It was an arrogant thing to do, taking Tobias Wolff to physical therapy with me yesterday morning. The first 15 minutes I spend hooked up to the TENS Unit, an electro-stimulation device for the muscles around the shoulder, and there is the hooking up time and the disconnecting time - maybe 20 minutes total that one could read from a book, should they choose. Usually I chat with the therapist or play with my blackberry, sometimes talk with another patient, if he is not reading from his book.
That gets us to the arrogant part: he brings a Cussler or King or Baldacci, popular fiction. I could have penned in advance his response to me bringing a book: What you reading? Who? Haven't heard of him. What's it about? Hmm, okay. What? (Of course take Wolff into some quarters and Wolff = Cussler or King or Baldacci, by comparison. He a storyteller, old school, outdated, irrelevant to what is being written today. That is horse shit I would say, but I know it is there).
Okay, so shame on me. A small self-flagellation and move on.
The story I chose to read was "The Liar," based entirely on which one looked like I could easily read it in twenty minutes. What a great story, and I am not going to follow with an essay on its literary components (although I think one might make a career out of critiquing from different angles/perspectives). Read the story if sufficiently intrigued. No, it is Wolff who has re-got his fangs into me: the areas of mine own writing that I am sensitive to thoughts of inadequacy: tone, wordiness, amount of detail, velocity (especially this), and there is more, let's not lay me out bare -- he absolutely nails all of it. Spot on. Perfect pace, velocity, tone, detail, description. Point a to point b in 100% correct path.,
We might now argue whether he is a great artist or merely a great craftsman - are they exclusive? I would say the former must include the latter and not vice versa, but that is a quick thought and not important to me at this juncture. What is important is that he can navigate a full story with nary a misstep. That makes this a perfect story in my eyes, a great story. But I would not rank it all-time great, as the limitations of character, setting, etc., limitations imposed by the story itself, minimize its loftiness. But again, he mines every drop of this story that is available and that awes me.
I had a similar feeling when first reading "The Night in Question." Less so about the overall perfection, more so the velocity and direction. It is very good, but I think it might be improved. Maybe not, who is to say. "Venus de Milo," a beautiful little story I came across in a small lit mag ten years ago, is similar in this regard. Almost perfect in and of itself. Perhaps a couple of word choices might have improved it, I thought at the time. Arrogant thoughts on my part. But can writers help reading that way (I like to think I only think that way after digesting the story)?
Aside: Ricardo Semler, in Maverick, asks the question (paraphrase): What are the obligations of a Corporation? He decides survive and thrive are necessary, but whether to grow larger or not was more sticky and subject to much debate. Ultimately he decided it depends, and decided to keep his company its current size and not grow, fearing the cultural changes that growth would likely bring.
What obligations do writers have, if any? What is inherent, what negotiable? For me I feel I must always be open for improvement, on the lookout for what I might learn. The obligation to the story, the characters, the reader, is enormous. And to answer an earlier question: perhaps it is the artist who finds the story but it is the craftsman who tells it? Then craft is always at issue, no?
So for a while I'll be carrying around Wolff, probably to the point of depression. And I'll get cracking on that Stegner application. Who wouldn't benefit from a couple of years around a guy like that? (Would that count as the balance of my Ashes? More likely that would constitute time in the Garden, under the leaves touched by moist soil. Must get another copy of Iron John. His edicts fade.)