Tim O'Brien Shares Writings and Experiences at Davidson
February 8, 2001
February 8, 2001
Award-winning novelist Tim O'Brien read from his latest novel and shared some of his experiences as a writer and a Vietnam veteran during a recent visit to Davidson College.
O'Brien has received acclaim for his six books, including Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, and his short stories have been anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories (1976, 1978, 1982), Great Esquire Fiction, Best American Short Stories (1978, 1987), and The Pushcart Prize (Vols. II and X). He has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation.
O'Brien read from his novel The Things They Carried on Wednesday, January 31, to a large crowd in Love Auditorium. The reading was followed by a reception, where the author chatted with guests and signed copies of his book. After the reception, O'Brien and small group of students and faculty made their way to the Davidson Depot to continue their discussion of his works and the writing life late into the night.
Thursday, February 1, O'Brien met with students again, this time in the classroom. He visited several English classes to talk about writing, and his trials in developing his craft.
After another dinner with students and faculty on Thursday evening, O'Brien concluded his visit to the campus with an informal lecture about writing. He began by pointing out that he would not be giving a lecture filled with abstractions and generalizations aimed at the head, but would be telling stories.
O'Brien said, "As a story teller and as a person who trusts story, I think a good story addresses not just the head, but the whole human body: the tear ducts, the scalp, the back of your neck and spine, even the stomach."
He said that a writer need not go to war or experience similarly catastrophic events to find subjects. O'Brien went on to recount three anecdotes from his youth in rural Minnesota. He explained that everyone has those kind of treasured childhood stories and memories that make for good storytelling and good writing. He quoted Flannery O'Connor by saying, "To be a successful writer, all you have to so is live to the age of thirteen and you have plenty of material."
At the end of his talk, he answered several questions from the audience, and thanked his new friends at Davidson for their hospitality. (Click here for an excerpt of O'Brien's talk.)
On Friday, February 2, O'Brien visited history Professor Ralph Levering's "The Vietnam Experience" class to recall his days as a soldier and as a veteran. Fellow Vietnam veterans and Davidson staffers Irvin Brawley, associate director of business and property, and Lee Sargent, event management and ticket sales coordinator of Baker Sports Complex, joined the class.
Although Vietnam was only one year of his life, O'Brien said, "It's a year that's lived in my memory ever since and will live there until the day I die."
O'Brien was drafted in the spring of 1968, even though he had just received a scholarship for graduate school at Harvard University. He spent the summer with a torn conscience, trying to decide whether or not to go to fight in a war, which was ambiguously defined.
"I didn't want to die or kill anybody in a war," he said. "I was a small town kid, not a radical, and I wanted to be a good guy. Whether you are conservative or liberal, you can identify with someone who wants to do the right thing."
Ultimately O'Brien decided to go to Vietnam out of what he referred to as fear of embarrassment. "I should have had the courage to say no; I was a coward for going to Vietnam," he said.
His year as an infantry soldier included front line combat experience and a war wound. Upon his return, O'Brien found that the war had turned his idealism into cynicism. While he was not comfortable talking about his war experiences, he found a psychological release in his writing. His books on Vietnam gave him an opportunity to do justice to what happened. He concluded by urging students to appreciate and embrace the life of peace. "Peace is a very shy thing, but war brags," he said.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.