Category Archives: Tim O'Brien

Shifting the Paradigm of Not Knowing: Writer’s Sweet Spot

The blank white page have your brain constipated? Maybe it’s a good thing. Not knowing where your writing is going can be frustrating, scary, and debilitating, but what if it wasn’t? What if the uneasiness you feel when trying to write something that matters to you is precisely what’s needed to create something of imaginative value?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychology researcher who has devoted much study on creativity, points out, in the clip above, that in his research, the most successful creative artists don’t start with preconceived ideas.  Trying to understand the problem they are confronted with is what makes them successful.

This is echoed by Jennifer Egan, when, according to Rachel Hodin, she “described the horrifying moment when you are nearing the end of your novel, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to your characters next”:

“How can I not know what’s going to happen when it’s coming up so soon? I am their creator, after all!” But then, she explains, it’s this exact feeling of uncertainty that a writer needs to succeed. Because any of the possible paths you might have in mind for your character are too obvious and should not be employed.

Tim O’Brien notes how the not knowing frustrates a lot of writers, but for him, it’s what propels him forward:

The act of writing for me is largely the act of following sentences and making sentences. And for most people that probably is the time to click off and look at something else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a sentence. For example, the sentence, “This is true,” began one of my stories. I wrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea. Then I wrote another sentence to follow that: “A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley.” Well, I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious about or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the character going to say is true, and does this character really mean it? Does he really mean it’s true? And to what degree does this character think it’s true? And how can anybody say “this is true” without a little tongue-in-cheek action going on? So, it’s a discovery, and what I think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, out of a scrap of language.

What I hear: Don’t worry if you feel uneasy.  Relish it.  Be patient.  Give it time.  Expect something good to follow.





Tim O’Brien Documentary, Circa 1990

In search of writers reading their work, I came across this circa 1990 documentary of Tim O’Brien.  It’s really an amazing find, one that I can’t believe I’ve never seen before.

The film, just under 48 minutes, focuses on the stories found in The Things They Carried, how they were written and the inspiration behind them.  It’s a mix of Vietnam footage, Tim with friends he served with, Tim at home writing, Tim being interviewed, Tim reading from his book.  There are other writers talking about his work as well (Phillip Lopate, Carolyn Forche, etc.).

It’s an intimate documentary that takes the viewer into the heart of the writer.


Tim O’Brien Wins 2013 Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing

On behalf of the Pritzker Military Library, historian and journalist Sir Max Hastings announced Tim O’Brien as the winner of the 2013 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. Sponsored by the Tawani Foundation, the coveted $100,000 literature award will be presented at the Library’s annual gala on November 16, 2013.

Not too shabby for a from Minnesota.

The Shy, Un-Bragging Word “Peace”

Tim O’Brien has said that it’s heartbreaking for him to have young men come up to him and say they want to become a soldier because of one of his books.  His whole writing life he’s been known as the “war” writer–even when he gave such clear clues as in the last lines of “How to Tell a True War Story”: “…a true war story is never about war […]  It’s about love and memory.  It’s about sorrow.  It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

In the short clip above are comments O’Brien made after receiving the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.  His message is clear to anyone who will listen.

The Willow Springs Interview with Tim O’Brien

Willow Springs, the literary journal from Eastern Washington University, has a wonderful interview with Tim O’Brien.  The conversation covers a lot of ground: from his books to politics, to how he writes, to his current project.  What I love about Tim O’Brien is how heartfelt and honest he seems.  As in his stories, when he’s talking about fiction, nothing seems quite as important as what he is saying.

In this interview, he describes writing the first sentences to “How to Tell a True War Story,” the emotional torment he experiences when audience members thank him for his service to the country, and what he strives for in his writing: “something that’s beautiful in one way or another, a story that does something to our hearts that wouldn’t have been done otherwise.”

Tim O’Brien Talks Writing Process

In this 2010 interview with Stephen Pressfield, Tim O’Brien talks about his writing process: how he comes up with ideas, how he works, how he develops his stories.  When Pressfield asks how he overcomes self-resistance, O’Brien responds,

As Joseph Conrad wrote, or said, somewhere: “. . . the sitting down is all.” I take that to mean – even if Conrad didn’t – that creative resistance can only be overcome, or artfully evaded, by the repetitive act of making oneself present. A writer must be there – at work – and not at a bowling alley.

Click here for the rest of the interview.

Tim O’Brien and Tobias Wolff Talk Art and War

Tim O’Brien in Conversation with Tobias Wolff on “Writing and War” from Stanford Humanities on Vimeo.

I suppose one of the things that just nails me about Tim O’Brien is his sincerity. To me, this quality is on full display in this filmed discussion he recently had with Tobias Wolff. The subject: Writing and War. But these writers–both Vietnam vets–talk about a lot more than mere war stories. The chief focus is the making of art, and the insights that can be taken from their talk, filmed at this packed-house event at Standford University, is enlightening and inspiring.