Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reading: Tobias Wolff

I’ve read plenty of theories about the differences between dog and cat people. Most of it is psychobabble, of course -- forwarded emails skewed towards the animal of the writer’s preferences -- but I wonder, however, if there’s a qualitative difference. Tobias Wolff, for instance, is a dog writer. That puts him in the same field as Amy Hempel. At his reading last Thursday, he regaled the audience about the books which changed his life -- a series of collie-related adventure novels. As well, he read from one of his newer stories, “Her Dog,” in which he channels a dog’s voice. (It was a ruff night.) I, by proxy, am a cat writer. Which puts me in the company of, say, Rita Mae Brown.

That aside, of course, more bonds us together as writers rather than our respective pet choices. When he spoke about his revision process -- how he loves to revise, but finds the actual writing process daunting -- I found sense that many in the audience agreed. Lots of younger listeners in the audience (post-college aspiring writers, perhaps) but there was also a gaggle of high school students -- probably a nearby school, assigned reading. Behind me in the signing line was the Mid-Atlantic sales director for Knopf books. I tried to make a good impression via small talk(because you never know), but only managed to ask if he had ever met Chip Kidd. All in good time, I tell myself, all in good time.

The feeling of accomplishment that comes with the idea of having written, rather than the idea of writing, makes revision a pleasing feeling. The act of creation is difficult enough, but the act of refinement -- I often tell myself that this is where writers truly reveal themselves. In his talk, Wolff spoke about the various incarnations his stories had taken, how he added characters or deleted scenes and pruned and cut and shaped as necessary. He spoke about trying to achieve a certain emotional truth in his stories -- and I’m inclined to agree: His prose isn’t showy -- one could argue that it’s relatively unadorned (dirty realism is the term critics apply to him and Hempel). But even if cat writers are more prone to flights of fancy and wordplay (this, of course, is a horrible generalization), it’s the sharpness of our claws, rather than the play itself, which is important.

Well, let's declare this metaphor dead.

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