This Boy’s Life: show and tell

Tobias Wolff at an event at Kepler's in Menlo ...

One of the questions I will be asking as we consider the ‘how’ of Wolff’s memoir, and not just the what (how it reads, how it is crafted, not just what it is about): how and where does the book read like a novel? We started to take this up noticing the ways the book uses various elements of writing we might usually associate with a novel: scenes, episodes, dialogue, imagery. Also, our initial focus on Wolff’s metonymy, his crafting of symbolic moments by way of metonymic details (concrete and partial associations of memory) such as the road, provides another way to understand why this book doesn’t read like a mere listing or ‘resume’ of events from his life–the information dump of bad exposition: another thing, then another thing, then another thing…

Another craft element that is important in creative nonfiction, as in fiction: the author’s ability to represent ideas, characteristics, themes, problems by showing them to the reader rather than telling the reader explicitly. In most writing workshops, you will thus hear the mantra: show, don’t tell. In the case of This Boy’s Life, we see this evident, surely, in the way the narrative is built around scenes (each chapter, and sections within chapters). Moreover, what we see in these scenes are details that show us some things about Toby, his relationship with his mother, the world in which he lives, problems he faces, but don’t tell us exactly what is going on. We get implications.

One of the scenes, in my view, that is filled with such implications: the mother’s encounter with Gil and the promise of the new bicycle. While it is not ever clear what is going on there, what happens with the mother’s date, what Toby understands, why no bicycle, the lack of clarity conveys to us lots of information. The implications are the point: Toby’s relationship with his mother is based, it seems, on communication where things are always partially unsaid. What matters is not what is said so much as how communication takes place. This is the world of implication that Wolff the writer seeks to convey; and he does so by representing the implications without telling us exactly what to think. He leaves us in Toby’s position: of partial understanding; but also, in a strange position of a child who understands too much, the child who comforts the parent (as we see at the end of that chapter). We know too much while also knowing too little. The bicycle, for me, is thus a psychologically complicated image in this scene–and because it is a partial image from the life, from his childhood and a continued image of movement, call it another metonymic detail. I view it as representing an honest desire Toby has: what kid wouldn’t want a new bike. But also a more complicated desire: he knows he can “make a play” for it with this man interested in his mother. Where things get even more complicated: it seems to me that the mother also makes a play for it, that she offers herself in going out with Gil, a trade-off for the bike. And that in the end, Toby knows this and doesn’t know this.

Another question to consider as you read on, one I will be asking in class, certainly at the conclusion: why do you think Wolff writes this book? what purpose does it serve? Why show us these details from his childhood?

A recent article by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker [“But Enough About Me”] explores a similar question in its review of the history of memoirs, particularly the ‘flood’ of memoirs from writers since the 1980s: what is the interest in confession? and what, if anything, has changed with it since its beginnings–more than 1500 years ago with Augustine’s Confessions?

If you were to turn Wolff’s narrative into a film, what would you show? How would you translate it? We will begin to think about the ways that exposition, this important element of nonfiction narrative, needs to be structured into your writing. Like a film, nonfiction needs a dramatic structure for exposition (information, communication of details) to be meaningful, purposeful. And the way film does that is with a three-act structure of conflict resolution. For more details on this structure, visit this post from my composition class.