Finding truth in fiction writers

During his craft lecture last week, Vietnam veteran and renowned fiction author Tim O’Brien asked the following question: “Why write fiction?” Why not truth? Truth, indeed, is often times stranger, if not more poignant, than fiction. Right?

Tim looked on with his thoughtful, thin-lipped smile as the conference room full of 200 writers considered answers. He replied for us, “We write fiction because we can write about what happened, what almost happened, what should’ve happened.” He took a long pause. And then, “In a story, my dad can sit up in his hospital bed and this time, I can hug him and tell him I love him. In a story I can bring him back from the dead.”

A few sets of eyes watered up, including my own. I remembered something Tim had said a few days prior, following his reading of, “The Things They Carried.” “Don’t be afraid of emotions,” he’d said. He had read a particularly cruel part of the novel, which made his voice crack and his own eyes tear up. Fiction had triggered a true memory. “Go ahead. Unburden yourself,” he’d told us. “Write it down.”

Last Saturday I attended a gathering at the French House (a white, columned house, with a wide front porch set with rocking chairs and fiddling musicians). Many faculty members were there, including Tim. I’d been too nervous to approach him after his lectures. Plus I didn’t want to be yet another admirer bombarding him with compliments. So I smiled at him from a distance.

As the night went on, I noticed Tim talking with Gwen, a pink-haired fiction writer I’ve come to admire and befriend. Gwen is in my workshop class with Diane Johnson, author of Lulu in “Marrakech” (2008), “L’Affaire” (2003), “Le Mariage” (2000), “Le Divorce” (1997), and co-author of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980).

I caught Gwen’s eye and walked over.

Tim was talking about his 7-year-old son who once relieved himself in the bathroom trash can rather than the toilet. Tim caught him and lost his temper.

“Why the hell are you doing that?” he fumed. He repeated himself several times, scaring the child speechless. His wife took disciplinary action while Tim went to his study to “cool down.”

An hour later his son approached him.

“You know why I did that?” he said. Tim waited for a response. The child continued. “Because I have two heads: one telling me, ‘this will make daddy angry,’ and the other saying, ‘this will be fun.'”

Tim was grinning from ear-to-ear at the memory.

When he tucked his two sons in that night, he told them a bedtime story. “There once was a man named ‘daddy,’ and daddy had two heads,” he said. He wanted to tell them about his experience at war.

There was tenderness in his eyes as he recalled the memory of trying to find appropriate words to tell his children, to explain to them right and wrong, life and death. At that moment he reminded me of my own father.

I must have had a nostalgic expression on my face, because he turned to me.

“Hi,” he said. He put out his hand. “I’m Tim.”

I laughed (as though I didn’t know his name), shook his hand, and introduced myself. He took the empty cup from my hands. “What’re you drinking?”

He admired my choice of bourbon, no rocks.

By the time Tim returned, another great author (Richard Bausch) had joined our circle. For nearly two hours, Richard proceeded to tell us dirty jokes. Tim knew them already. He laughed before the punch line, which had us in hysterics.

Most of the party dispersed by 3, including Gwen. It was just the “two old men,” another man from my workshop, and me.

“I gotta’ get home,” Tim slurred. He gave me a tight hug goodbye.

As I watched him disappear into the firefly-lit darkness toward the house his family is staying at, I had a happy thought: his sons have a father who will always, always love them. What a beautiful story.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to

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