Category: meta

telling history / Tim O’Brien

On good days, I tell myself that I write because it’s therapeutic, and it’s productive to make art out of pain.

On bad days, I admit that I write because it’s a way to make somebody else feel as fucking awful as I do.  Usually that somebody is innocent of wrongdoing, their only crime an interest in fiction, or in me, or in confessional poetry, or perhaps they just wandered by and took a chance hit to the gut (if I don’t score a hit in the gut, I haven’t been successful).

On most days, I don’t believe that the feelings and experiences I mine for writing are worth writing about, and I don’t actually believe that any of this can be called writing, never mind art.

Tim O’Brien, whom I idolize as a writer, has said, “I don’t devote a lot of time or a lot of energy worrying about the hows or the whys of it all, instead taking a kind of lazy man’s conviction in the belief that stories require no justification; they just are. It’s a conviction, too, I suppose, that abstraction and generalization are precisely the reverse of what I do as a storyteller. Abstraction may make your head believe, but a good story, well told, will also make your kidneys believe, and your scalp and your tear ducts, your heart, and your stomach, the whole human being.” [1]

This is what I aim for.  On bad days it feels like masochism.  On good days it feels, at best, a bit like sadism.  On some days, I’m aware that Tim O’Brien would hate my writing, at least stylistically – I do all kinds of things he discourages. I’m far too flowery.  That comes from being a poet first, and from studying poetry for a living – my day job.  I gave a paper on one of his novels once, at an academic conference at which he was the guest star speaker.  Mercifully, he was not in the room when I gave the paper. But even that academic paper was flowery. It had these long, unwieldy sentences in it, and even if they’re alright for the written word, the sure don’t translate well to a piece for oral delivery.  That was an important lesson, one I have to consciously remember sometimes, I haven’t internalized it.

But I’m not sure I idolize him because of his writing advice, because of any teaching he’s done about writing. In fact, I know I don’t.  I idolize him because *he gets it.*  The Things They Carried changed my life – as a student, as a writer, as a teacher of writing, as a former soldier, as someone who hasn’t found a way to live with certain things unless I’ve made a story out of them. Or maybe that’s backwards.  Maybe I just can’t help but make stories. I’m not really sure.  But what’s in there, in those stories, in that story, I got not just in my gut, in my tear ducts – I got it at the very bottom of my soul (if there is such a thing).  It was important. There was nothing more important.

I was too nervous and shy to talk to him afterwards, even at the gathering some faculty hosted at a bar after the fact.  He mingled with everyone and drank beer out of a bottle and ate the lousy catered food and seemed like a really genuine guy.  I had flown all the way out to Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas for this conference for a chance to meet one of my writing idols, and I couldn’t talk to him.  I’m not sure exactly what I was afraid of.  He certainly wasn’t scary.  Maybe in a way I was afraid that if I looked in his eyes, I’d see the wound, and see that writing never really healed it.  Or maybe I was afraid that if I looked in his eyes, I wouldn’t see it at all, that it was never really there, and what I thought was important was only my imagination, or delusion. And that might just mean, for me, not hope but a death sentence.

Most people don’t understand, I think, how it can be anything but dramatic exaggeration to say that writing saved your life.

Maybe I write for the people who do understand.

[1] Tim O’Brien – Writing Vietnam


Flogging Molly – Punch Drunk Grinning Soul


Creativity and Mental Illness

Creativity and mental illness: prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives

NC Andreasen
Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City 52242.

Rates of mental illness were examined in 30 creative writers, 30 matched control subjects, and the first-degree relatives of both groups. The writers had a substantially higher rate of mental illness, predominantly affective disorder, with a tendency toward the bipolar subtype. There was also a higher prevalence of affective disorder and creativity in the writers’ first-degree relatives, suggesting that these traits run together in families and could be genetically mediated.

Am J Psychiatry 1987; 144:1288-1292
Copyright © 1987 by American Psychiatric Association


A study with higher numbers and much different methodology

Psychology Today’s denial of a link is based on a study with a population of 1