Thursday, May 6, 2010


Here's a rare interview with award-winning writer Tim O'Brien, author of Going After Cacciato (which won the National Book Award in 1979) and The Things They Carried. Tim O'Brien is a writer's writer. I spent over two weeks in a workshop taught by O'Brien and writer Amy Hempel, and enjoyed his comments on my own fiction. It was summertime in Tennessee, and we students from all over the country sat in rapt attention as Tim paced the classroom waving his arms and brimming with writerly wisdom, declaring the difference between truth-truth and story-truth, slaying dragons and occasionally tilting at windmills. His work was brilliant, of course, and we were in awe of the man, so we clutched our manuscripts with a mixture of fear and exhilaration. Over the course of two weeks, our fiction would be analyzed and dissected and scrubbed with a wire brush.

I recall a pivotal moment. We were workshopping a fellow student's manuscript, and Tim disagreed with the writer's decision to interrupt a stick-up with a flashback. Flashbacks stopped the forward motion of a story, and this was no time to employ one. The writer held his ground, but Tim insisted--in real life, no one would drift back in memory with a gun pointed at his head. The writer, a big burly outdoor type, said he might. Tim said no he wouldn't. The writer said yes he might. Tim sat down, stood up, took a breath, growing more agitated and frustrated with every second until finally he crossed the room in three giant steps and gripped the writer's desk, lifting it and slamming it repeatedly on the floor. The sound echoed like gunshots in the classroom. Then it was absolutely quiet. Nobody breathed. At last, Tim broke the silence. "When I did that...slammed the desk like that...did you flashback on your childhood?" He kind of laughed, not really laughed but a little sideways smile and a chuckle. Then everyone roared. Truth-truth had crashed into the classroom. Tim had given us a zen lesson in the proper use of flashbacks.

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