Tim O'Brien: 'Trust the Story'

SDHC looks at the career of Tim O'Brien – and his writing process - prior to his appearance at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Sturgis and Deadwood, S.D. Sept. 21-24, 2017. Find his schedule of events at his author page.

Award-Winning Vietnam Author Delves Into Writing Process

By Ryan Woodard

In August of 1969, a year after leaving his home in Worthington, Minn. for basic training and life-threatening duty in war-torn Vietnam, Tim O'Brien was finally sent to the rear.

A foot soldier turned typist, he reveled in his new duties at battalion headquarters. Who wouldn't prefer processing mail to struggling through rice paddies and dodging rifle fire?

Now, nearly 50 years later, O'Brien is still fielding large quantities of mail. But rather than processing casualty reports and R&R requests, he's sifting through stacks of letters addressed to him.

Widely considered to be the foremost author of the Vietnam generation, the National Book Award winner and Pulitzer nominee receives correspondence from people touched by his masterfully accurate characterizations of the Vietnam War.

He welcomed his desk duties in 1969. He was out of the line of fire, finally. O'Brien welcomes the mail he fields these days, too, if for entirely different reasons.

Tim O'Brien will appear at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books.

Who Writes to Tim O'Brien?

It's the 50-year old man who wakes up at 5 a.m. thinking about his father, a Vietnam War soldier who was killed in action before he could return home to meet his newborn. Or the widow who's been alone for half a century – ever since the day two men in dress blues pulled up to her house to deliver the nightmarish news she had prayed and hoped against since he left.

"That's the kind of casualty we're talking about that war has always caused," O'Brien explained during a phone interview from his home in Austin, TX.

Family members thank O'Brien for telling a story they hadn't heard. Either because their father, husband, nephew hadn't made it home, or because he had and at times wished he hadn't and couldn't bring himself to discuss it.

The 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books author said some of his most touching letters are from these families. While reluctant to discuss his legacy or impact on readers, O'Brien did admit that the heartfelt letters give him a sense of accomplishment.

"By and large it seems like (my writings have) helped people," he said. "Especially the children of veterans whose fathers don't talk about it much."

Meanwhile, those fathers are grateful that someone is telling their story. Many Vietnam veterans have told O'Brien he "got it right" with his novels based on his 1969-70 tour of duty with Alpha Company, the Fifth Battalion of the 46th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, around Firebase LZ Gator, south of Chu Lai.



Validating Vietnam Veterans

"I think what my books do for a lot of vets is validate their experience," O'Brien said. "They think, 'God I've forgotten so much. It was such a long, long, long time ago. It was almost fifty years since I was there - that's a long time.' Much is forgotten."

O'Brien's books have sold more than 3 million copies since his 1973 debut work, the autobiographical "If I Die in a Combat Zone." That was followed in 1978 by the National Book Award-winning novel "Going After Cacciato," the story of a young man who walked away from the war.

In 1990, O'Brien wrote what's widely considered to be his seminal book. "The Things They Carried" is a collection of short stories based on real experiences. O'Brien will discuss "The Things They Carried" during the South Dakota Festival of Books.

At the Festival of Books, readers look to glean insight from writers. They want to know how authors got to where they are today. The question is often asked of authors - like O'Brien - who have sold millions of books. 

Indeed, how did one out of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who fought in South Vietnam go on to create what many consider to be the truest accounts of a divisive conflict that polarized a nation for parts of two decades?


"First there is some mist. Then, when the plane begins its descent, there are pale gray mountains. The plane slides down, and the mountains darken and take on a sinister cragginess. You see the outlines of crevices, and you consider whether, of all the places opening up below, you might finally walk to that spot and die. Or that spot. Or that spot."


- "If I Die in a Combat Zone"


A Career of Determination

Born in 1946, O'Brien spent most of his youth in Worthington, Minn. before graduating summa cum laude from Macalester College in 1968. He would later pursue graduate studies in government at Harvard University. He worked as a national affairs reporter for The Washington Post from 1973 to 1974.

His experience in between those educational stints would shape his career. He also possessed a quality that separates good writers from the elites.

O'Brien was – and still is – determined.

It's the type of determination that helped him survive ghoulish firefights 8,000 miles from his home with men he'd never met, let alone argued with, let alone had a desire to kill. It's the kind of determination that pulled him through constant thoughts of death. In "If I Die in a Combat Zone," O'Brien describes how he and his fellow platoon members began to "wonder about dying" as soon as their feet touched the Vietnamese soil.

O'Brien's sense of dread began with his draft notice, carried on through basic training, and peaked during moments like his plane ride in country.

"First there is some mist. Then, when the plane begins its descent, there are pale gray mountains. The plane slides down, and the mountains darken and take on a sinister cragginess. You see the outlines of crevices, and you consider whether, of all the places opening up below, you might finally walk to that spot and die. Or that spot. Or that spot." - "If I Die in a Combat Zone"

The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A flag placed at the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

One Foot in Front of the Other

All O'Brien and his comrades could do was put those thoughts aside and march on, putting one foot in front of the other. They rested their hopes on their minds and bodies, humping heavy gear through enemy territory, using march commands learned from drill sergeants. "Left. Left. Left Right Left."

"We walked along. Forward with the left leg, plant the foot, lock the knee, arch the ankle, stiffen the spine. Let the war rest there atop the left leg: the rucksack, the radio, the hand grenades, the magazines of golden ammo, the rifle, the steel helmet, the jingling dogtags, the body's own fat and water and meat, the whole contingent of warring artifacts and flesh. Let it all perch there, rocking on top of the left leg, fastened and tied and anchored by latches and zippers and snaps and nylon cord.

"Packhorse for the soul. The left leg does it all." - "If I Die in a Combat Zone"

O'Brien's writing process mirrors his decades-old marches across a foreign landscape. As a writer, he puts one foot in front of the other, rising every morning at 2 a.m. to write, agonizing over every syllable.

He says he can spend up to five days to make a page that is "passable." Another five to make it "decent." Endless hours at his desk, days and days and long nights have created his epic, oft-quoted prose.

"Every time you write a sentence or a clause, you're fighting a battle," he said.

Most writers would agree that the process is a tremendous battle. But writing about Vietnam, as a veteran, is taking on that common battle while re-fighting an entire war in your head. The war that still keeps you up at night. The war that you can never stop thinking about.

The war that is putting you through hell once again as you try to depict it.

Vietnam isn't your everyday writing topic. Writing about it is emotional. Capturing those emotions with clarity is perhaps the most difficult, yet important, part of the process, according to O'Brien.

Tim O'Brien will appear at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books.

Statues of Vietnam troops at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Harnessing Emotions

Discontent motivated O'Brien to tell his story. He wanted to paint a vivid yet accurate portrait of Vietnam, allowing people to draw their own conclusions.

When he set out to describe the war, O'Brien was determined to weave in his emotions as a frightened and angry young man being forced to try to kill people for reasons he objected to.

O'Brien resented the draft. At one point, before eventually acquiescing to his duties, he'd decided to make a beeline for Canada instead of Chu Lai. The anger he felt then never faded, nor did his emotions of grief, sadness and shock.

All are expressed viscerally in his books, whether it's through a fictional character's voice or his own in the autobiographical "If I Die In A Combat Zone."

"You have to be clear with complicated stuff. And emotions are always complicated," he said.

Those emotions still trouble him. They can stir him up on any given day, 50 years later.

So how did he successfully weave them into works that are taught in classrooms around the country? Into a book that caused a New York Times reviewer to exclaim: "Calling 'Going After Cacciato' a book about war is like calling 'Moby Dick' a book about whales"?


"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." 

-
"The Things They Carried"


It required trust. Both in himself and in something else. Something that could guide him to the finish line, through fits of emotion, fear, shock, sadness, peril.

That something is story.

"You have to trust the story," O'Brien said.

The story is what drives O'Brien. It overcomes distractions and gets to the heart of the matter.

Fictional character Mitchell Sanders dramatizes O'Brien's point in "The Things They Carried." Sanders admonishes his compadre Rat Kiley for ad-libbing too much while telling a story:

"'What you have to do,' Sanders said, 'is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself.'"

But trusting the story, it turns out, isn't just a philosophy of writing. It's also a philosophy of life. 

O'Brien's supposition in "The Things They Carried" is that story, whether we think about it or not, drives our existence.

Stories are for Eternity

"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." - "The Things They Carried"

Seventeen years after writing those sentences, his opinion hasn't changed. Story guides O'Brien in life and in writing, a combination that may explain his success.

"That's the object - is to tell a story, and that's paramount. You have to learn to trust story and educate the reader with information the way non-fiction would do it," he explained. "When you write fiction, you really have to believe in the power of story to communicate your emotions and information about the world through a story, but not use a story just to educate."

Story must also be used, O'Brien said, to communicate emotion, in this case, "the emotion of what it's like to be young and almost dead all the time."

Tying Together Emotion and Story

"Going After Cacciato" depicts a platoon chasing down a young man who walks away from the hell he's inexplicably thrust into. "The Things They Carried" is an examination of the literal and emotional "things" carried by Vietnam soldiers.

O'Brien wanted to walk away. He carried emotional burdens then, and he still carries them. He has used those emotions to tell the story that he feels should be told.

Via vividly descriptive passages and dialogue that leave little doubt as to how characters feel, readers discover why Cacciato walked away. They find out why Vietnam soldiers carried what they did back then - and why they and their families continue to carry what they do today.

O'Brien will always have to carry certain things. But above all, he'll continue to carry his faith in story.

"The word war is such an abstraction - it's almost meaningless as a word," O'Brien says. "It's not until it's something specific that it takes on any meaning, and often that's through a story."

O'Brien's fictional narrator in "The Things They Carried" goes so far as to argue that beyond giving the abstract a specific meaning, story has an even greater purpose.

"I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth," he says.

In other words, a story can express better than facts or statistics when it comes to explaining the almost inexplicable things in life – like the Vietnam War.

Download the Festival Guide for Details on O'Brien's appearance

For details on Tim O’Brien’s sessions and other Festival information, please download the Festival of Books Guide. 

Download a free copy of the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books Guide.