What I Learned from Tim O’Brien

Summer 2001 at Sewanee. I started smoking again that summer just so that I could hang out with O'Brien a little more. I was young and foolish.
Summer 2001 at Sewanee. I started smoking again that summer just so that I could hang out with O’Brien a little more. I was young and foolish.

Every Tuesday, I talk about teaching, and this is the third in a series of posts on what I’ve learned from the writers I’ve studied with.

For the last two weeks, I talked about Michael Martone. This week, Tim O’Brien. During the summer of 2001, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and spent two weeks in his workshop. Here’s some of his advice I brought back with me.

Writing doesn’t get easier.

Fairly early on, you have to get to the “aboutness” of your story. We have to have a sense of the plot and the character’s central struggle or goal. What does the character want?

A good story is one in which a character wants two things simultaneously.

Simultaneity vs. Unidimensionality—Good stories have two or three things happening in them at once. Unidimensional stories may be entertaining, but they are utterly forgettable.

Avoid unintentional, unnecessary repetition, but don’t use silly synonyms to do it.

Beware personifying things.

Avoid using the same mechanical gesture over and over.

STORIES ARE NOT PUZZLES! (He was very emphatic about this!) The point of a story should not be trying to figure out what the heck is going on. A reader needs to know (most of the time) where she is, what’s going on.

Don’t explain away your story. Deepen the dark.

A story must have forward motion, forward thrust. It must keep moving and not spin and spin in the same place indefinitely. Each sentence should keep us moving.

Stories can be about ordinary things, but there must also be something extraordinary about them too, something to surprise us. We must balance the familiar and the strange. As Dickinson said, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”

Details are important, but not at the cost of boredom.

Grammar and punctuation matter.

Characters are initiators, creating and responding to the world and people around them.

At the end of every scene, your character should be in a different place (physically or emotionally) than he or she was at the start of the scene.

Sentences have to sizzle. If he doesn’t trust a story on the level of the sentence—if the prose is sloppy, ungraceful, grammatically flawed—he doesn’t trust the story itself, no matter the idea behind it.

Use active verbs. Beware static language and ridiculous similes.

Avoid alliteration.

Use commas.

Know the difference between “each other” and “one another”

Be precise.

Syllables matter. Rhythm matters.

Delete ugliness. Delete mediocrity.

Insert the glorious sunset of a period.

We write to know what we don’t already know. Every day, you expend all your energy, all your brain power, all your bodily fiber to stretch yourself toward that which you don’t yet know, toward that new knowledge gained in the act of writing.