Author Tobias Wolff worked as a reporter, a waiter and a night watchman. But he always wanted to be a writer.

"You don't have much control over what happens in life, but you can control what you write. Manage your life."

-Tobias Wolff


Author Tobias Wolff worked as a reporter, a waiter and a night watchman. But he always wanted to be a writer.

"Being a writer is what I felt called to do," Wolff told Bexley High School students in his April 27 visit as the featured author for the Bexley Education Foundation's second annual Bexley Community Book Club. He also spoke to the community that evening in the Schottenstein Theatre.

As part of the book club, Bexley High School students have been reading Wolff's work throughout the school year. Seven students who submitted their own short memoirs also won the chance to work with Wolff in a writers' workshop.

Wolff is best known for his memoir, "This Boy's Life," which was made into a 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin and Robert De Niro.

He told students he decided to write "This Boy's Life" when he noticed his memory was getting a little vague.

"I had a good memory but things were starting to go down hill, like a rabbit in the hole," he said. "I wanted to leave a record."

Through his memoir he was able to paint the proper picture of his mother for his children. Their grandmother was adventurous "with a wildness to her, kind of crazy, which made things difficult for her loved ones also," he said.

As he got deeper into recalling his memories he began to feel a certain embarrassment about putting himself and loved ones under a literary microscope. He briefly thought about turning his life into a novel, but when he started embellishing his life the story died.

"I had to tell what really happened," he said. "The result is the book you read."

One of the challenging parts of writing a memoir is the affect it has on other people, Wolff said. He tried his best to change names to protect identity.

He said his mother was nervous about having the memoir published. He was determined not to pretty up the picture and said he would feel worse if he tried to make her look better than she was.

When the reviews came out, his mother was happy. Reviewers often referred to her as his "plucky, beautiful mom."

Wolff said it was important for him to paint a picture of a different type of family in America. In his memoir, Wolff writes about his childhood in Washington state and his relationship with his stepfather.

"The idea was to write a book and give another kind of picture," Wolff said.

One complication of writing a memoir is organizing memories or making a pattern out of them, Wolff said. Moving from town to town, he had an opportunity to give himself a false sense of history.

"You can only be who you can imagine being," Wolff said.

There is great value in keeping a journal, he told students. Journals allow the writer to recall not just thoughts, but tastes, smells and conversations.

"Get in the habit and you will keep it all your life," he said.

Students asked how difficult it was to recall conversations.

"All memories are recreations," he said. "We are the leading character in all our memories."

Wolff also spoke about his short stories. He said people don't have novel length memories, but instead are capable of short story length memories.

He said he likes writing short stories because they allow him to drive closer to perfection. Perfection is more difficult to manage in a novel because of the novel's length, number of characters and number of settings, Wolff said.

Students asked if it was important that the reader gets the intent of the short story. Wolff said he is always shy about imposing his intent for a story on a reader. Neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare left behind notes on the intent of their work, he said.

Wolff said he is the most important reader to keep in mind while writing a story. He re-reads his short stories, taking out what doesn't need to be told and making sure not to lead the reader by the hand, he said.

"One reader I consider a lot is me -- would I need to be told?" he said. "The big question is, 'Would I be into this?' I don't know how other people respond or think."