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Rising Star Tim O'Brien

Author Tim O’Brien mentors the next generation of writers

Author Tim O'Brien

Read more about author Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien believes in the power of stories.

Stories, he says, are what last after any experience or event, and stories have the power to comfort, to heal, to stir emotions and memories.

Since 1999, the master storyteller and award-winning author has helped students in Texas State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing develop their own storytelling and writing skills. O’Brien has earned a reputation for being passionately interested in and committed to his students’ work, and he has held the university’s Endowed Chair in Creative Writing six times, more than any other visiting author.

A Vietnam veteran, O’Brien is best known for his books based on this country’s longest and most contentious conflict. But with the exception of his first book, a 1973 memoir titled If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, his Vietnam stories are not so much about the war as they are about people, with the war providing the background. Going After Cacciato, a novel about a soldier who leaves Vietnam to walk 8,000 miles to Paris for the peace talks, won the 1979 National Book Award.

The Things They Carried, which is taught in high schools and colleges across the country, is a collection of stories about the men of Alpha Company. It won France's prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The title story was selected for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.

O’Brien began writing at age 9. His home state of Minnesota is the setting for many of his stories, including his sixth novel, a mystery, In the Lake of the Woods, and a poignant story in The Things They Carried, “On the Rainy River.” In that story, the fictional Tim O’Brien, 21 years old, travels to the Rainy River on the Minnesota-Canada border. Facing the certainty of being drafted and sent to Vietnam, the character ventures to the middle of the Rainy River, into Canadian waters, then turns around and heads back home and to war, not out of patriotism but out of shame.

The author acknowledges that these were indeed his emotions when the draft board came calling in 1968.

“Most men don’t want to go to war,” he says. “They don’t want to die. But you don’t want to be embarrassed; you don’t want to face your friends and family and hometown. Even if they know nothing about the politics, most men will go to war anyway, because they don’t want to feel a sense of shame.”

When O’Brien returned from Vietnam in 1970, he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University, and while he was there, he worked at the Washington Post.

But O’Brien didn’t want to be a journalist; he wanted to write novels. “The Washington Post was great training for being a writer,” he says. “I learned brevity and how to organize a story, how to write a lead. I learned what to put in and what to leave out.”

If I Die in a Combat Zone was published in 1973, followed by Northern Lights in 1975 and the critically acclaimed Going After Cacciato in 1978. O’Brien’s future as a novelist was sealed.

Every other year, O’Brien teaches full time at Texas State, leading graduate workshops for students in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and talking to undergraduate English classes..

“It’s the kind of environment I can thrive in,” O’Brien says of Texas State. “The students are really top notch, and my colleagues are good teachers. They take it seriously, work hard at it, and they’re also good writers.”

His students thrive, too. “I've always admired Tim’s fiction for its craftsmanship,” says former student Michael Noll. “Tim has an incredible eye for sentence structure, and he trains that eye on himself and his students. I can’t overestimate the improvement in my writing that is a direct result of Tim's class. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from a master — and I don't use the word lightly — such as Tim O'Brien.”