Essay Written in 2001

How I First Offended, and Then Befriended, A Major Contemporary Writer

By David Oppegaard

And I must borrow every changing shape

To find expression . . .dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
-T.S. Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady”

Ever since I was a young boy I had dreamed of meeting Tobias Wolff.
No, that isn’t true at all, actually. I hadn’t head of Tobias Wolff until sometime last year when his name filtered into my mind after reading a story by said author in The New Yorker, that famous, highly polished magazine most writers salivate to be published in but usually lack both the talent and the nuclear armaments necessary to get past its God-like editors.
But I had at least heard of Tobias Wolff when my creative writing professor dropped Wolff’s name. He even offered, bless his heart, to get in contact with Mr. Wolff on my behalf in case I wanted to meet him when I went to San Francisco for spring break. Eventually (four days before I left in fact) my professor sent me Wolff’s e-mail address. In my excitement I composed the following email:
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2001 02:45:23 –0700 (PST)
From: David Oppegaard oppegaar@stolaf.edu
To: Tobias Wolff ---@stanford.edu
Subject: Hello Mr. Writer Sir

Mr. Woolf:

My name is David Oppegaard and I am a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. I am visiting Stanford in a week and Jim Heynen said you would be willing to meet with me to talk about Stanford’s creative writing program and writing in general. I should be there from March 17th until March 24th, and will be available to meet with you whenever you want (unless I am kidnapped by beatnik poets or playing chess with the ghost of Jack Kerouac, which, let’s admit, would be pretty damn cool).

Thanks again,
David Oppegaard
In analyzing this “first contact” e-mail, let us begin with my state of mind prior to its authorship. I had just spent around three to four hours (time I would never, ever get back) trying to analyze French poetry in French. And because French is the language of the devil (that’s right, SATAN) it was very trying to my poor mind. Thus perhaps I can be forgiven the flamboyancies of mentioning beatnik poets, ghosts, chess, and the swear word “damn”. What is strange is that I had never stopped to realize that my professor had already told me that STANFORD HAD NO CREATIVE WRITING PROGRAM, and, furthermore, that I had misspelled TOBIAS WOLFF’S LAST NAME.
Here is the reply I received the following morning:
Date: Wed, 14 Mar 2001 08:12:37 -0800 (PST)
From: Tobias Wolff <---@stanford.edu>
To: David T Oppegaard <oppegaar@stolaf.edu>
Subject: Re: Hello Mr. Writer Sir

Mr. Oppegaard,

My name is spelled Wolff, not Woolf; perhaps you’re confusing me
with another writer.
We don’t have a graduate program in creative writing here. We do
give five fellowships a year in fiction and five in poetry to writers well
along in their art. This year we had over 700 application manuscripts for
the five fiction fellowships, so it's highly competitive.
E-mail me when you get to S.F. and we'll set up a time to have coffee.

Best,
Tobias Wolff

There wasn’t a hole deep enough for me to crawl into. I had insulted a major contemporary writer. I, who wanted to enter the writing field so desperately (you see I write myself; not bad stuff, either, a couple of novels worth even, though they aren’t exactly coming to your bookshelf anytime soon because I need SEASONING and EXPERIENCE and an AGENT WHO ISN’T A VANITY PRESS GOON) had misspelled Tobias Wolff’s last name and, worse, let me know that he had caught my mistake, gave it his attention, and responded with a biting witticism. I immediately forwarded Wolff’s e-mail to my professor with the subject heading: Another reason why I suck and then proceeded to the reread Wolff’s e-mail a dozen or so times, each time reading it in a different, hopefully kinder voice. Yet what kept staring at me was the line “writers well along in their art” and its implication that I, a mere college student, was most likely NOT well along in my art.
My active imagination tends to overreact at times. Just a few months previous my girlfriend had jokingly remarked that Microsoft was going to catch me and send me to prison for copying a software program from my roommate’s computer (which the French call an ordinateur, if you can believe that). This little tease sent me into a period of crazed despair in which I paced the upper floor of my house, thinking furiously of ways to avoid the law and Bill Gates. Maybe they’d be more lenient if I just confessed. Yeah, that was the ticket; my girlfriend took the phone away from me before I could finish being put on hold.
What an angel.
So just imagine this imagination paired with thirteen years of biting at the bit to prove that I was also a writer, just not published yet (though look at all these pretty, curt rejection slips! Ha, at least I tried, right?) Imagine my hope that by meeting Wolff, networking literary style you see, that maybe I can go to graduate school and put off working at Wal-Mart in a managerial position, since an English B.A. does, after all, hold limitless possibilities, right Dad? Then imagine this big black hole coming into my sunny picture and sucking it straight to good old hell thanks to my spelling mistake and, let’s admit, my flippantness. Wolff, not Woolf, stupid!
I sought refuge in my friends and peers and they responded in turn:
“Maybe you should have me check your important e-mails before you send them. I send Gibbons all my important e-mails before I send them, just in case they’re too weird.”
“Who’s Tobias Wolff?”
“Dave, you’re a moron.”
“Dave . . .” (My girlfriend, giving a disconsolate, yet fetchingly amused sigh)
“Who’s Tobias Wolff?”
“Basically Wolff was saying ‘Look here, junior’” (My creative writing professor, smiling like the impish devil he is)
“Huh. I didn’t like To the Lighthouse as much as A Room of One’s Own.”
“I’ve never heard of him.”
“Well, if you don’t want to meet him, I will.”
“Is he really that famous?”
While all these responses were terrifying and disheartening, in one way or another, I would have to say the best response I got was from the friend I was going to stay with in California, a retired internalist named Gary whom I had met on a trip to Russia the summer previous. Although I had known Gary for only ten days (he had to leave the trip early to escort another group member home. The member was having a serious mental breakdown; Gary told me that the member eventually got so sick that he started randomly standing up in the airplane and shouting things like “I am NOT GAY!” much to the confusion of the other, very Russian passengers) I felt that I had known Gary long enough to see what a kind, amiable, and generous man he was. Gary had been happily married for fifty years, liked to dabble in writing, and laughed at my jokes. Thus I was very surprised to get the following e-mail:
From: gaf---@mindspring.com
To: David Oppegaard oppegaar@stolaf.edu
Subject: Hey bud . . .
Date: Sat, 17 Mar 2001 07:18:36 +0100

A couple of things: I got a copy of This Boy's Life from the library so it is waiting for you.
I have read that damn letter you got a dozen times and have decided that Wolff is either a pedantic sadist or he is baiting you to see you respond. If the former, nothing you say or do will make any difference. But if the latter, you have a golden opportunity to mow him down. Let me suggest that you compose that email he invited you to send, and assume that you have read his book with its confessions of shallowness and deceit, and that you enjoyed it (you can change stuff here once you really have read it). Then, in the light of that, let him know who you are, that you are good, and that you want to come to Stanford. If he never hears of you again, he will always remember you: your mentor gave you the entree, your name is distinctive, you misspelled his damn name, and most importantly, you want in because you are the best! Given that you are a fixture in his head, capitalize on it and go for it. Be SURE to use that wonderful line you ended your letter to me with: If I weren't so pretty, I'd kill myself. Maybe even as an opener.
Another sodden thought: Mr. Wolff, I want you to know I am not afraid of you. Not when you could become my mentor, and even my friend. And, of course, as you must already know, if you don't like my suggestions, just tell me to bug off. We are still pals.
Look forward to seeing you guys. G

Whoa, who had put a nickel into Gary? Why would I want to challenge and most likely alienate a major professional writer, one who was just being a nice guy and doing his friend a favor by meeting with a student? Sure, maybe he was a little calloused in calling my error to attention but, hey, maybe he really hated having a name so much like a famous writer who had come before him? Gary wanted me, the unpublished, bounding young pup to play Sherlock Holmes (without the cocaine and violin, hopefully) to the famous Tobias Wolff’s Moriarty.
I stepped back from it all and put myself in Wolff’s shoes; damn were they bigger than mine! No thanks, I decided. I’d go for the usual deferential cowardice, thank you.
The night before I had a midterm I neglected my studies and read Wolff’s short story collection In the Garden of North American Martyrs. It wouldn’t do, I knew, to meet a big time author having read only two or so stories by him. So I read, enjoyed what I read, processed it, and slept. Two days later I woke up in Palo Alto to the following e-mail:
Date: Sun, 18 Mar 2001 13:06:30 -0800 (PST)
From: Tobias Wolff <---@stanford.edu>
To: David T Oppegaard <oppegaar@stolaf.edu>
Subject: Re: Hello

Dear David Oppegaard,

I'll be in my office tomorrow at 1:15. That’s room ---, Bldg. ---
(Margaret Jacks Hall, facing the Oval at the end of Pam Drive).

See you then,
T.W.

Gary pointed out to me that the famous Stanford road Wolff worked at the end of was spelled Palm Drive, not Pam Drive. I may have been cocky, but I wasn’t suicidal; I failed to mention his spelling error when I finally met Tobias Wolff.
I visited Wolff in his office at Stanford. I sat in the lobby of Margaret Jacks Hall for thirty minutes, waiting to be casually punctual. I held a The New Yorker in my hands like it was an amulet and pretended to read it as I watched Stanford students come in and out of the building. They didn’t look that much smarter than me, I decided. Outside the campus was bright and picturesque, just like in the Playboy college girls videos; I was a troll invading fairyland, my only shield the first chapter to my second novel and a short story, both tucked away in my bag, ready to be launched at any moment at the unsuspecting writer, and perhaps, if I panicked, with a “Read this, mutherfuckerrr!” to accompany them as I sprinted out of his office.
When I finally met Tobias Wolff he was eating a sandwich. His office was big and sunny, not like my own creative writing professor’s office, which was cramped and small, like a foxhole from the harsh, real world. There was a bookshelf behind me and another one to my left; both shelves overflowed with books. I tried to read the titles (ooooh, so this is what major contemporary authors have on their bookshelves!) but they blurred through my mind and would not hold. Wolff himself was normal and polished looking, just like what I thought a contributor to The New Yorker should look like. He apologized for eating his lunch during our meeting and started asking me questions like a good host who wants to put a guest to ease, a guest whose real purpose for coming is somewhat vague (“I guess I should just meet a famous author, huh?” I had declared to my professor the week before). He kept the lines of questions up and I responded quickly, without really thinking about my answers.
During our conversation my thoughts went something like: Don’t outsmart me smarty smarty oh man this guy is probably damn smart is what I said stupid? of course it was I wonder who just called him, John Updike maybe I liked A & P uh oh he’s talking to me again crap why did he ask me that was he a reporter before he started writing I guess I would know if I had actually researched this guy instead of reading his dust jackets and reading half of This Boy’s Life and then watching the movie don’t out smart me, smarty smarty wow he liked Syracuse a lot that’s cool maybe I’ll apply that was good story about his friend hey that thing about comparing Robin Williams to the tragic clown in Shakespeare was pretty smart Oppegaard maybe you aren’t such a moron after all uh oh looks like the conversation coming to a close so I better Ha! he took them! he’s a nice guy, nice as hell! Maybe close to sainthood even, gonna read my stuff well there’s the door let’s walk out Dave while we’re ahead, well now it’s over and I’m still alive . . .
And so I survived my meeting with Tobias Wolff. He was a nice guy and generous to have met with me, a perfect stranger, merely on the recommendation of my creative writing professor. I am still waiting for him to send me any comments on the work I shuffled off on him, but I have faith in my fellow man and believe he will reply someday, in some form.
As I digest my experience at Stanford that sunshiny spring day I keep returning to the e-mail Gary sent me. Why was he so angry about Wolff pointing out that I had misspelled his name? Perhaps he resented the professional, almost hoity-toity tone of Wolff’s e-mail. Significant success in anything tends to drive an invisible barrier between those that are successful and those that are not so successful. Almost everyone who is significantly successful withdraws from the everyday world and into a stratosphere of their own. Maybe the resentment Gary felt at Wolff’s e-mail is akin to the anger a damned man would feel watching a saint wipe the world’s dirt of her feet before she ascended to heaven.
There are so many people on this planet (thank you, overpopulation!) doing almost everything, from teaching in academia to playing sports to writing non-fiction essays about their childhood, that only a comparative handful ever achieve any true recognition in their various fields. One must almost be optimistically mad to write creative fiction these days; it’s the equivalent to saying “I’m going to be a movie star without using any dishonest means to achieve fame!” It is no wonder then that the few Wolffs who actually make it put up a cool barrier of polished reserve between themselves and raw, young writers like myself. Gary was simply reacting to a fame backlash that seems to be storming the world as more and more people fulfill the same, or dwindling, amount of niches in the world.
Yet one cannot despair. Despair is boring and for people in soap operas. I can only keep writing in hopes that I will get further and further along in my art, never to forget what is like to be young and hungry, scoffing at every spelling error I make along the way. Someday I may even get past the guards at The New Yorker. This is how I imagine such a thing happening:
“Hello.”
“Hello. Can we help you?”
“Yes, I just wanted to drop off something.”
“Oh really.”
“Yes.”
“Well . . .”
“Well nothing! Read this, mutherfuckaaas!”
And then I will run, with near blinding speed, out of their fortress and into a smoggy New York sunset.

15 comments:

neha said...

Oh a really nice essay- meaning that I enjoyed it very much.

Good Luck Dave, whatever success means to you, I truely hope you get it.

ps: i really really hate that swearword you have used in the essay. don't you think the swearwords in tintin are much cooler...

Blogagaard said...

"In tintin?"

Blogagaard said...

Most of things I worry about
Never happen anyway.

-Tom Petty

neha said...

yup tintin, a list here - http://www3.sympatico.ca/brooksdr/haddock/main.htm

and here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_exclamations_used_by_Captain_Haddock

though you would look a bit funny saying them...

yes, TP and the things we wouldnt have ever dreamed of - happen, and make life so brilliantly wonderful.

Voix said...

Nice job, Dave. Keep it coming.

Alex said...

This is the type of post that makes me want to quit my job and read blogs all day.

Great opening line for your next short story: When I finally met Tobias Wolff he was eating a sandwich.

Steph Wilbur Ash said...

Tobias Wolff plays a major role in the next lit 6 show. Turns out he owns the shed next door. And he believes in my efforts to be a conceptual artist for a while as a means to open myself up more to my writing. And he suggests adding a cat to my conceptual art piece, which involves Herbach in a thong and fuzzy slippers.

Blogagaard said...

Thank you Michele and Alex! You are both awesome. I don't know, Alex, I wonder if good old Tobby would liek this essay or not.

Steph, oh Steph, that sounds hilarious, but alas I will be absent from the show this Saturday. I will have to catch the Ipod cast, as soon as I figure out exactly what that all entails.

Herbach said...

Blistering Barnacles!!!!!

you don't know Tin TIn, Oppie?

Blogagaard said...

Sorry, he looks familiar, but that whole tin tin thing must have passed me by. Is it a cable TV thing?

Voix said...

No, Oppie, he's FRENCH!

Tell me about your French poetry translation skills and I'll tell you about mine.

Jessi said...

Put in some more paragraph breaks and send it out, mothafuckaaa!

Blogagaard said...

Sorry, the spacing got messed up in the blog process, Jessi McJessi.

oh non. Not moi, Michele. Not moi.

Apparition Jones said...

Hopefully you'll be able to remember this in twenty years, when some up and coming young writer visits you, knees knocking together nervously, and asks you to help profile a fellow serial killer from your jail cell.

Blogagaard said...

how appy, you make me so happy.

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