Author Tim O’Brien mentors the next generation of writers
Tim O’Brien believes in the power of stories.
Stories, he says, are what last after any experience or event, and stories have the power to comfort, to heal, to stir emotions and memories. “Stories are born in dreams,” he says, “or in little things I overhear. Little bitty things will capture my attention and I start writing.”
Since 1999, master storyteller and award-winning author O’Brien has helped students in Texas State University’s MFA in creating writing program develop their own storytelling and writing skills. He has earned a reputation for being passionately interested in and committed to his students’ work, and he has held the university’s endowed chair in creative writing five times, more than any other visiting author.
A Vietnam veteran, O’Brien is best known for his books based on this country’s longest and most contentious conflict. But with the exception of his first book, a 1973 memoir titled If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, his Vietnam stories are not so much about the war as they are about people, with the war providing the background. Going After Cacciato, a novel about a soldier who leaves Vietnam to walk 8,000 miles to Paris for the peace talks, won the 1979 National Book Award.
The Things They Carried, which is taught in high schools and colleges across the country, is a collection of stories about the men of Alpha Company. It won France's prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The title story was selected for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.
The Road to Texas O’Brien was living and writing in Cambridge, Mass., when Tom Grimes invited him to come to Texas. “I spoke with Tim in 1998, and he agreed to come here for a year,” says Grimes, director of Texas State’s MFA in creative writing program. “He came, and loved the program so much that he decided to stay, and of course we arranged that.”
O’Brien’s own story began in Minnesota, where he was born and reared and became fascinated with books. His parents, both bibliophiles, were an early influence on their young son. “I’d watch them reading,” he says, “and see this incredible rapture in their faces.” Young Tim was especially taken with the first book he read by himself. “The book was called Timmy is a Big Boy Now,” he says, “and I took it personally. I thought this guy was writing about me. And I thought, ‘How does he know I can tie my shoes? How does he know I can go to school by myself? How does he know all this stuff about me?’” By age 9, Tim had started writing his own stories.
Minnesota is the setting for many of them, including his sixth novel, a mystery, In the Lake of the Woods, and a poignant story in The Things They Carried, “On the Rainy River.” In that story, the fictional Tim O’Brien, 21 years old, travels to the Rainy River on the Minnesota-Canada border. Facing the certainty of being drafted and sent to Vietnam, the character ventures to the middle of the Rainy River, into Canadian waters, then turns around and heads back home and to war, not out of patriotism but out of shame.
“Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave,” he writes. “It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s what it was.”
The author acknowledges that these were indeed his emotions when the draft board came calling in 1968. “Most men don’t want to go to war,” he says. “They don’t want to die. But you don’t want to be embarrassed; you don’t want to face your friends and family and hometown. Even if they know nothing about the politics, most men will go to war anyway, because they don’t want to feel a sense of shame.”
The Making of a Novelist O’Brien returned from Vietnam in 1970 with a lifetime’s worth of stories, which he has plucked out of his memory and written about for seven books and countless stories.
He enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University, and while he was there, he worked at the Washington Post. “They hired about 15 of us to fill in for reporters taking summer vacations,” he says. “I was there for two summers, and I also filled in for a reporter who was taking a year’s sabbatical.” He covered a variety of beats, including the White House, Congress and various hearings.
“It was an exciting time,” O’Brien says. The Washington Post in the early 1970s gained national attention with its coverage of the Watergate break-in and cover-up. O’Brien was at the Post during the Watergate era, and right after the leak of the Pentagon Papers — a top-secret report on the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that fueled the antiwar movement — to the New York Times.
“The Post was publishing its own series of articles based on the Pentagon Papers,” says O’Brien. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, whether the courts were going to shut the paper down.”
But O’Brien didn’t want to be a journalist; he wanted to write novels. “The Washington Post was great training for being a writer,” he says. “I learned brevity and how to organize a story, how to write a lead. I learned what to put in and what to leave out.”
If I Die in a Combat Zone was published in 1973, followed by Northern Lights in 1975 and the critically acclaimed Going After Cacciato in 1978. O’Brien’s future as a novelist was sealed.
Life in Academia These days, O’Brien lives and writes in Central Texas. His next book is based on his experiences as a 61-year-old father of two boys, ages 2 and 4. “It’s a combination of fiction and nonfiction,” he says.
Every other year he teaches full time at Texas State, spending one semester teaching the MFA students and the next semester talking to undergraduate English classes, conducting small workshops and participating in campus events such as Scholars Day. On alternate years, he teaches several workshops to MFA students in the Creative Writing Program.
“It’s the kind of environment I can thrive in,” O’Brien says of Texas State. “The students are really top notch, and my colleagues, like Dagoberto Gilb and Tom Grimes, are good teachers. They take it seriously, work hard at it, and they’re also good writers.”
His students thrive, too. “I've always admired Tim’s fiction for its craftsmanship,” says former student Michael Noll. “His language is so sharp and clear that sometimes it seems almost miraculous. But it's not. Tim has an incredible eye for sentence structure, and he trains that eye on himself and his students.
“When Tim finished discussing my first story in his class, I walked out of the room dazed,” Noll continues. “At one point during the discussion, Tim read a sentence aloud and said, ‘OK. We know Mike's a smart guy, so he must have meant something by this. Does anyone have any idea what it means?’ Nobody spoke. The sentence, upon review, was absolutely devoid of meaning. Tim exercises bluntness. If a word or a plot development does not work, he tells you and explains why. I'm grateful. I can’t overestimate the improvement in my writing that is a direct result of Tim's class. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from a master — and I don't use the word lightly — such as Tim O'Brien.”
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