Saturday Stories

What Tim O’Brien showed to a room full of strangers by a lake

This is an essay I wrote in the fall of 2016. Although it isn’t satire, I’m sharing it here partly because it’s about why we write (including satirically), and partly in an attempt to maintain a balance between this page’s heavily sardonic posts, and ones from a less acerbic, more hopeful place. 

Tim O’Brien thanked the audience and left the podium of a small theatre in Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. He spoke briefly to the man who’d introduced him and then departed abruptly, before the clapping had swelled into a standing ovation. The lauded American novelist – best known for his collection of short stories entitled The Things They Carried –  had been reading to the gathered participants of 2016’s Humber School of Writer’s fall short course. The piece he’d chosen was an excerpt from an essay in progress, written about his father, and his own sons, and the relationship the three generations have all had with the writings of Ernest Hemingway. He went a quarter of an hour over the allotted time, carrying right through the usual question and answer period, gripping the podium, grasping at what lies in the heart of a writer, and in the heart of us all. He was the final speaker on the final day of a workshop that officially concluded the moment he finished. But he kept going, reading until white flecks formed in the corners of his mouth, and his voice broke, and the “Humber School of Writers” sign on the lectern lost its stick and began to fall.

He was baring his inner thoughts. Some of the divulgences he had made public over the last five decades in his work, such as his feelings on the meaningless of war; and his assessment of the unyielding, unending, and impersonal passage of time. Other insights felt more private, like what a nasty thing an old man can be; the covetous way a writer will read the good work of another; and what it is to be an elderly father of young children, and know that you are unlikely to see them celebrate the birthdays of their late-20’s. He spoke also of his deceased father, who told him to read five Hemingway stories on a summer’s afternoon when Tim was a kid, but didn’t stick around to hear what his young son thought about them.

He poured this out, without warning, preamble, or asking permission to mentally disrobe in front of us, making us face the intimate immediacy of his humanity. It was a remarkable thing. His expression as he departed was much the same as that of his audience: surprised at what he had just done, more than a little moved, and not entirely ready to rejoin the everyday bustle of a city midway through an otherwise ordinary Friday afternoon.

As part of the writing short course that Toronto’s Humber College has offered every year for the last 25, myself and seven other students shared a week with Tim. The program centred around established authors leading small groups of aspiring writers in the process of editing their ongoing projects. Tim was the leader of our small group. He wasn’t initially what I expected, and by the time he walked out of that small theatre six days after we all met, he wasn’t what I secondarily expected either.

The introductions took place on the Sunday before the week began, in a light and airy conference room, in a part of the Harbourfront Centre I’d never seen before, despite years of traipsing down there for school trips. A cash bar was set up to help facilitate the helloes. It was here that Tim leant over the table and told our newly assembled group: “I’m not exactly a hard-ass. But I am inexactly one.” And he seemed to fit the profile. He wore a leather bomber jacket with a sheepskin collar, aviator glasses, and an ever-present baseball hat that he admitted to putting on every morning as soon as he got out of bed. He smoked each break that he gave us, called Texas home, and had served in the Vietnam War. I think many of us expected Monday morning to begin with some version of a drill sergeant inserting writing references into Full Metal Jacket quotes.

“The [commas] only know one thing: it is better to be alive.”

Or maybe, if we survived to the end of the week: “Today, you people are no longer [scribblers]. Today, you are [writers].”

Tim turned out to be nothing like that, though he was inexactly a hard-ass. While he upheld the key rules and tenets of style and grammar, his enforcement could not be called rigid. He more suggested, and encouraged, attention be paid to the regulations. “We only have 26 letters and a few punctuation marks,” he reminded us often throughout the week, “how we use them matters.” Though he repeatedly denied his tutorial abilities, these disclaimers were generally followed with insightful quips and lessons on just what it is to write, and how to do it better. He was the fill-in coach at baseball practice who claims to have no patience for teaching, but by the end of the afternoon has everyone laying down perfect bunts.

Animate and activate. Avoid writing in large blocks. Bring simultaneity in to your story, or risk being as boring as a juggler with just one object. Mind the ambiguity held in the single word ‘it,’ and the potential for that word to both confuse a reader when used poorly, and thread a delicacy in to the most weighted of situations when used well. Move the focus of the story from fine detail, to large themes, and then back to detail, creating undulations in the narrative arc that add nuance and keep the reader interested. Tap your life for stories, and not just the life that you are living, but those that you nearly did. Cut to the chase. Trust the story. Get at what’s moving you.

What moved me that week was the startling emotion that came out of a diminutive, hard-bitten writer from Texas, who supposedly dislikes workshopping. And the main idea that this man presented, and then demonstrated, throughout our brief time together: that while direct connections between people are fragile and elusive, through art we can create ways to converse beneath the surface. We can make an artifact, and leave it for others to find, and tuck into the safety of their inner thoughts, there to be turned over and matched against their own experience. And through this tenuous – but sublimely powerful – connection, create a hidden bridge between reader and writer, that would have otherwise been impossible due to distance, time, and the elaborate internal defences each of us maintain out of habit and necessity.

It was midway through the week when Tim first arrested us with this concept. On a clear Wednesday morning that was cool enough to cut the cigarette breaks short, he read to us from a short story by Jose Luis Borges. The Alephis about a small, glowing sphere that appears in the otherwise normal basement of a woman who has recently died. By looking into this singularity a person can see everything in the entire universe at once, without distortion.

“The main character, who is basically the author, Borges, looks into the Aleph,” Tim explained, hunched over his dog-eared, post-it filled copy of the story. “And sees everything.” He then read a remarkable section of the story in which the protagonist describes what he saw when he looked into the sphere. Tim’s voice, which is bigger than you would expect it to be, rose and fell with the natural cadence that Borges built in to the section with the repetition of the phrase ‘I saw’ before each new revelation.

“I saw the multitudes of America;” Tim read, purposefully. “I saw the convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast.” Tim paused for a moment, and moved on, continuing to select his favourite lines in the passage, his voice swelling to fill the room. “I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards.” Here Tim stopped for a longer breath, and the jut of his jaw switched sides. When he continued his voice had a hitch in it, and he spoke deliberately.

“I saw your face.” Here O’Brien sighed, and looked up. He was wearing an expression we hadn’t seen up to that point in the week together, but would encounter again a number of times in the remaining days. “He saw your face,” he told us quietly. And then again, this time as a loud, forceful imperative. “He. Saw. You. He saw you!” More than 70 years since Borges wrote that story, the intimate immediacy of his since-deceased imagination briefly shone in the middle of the room. And we all handled his thoughts with our own, turning them over carefully. After that we took a break, during which I used my phone to order the short stories of Jose Luis Borges.

I spoke to Tim one more time on that last Friday. It was after his speech, after he had left the theatre, after he hadn’t stayed to hear the applause. I bumped into him at the north end of the main building of the Harbourfront Centre, out by the streetcar tracks and the bustle of Toronto’s Lakeshore Blvd. He was smoking a cigarette in the shadow of the building, away from the wind. I tried to say that I thought what he had done in the theatre, and in the class in general, was important, and brave, and big. I tried to convey that I appreciated it in a profound way, but only managed to say, “That was really something Tim,” followed by some other words that would be best used to thank a person who had just made you a sandwich that was slightly better than average, or provided you with fairly decent directions for getting to the museum by subway.

My thanks were inadequate, as is so often the case. But there was nothing to be done about that, and if one thing had been made clear that week, it was that the things which can’t be said in the moment should instead be written down. And then shared in the main.

Categories: Saturday Stories

6 replies »

  1. Thank you for this. Having read The Things They Carried , I can only imagine a week with Tim. While I laugh to tears with your satirical insights, it is pleasing to know that you have another, more introspective, side to you. I welcome more articles from you in this or any other genre.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was truly profound and uplifting. What an incredible experience to be immersed in someone else’s words like that. I’ve never read any of his work, but I will seek it out.


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