In the spring, Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life) came to Grossmont College, a local community college, to speak and lead workshops for the students as part of their annual Literary Festival. I went to his open lecture and bought a copy of Old School (on which the Will Ferrell was based. Not.) Wolff was as gracious and honest as his writing.
Old School is a semi-autobiographical fictional story about a boy who makes up a past to attend a prestigious boy’s boarding school. It’s very much about the importance of fiction in our lives.
There was one passage in particular that has stuck with me all these summer months, and I was able to find it again readily though I hadn’t marked up my copy. It’s where the protagonist is trying to come up with the Perfect Story to win a writing competition that will be judged by Ernest Hemingway. The prize is an audience with the man himself.
Blocked, the boy begins reading other stories and finds one in a girls’ school magazine that particularly resonates. He ends up plagiarizing the story, but that’s irrelevant to why it stuck with me.
Here’s the passage:
I went back to the beginning and read it again, slowly this time, feeling all the while as if my inmost vault had been smashed open and looted and every hidden thing spread out across those pages. From the very first sentence I was looking myself right in the face.
This is what writing is about. Telling secrets.
Sometimes this is difficult for me. I am sort of a secretive person myself, afraid of being judged and disliked if people know my innermost thoughts. But this fear, I think, helps make writing compelling.
The characters need to let readers in on secrets they’re afraid to even admit to themselves. What secrets do your characters have? What are their worst fears? What are they afraid to show to the world?
On a related note, I also read an article yesterday called The Ideal English Major. In part, it talks about the benefits of studying literature:
You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.
This is what we need to do as writers. Tell every hidden thing. Make the story vibrate with life’s richness.
It’s something to aspire to, anyway.