“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.” – Tim O’Brien
I’ve always felt a kinship with O’Brien, and not only as writers. We are nearly the same age; both Midwesterners (although today he lives in Texas and I in Colorado); and both U.S. Army Infantry veterans – although there’s little doubt that his experiences, particularly in the Vietnam War, were much more intense than my own.
A key attribute to O'Brien's work is his relationship between fiction and reality. While it is fiction, his work contains many details from his real-life experiences, a common literary technique. But his approach brings the writing to life in a way that blurs the lines between fact and fiction.
Writers of historical fiction often must “imagine” themselves in the place and time they are writing so that they can, in turn, put together the story that will not only be based on real events, but also will provide a good tale. If you want to see it done in a masterful way, read O’Brien, especially his award-winning The Things They Carried.
O’Brien, who recently turned 72, said he doesn’t think of himself as a war writer but rather a writer who wrote about war. “When writing, I'm not thinking about war, even if I'm writing about it,” he said. “I'm thinking about sentences, rhythm and story. So the focus, when I'm working, even if it's on a story that takes place at war, is not on bombs or bullets. It's on the story.”
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