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Advice For Writers From National Book Award Winner, Pulitzer Finalist Tim O'Brien


So I had the pleasure of hearing Tim O'Brien speak last night as part of a local literary festival.

A Vietnam vet turned author, stories of the war and its devastating impact on those who fought it comprise much of O'Brien's astoundingly powerful oeuvre. Going After Cacciato took the National Book Award for fiction in 1979, while The Things They Carried was named by the NY Times in 2005 as one of the 20 best books of the last quarter century. Not surprisingly, it was also a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A master of what he calls "magical realism" – capturing the extraordinary in the ordinary – O'Brien's work – especially The Things They Carried – should be required reading for any aspiring author. There's a reason the SF Chronicle dubbed him "the best American writer of his generation."

O'Brien was lecturing as the keynote speaker of the festival, whose theme was "writers as evidence of change." Self-deprecating and likeable, though admittedly ill-at-ease in front of a crowd, O'Brien launched his remarks by saying that he was the virtual embodiment of change, five years ago trading in his nearly 24/7 writing schedule for fatherly duties with the birth of his son. And the focus of what writing he does do now – in two hour spurts, if he's lucky, he chuckled – does not involve Vietnam.

Using examples that often included his trademark deadpan humor, O'Brien offered plenty of advice to the many writerly-types that filled the theater. Foremost was to trust the story. Have faith in your story. Don't edit your imagination – let the story be what it needs to be, don't cave to what you think others expect the story should be. He advised to resist the temptation to overwrite and overdescribe, to clutter your tale with backstory and extraneous detail. Details, he said, should only be used in service of the story, should unfold organically as the action progresses. Dream up fresh and exciting characters and plotlines, he urged, don't lift them from the Wal-Mart shelves. Finally, he encouraged writers to do what he does so very well (my words, not his), to let the extraordinary illuminate the ordinary in their work, to find the magical truth in the mundane.

O'Brien's books – particularly If I Die In A Combat Zone, Box Me Up And Ship Me Home and The Things They Carried (still a weeper for me, even after nearly a dozen reads) – were hugely inspirational as I was co-writing Dean Ellis Kohler's Vietnam War memoir, Rock 'N' Roll Soldier. Okay, so I told O'Brien as much in a gushy love note I tucked inside the R'N'RS ARC I gave him at the signing table later. I had to – he's my ultimate dream jacket blurb-er.

I'm sooooo hoping he'll read our book and maybe give us a sentence or two. What a mind-blowing honor that would be...