Monday, May 14, 2012

Writers on Writing: Matt Iden on Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff: "Bullet in the Brain" (from Our Story Begins)

I've benefited enormously from writers' guides and editing manuals and I would never give away the lessons I've learned from them. But I think the best teacher remains reading good writing. Guides and how-to schemes teach the basics and help refine my craft, but it's great writing that speaks to me directly and gives me the passion to do the same, to hold myself to a higher standard. For me, "great writing" is exemplified by Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain".

This short story, first published in the New Yorker in 1995, details a brief, violent episode in the life of book critic Anders, who is unlucky enough to be in line at his local bank during a robbery. The narration is split into two parts: one you might call the action segment, the second the reflective; the two are separated by the event described in the title.

At any point in the story, the narrative could have tipped into the pedestrian on one side (plain old cops-n-robbers) to the maudlin (my God! I'm dying!) on the other. Wolff does neither, instead leading the reader masterfully through the moment using comedy, nostalgia, shock, and sympathy. Each turn--particularly the humor--in this compact, 1,500 word story is unexpected but fits so perfectly you wonder how you didn't see it coming. Point-of-view slides seamlessly from close third-person to omniscient with a flick of the wrist, word choice is uncannily accurate, the end is philosophical and resonates long after the page is turned.

Reading "Bullet'" for the first (and second and third) time was, at first, depressing. The skill on display seemed so natural and so beyond my own that I was left feeling like I'd be better off sticking to newsletters and website blurbs. It was only after I read Wolff's preface to Our Story Begins (the collection containing "Bullet in the Brain"), where he states that some of the stories went through as many as twenty drafts before being considered "final", did the light bulb go on: it's still craft. It's still work. It still takes effort. Even for Tobias Wolff.

Reading great writing continues to be my primary guide and inspiration. But I'll never be fooled into thinking that the classics sprung fully-formed from authors' heads. They looked towards other writers for inspiration and had to work their butts off to create their masterpieces. That knowledge, as much as any of the words they put on the page, keeps me going.

About the Story
You can find "Bullet in the Brain" in Wolff's collection Our Story Begins available in Kindle Format on Amazon.
About Matthew Iden
Matthew Iden writes thrillers, crime fiction, and contemporary literary fiction with a psychological twist, but he's also tried his hand at fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Former money-earning activities include time as a rifle-and-backpack-toting volunteer for the USDA Forest Service in Sitka, Alaska; IT Manager for the world-spanning Semester-at-Sea program; and postman. He's recently released four collections of crime fiction short stories in ebook format (collected in the omnibus ONE BAD TWELVE) and a fantasy short story debut, SWORD OF KINGS; his medium-boiled crime fiction series featuring retired Washington DC homicide detective Marty Singer debuts soon in A REASON TO LIVE.

Twitter: @CrimeRighter

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