer had brought us. He makes the maze of Ander’s head a setting, and as if in slow motion, we follow the bullet as it “ploughs through his brain…scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus collosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus.” While we may not know off-hand what these specific parts of the brain do, Wolff walks us down them like he’s describing a series of streets. He familiarizes a confusing and unique setting for his readers, and it is that technique which makes the setting in “Bullet” so powerful.

    In “Powder,” we see that the father’s effect on his son is parallel to his control of the setting. As the story progresses, the father masters the car in the snow, steering through the “orange stakes planted at intervals” and maneuvering the virgin snow drifts. It is only when the father proves that he is stronger than the dangerous setting around them that the son “actually trusted him.” In a typical story, the main character beats the antagonist and then gets a reward. However, making place the antagonist offers a new reading—and the snowy road as an obstacle also becomes a catalyst for the father-son relationship.

    After reading through some of the interview (admittedly I didn’t get through the whole thing), I don’t find it too surprising—when Wolff explained where he writes, he explains that “all I need is a window to not write.” Wolff is so susceptible to the power of place and setting in real life that it only makes sense that his stories reflect the same.

    Something else random from the interview—conceptualizing the fact that one short story took Wolff “three months, working on it most days for some hours” is incredible. This past week and a half, we’ve each written three stories we feel are at least somewhat complete. I can’t imagine what three months and a mind like Wolff’s could do to the stories we’ve come up with. There must be so many holes in our stories, so many ways we could consider them incomplete. Three months isn’t a reasonable deadline for college short stories, but it’s fascinating to think that that’s the kind of time we might be spending writing them in the future.

  2. What I really appreciated about Wolff's stories was his ability to take a single scene and turn it into a full story. I thought that this was an interesting thing for him to do that we haven't seen before from any other writer. For example, in "Powder" the majority of the story takes place within the truck. What I thought was most interesting about "Powder" was that his father has such an impact on his son even though he appears to be a terrible influence on him. In a sense they seem to switch roles because the father is more reckless and the son seems to be more reserved and cautious.
    Something I think that I could take from Wolff would be his ability to take a short scene and make it into a fully formed short story. I thought that this was a great quality to take away from this. His ability to take a scene and turn it into something with that much meaning is really something that I would like to try in my writing even if it was only for the fun of experimenting.

  3. Tobias Wolff writing IS short story. It has maximum meaning with minimum writing. Everything in his story has meaning and if a piece were removed the story would crumble like a house of cards. I, much like Alex, was forcing Burroway onto this writing too and I am glad of it. If I hadn't paid attention to the setting in "Powder" I would have missed it's essential meaning because really the story was about navigating his life with his father and not the snow covered road.

    Tom Bailey introduced me to Bullet in the Brain and it has remained in my top 3 favorite stories. The reason I believe is because of the line "They is, they is, they is." and lines similar to "She looked at him with drowned eyes." The other reason is because he develops a character so carefully before allowing us to see any importance. He introduces the story in a very comedic light, sort of a black humor. Then he gets shot and we enter the brain and realize why Anders is the cynical joking type and at the end you can't not empathize with him.

    If I could take anything from his writing I would take it all. His experiment with creating the setting a metaphor and antagonist or his playing with cliche or his descriptions or his development of character, I would have it all. If I HAD to choose, I would take the development of the back story. He somehow makes us come into the characters memories (even in powder where he doesn't do it literally) and feel as though we can see all that they have gone through to get them to this point and all that they will go through. This sort of grand painting he produces without a huge backdrop is what I would steal for my own writing.

  4. One of the things I think Wolff did good was his ability to slow down time at his command. The main example is in "bullet in the brain." The action in this story seems to be happening at a pretty fast or normal pace, but when Ander gets shot in the head the whole story seems to slow down. He slows it enough so the reader can appreciate exactally what the bullet is doing in Ander's brain. He slows it so down so we can see the move as slow as he wants. Ander gets shot halfway through the story, but the last event to happen in the story is Ander getting shot. This also goes to show how good Wolff is at describing and explaining when there isn't any action. I think I should try a writing exercise where I play with how fast time moves.

  5. Wolff is capable of drawing so much meaning out of so little words. He makes the reader reconsider the common things of their life. I loved the moment in "Bullet in the Brain" where Anders is contemplating and critiquing the painting on the ceiling of the bank. I can honestly say I have never looked at the ceiling of any bank I have been in and now I just wonder what they look like. Of course I will most likely be disappointed that they do not compare to what Wolff has described but I will still look.
    Wolff's writing affects the reader directly. At least for me, it makes me think of certain things a different way or reconsider how somethings, people have never experienced. In the end of "Powder," he says 'if you haven't driven fresh powder, you haven't driven.' Where I come from I have no choice but to drive in the fresh powdery snow in the winters and Wolff described what it is like to the dot. Sometimes I forget some people might not have that experience, something that is so common to me is out of the natural element for another person.
    Wolff's entire writing style appeals to me as both a reader and a writer. I want to be able to write a short story with a profound impact. I want to have a story that is multilayered but remains in one physical setting.

  6. I really liked Tobias Wolff and I loved how dark they were. This is totally random but I really liked Tobias’s last name because the wolf is my favorite animals. A wolf means teacher in Native American folklore and in this case Tobias’ last name fits in that he is teaching me about writing. He reminded me of a mix between John Cheever and Raymond Carver in that it was very harsh reality but dark at the same time. The setting of Wolff’s stories played a huge part as if it was another character in the story. In “Powder” the main character learns more about his father, driving and himself because of that snowstorm. Without the snow storm, there would be no catalyst for any change. “Bullet in the Brain” is another story of Wolff’s that really had the setting impact the character. One of the main reasons why Anders got injured is because he laughed after he noticed different paintings on the bank ceiling and it was in the bank where the robbery took place.

    I would add Tobias Wolff to my literary family tree in that I would use his technique of setting and how it shapes the characters and the story. Setting is one of my favorite things to create so that my characters can breath and live. But by reading Wolff I can see how a setting can affect the main characters by becoming more than just the surroundings. In a way the setting changes depending on the conflict or action in the story, which will help develop the characters more. Like what Burroway said about setting, Wolff showed me that a setting has to be more than just the surroundings. It has to affect the characters somehow in order for the story move forward.

  7. The last couple authors we have read, have not been favorites of mine. That was part of the reason I felt so refreshed reading Wolff. I Especially liked powder. I felt as though Wolff added so much meaning into only a few pages. It was a story of a boy and his father, in their (seemingly) last time together before his parents split, but I found there to actually be more in this story about the father than the boy. The father simply wanted to impress his son, and make him happy, without messing up once again. The boy was passive, but came to terms with everything and dimply enjoyed his adventure with his father.

    Something I absolutely loved about Wolff of his use of odd sounding details. Lines like "... blinding squalls, hissing like sand,"and "... Breaking virgin snow." I love the peculiar way of describing something so simple. I like to try and come up with description that is out of the ordinary, but Wolff really inspires me to think even harder.

    I'm not sure if he is my favorite author we have read thus far, but it comes down to either Oats or him, and Wolff has a cool mustache, something that Oats lacks...

  8. I felt rather peeved about the fact that I had already finished my family tree exercise before reading Tobias Wolff, because I know I will find a place for him very close to me. These two short stories were the best I think I've ever read. "Powder" is such a short piece of work, but Wolff manages to take a couple of actions from a character and extrapolate them to make them indicative of a character's entire life. "Bullet in the Brain" is longer, but uses the same question--"What is this person like?"--although it approaches that question from a completely different angle, keeping us firmly in the life of a single person and giving us the information through straight narrative toward the end of the piece. The second portion of the story was extremely moving; the first was extremely funny, especially because the humor was mostly dry. I can't think of a better combination.

    Interestingly, Wolff seems to follow correct grammar and sentence structure throughout his work, which endears him to me. I find this strange for two reasons. The first is that he still manages to appear experimental, especially in "Bullet," but that is mainly because of his outside-the-box approach to plot. The second reason is because "Bullet" is about a man who fell in love with language when someone used IMPROPER grammar and taught him that no one uses language quite like someone else. The irony is astounding, and only adds more to the story and the author.

  9. I can get behind this guy. I agree that it's important to be discerning when offering others the opportunity to edit one's drafts. I also notice a lot of similarities between Wolff's writing and my own, and though his stories are for more polished, I regret not including him in my literary family.

    Both of these pieces allow its readers to immerse themselves in the mind of its characters, as they are complex and unique character studies. Rather than feeling a voyeuristic quality, Wolff's stories make me feel like the central character. Some of his writing seems to encompass an organized stream of consciousness, especially the "Bullet in the Brain", which is highly experimental in its syntax, but it succeeds in capturing the internal complexities of the human condition.

  10. I really enjoyed reading these stories by Wolffe. In class, when we had to do that writing exercise where people were to say things that they don't mean, we were told not to just have two characters sitting in a car, that that wasn't enough action. However, in "Powder," that's the major setting, and that story moves along just as well as any other. It's not boring, and it's not like anything I've read before. In those few short pages, we learn almost the whole lives of those two people in the car.
    in "Bullet of the Brain," I really liked how it was really all about one memory that Anders had. The story took on the cliche of "my life flashed before my eyes," and expanded it. I also loved how time just almost completely stopped in the story, but at the same time the action kept moving. We're stuck in this memory, which seems like it would take some time to get through, but it's really only a second long.
    From Tobias Wolffe, I would like to take this ability to slow time down as well as keep the story moving. Also, though I haven't mentioned this that much, other people have mentioned how he makes the setting so important to the story, and I'd like to practice that in my writing as well. I often pass over the setting and don't give many details, so I find it really interesting how he has managed to make it so crucial to the story.

  11. I always think to myself that in order for a writer to make a very short story work they must be really skilled. I feel like it's much easier to make a long, ten-to-twenty page story arrive at something than it is to make these short little Wolff pieces arrive, and he does it with such grace. As others have said, I admire his detail, and the way he makes setting even when we think there is none (Anders's brain).

    I think I see the connection between Wolff and Carver, who I included on my family tree as an uncle. They both have such brevity and impact, and I don't know that I would agree with Wolff that Carver helped him more. While I loved what we read of Carver, I think Wolff's stories will stick with me more in the long run.

    What I want to steal from Wolff: all of the things that have been mentioned by others, but also his sense of humor! I laughed out loud reading these, of course only in certain parts, but I love the blend of the humorous with the dark. "What are my strong points?" "Don't get me started," he said. "It'd take all day." That's such a Dad thing to say, and I can imagine him turning to look at him in the car and smiling, or saying it deadpan and the son stifling a laugh. And even though we see Anders in a more serious light toward the end, his reaction to the bank robbery is unique, and it's funny- at least to me.