Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Writing Lessons From a Fellow Outlier: Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

Of all the books I read in 2019 (105 and counting, as of this writing), perhaps the one that surprised me the most was Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O'Brien.

Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t surprised by the quality of writing to be found in the pages of the man who gave us The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato; nor was I startled to find a memoir about fatherhood from the man who has so beautifully described the horrors of war because ten years ago I heard Tim read from an early draft of Dad’s Maybe Book (a sweetly hilarious scene involving his son peeing into a bathroom wastebasket); nor was I shocked to find this new memoir loaded with pathos and tenderness and sentimentality that occasionally walks up to the line of overdoing it, then spits in Treacle’s face, because any reader who makes it through The Things They Carried without weeping surely carries a stone in their chest in place of a heart.

No, what really struck me afresh in Dad’s Maybe Book was how Tim O’Brien reveals himself to be a first-class writing instructor, one at whose elbow I would gladly sit with pen and notebook at the ready. I nearly wore out the highlighting feature on my Kindle marking all the paragraphs dedicated to writing advice and then jotting them down in my ongoing Commonplace Book.

At first, this new book feels like a bit of a departure for the man who wrote, in The Things They Carried, of a soldier who ties a puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezes the firing device. There are some of those gruesome echoes of war here, yes, but O’Brien leaves most of the grim stuff off the page and concentrates on the messages of love he wants to leave his two sons. Tim came to fatherhood late in life: he was 56 in 2003 when his first son, Timmy, was born; his second son, Tad, came two years later. And so, facing the ticking clock of mortality, he set out to write a book not for us but for his sons. Maybe it will be a book, maybe it won’t, he muses. His wife Meredith assures him, “You don’t have to commit to an actual book. Just a maybe book.”

And here’s our first lesson: write a book for your readers, not for publishing glory (or vainglory, as is often the case). Even if it’s just two readersa little boy named Timmy and his brother Tadspeak directly to them from the page, not the faceless thousands who might grab your book from a display at a Hudson Booksellers in an airport terminal between flights. Write for your Tad, your Timmy, or perhaps your dead mother who needs to hear what you could never say while she was alive.

That’s Lesson Number One, class. Are you paying attention?

Here are many more nuggets of wisdom gleaned from Dad’s Maybe Book, randomly plucked from my Commonplace Book which I am sharing with you [insert your name here], my dear friend.

I write so slowly—how can I tell my kids all I want to tell them? Each of the scraps of paper on my desk seems to whisper, “Tell me, put me in, don’t forget me,” and yet this is only a maybe book, and I am only a maybe-writer, just as every writer was once a maybe-writer and just as every book was once a maybe book.

All of us, writers more than most, are left with the cruel and taunting illusion of memory. What we call memory is failed memory. What we call memory is forgetfulness. And if memory has failed—failed so colossally, failed so apocalyptically—how can we pretend to tell the truth? Is one small fraction of the truth the truth? Memory speaks, yes. But it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.

We lose our lives as we live them. Memory is a problem. Even more of a problem, much more, is that I am also at the mercy of my abilities as a writer, and at the mercy of recalcitrant, never-quite-right nouns and verbs. I am at the mercy of the bullying word “nonfiction,” which prohibits make-believe. I am at the mercy of my endurance, and at the mercy of the demagogic rhythm of a sentence, and at the mercy of a spectacular image just off the tip of my imagination.

Among the strange and bitter ironies that have visited me over these seven decades is the certainty that I will be remembered, if I am remembered at all, as a war writer, despite my hatred for war, despite my ineptitude at war, despite my abiding shame at having participated in war, and despite the fact that I am in no way a spokesman or a “voice” for the 2.6 million American military personnel who served in Vietnam from August 1964 to May 1975. In the eyes of many Vietnam veterans—probably a majority—I’m an outlier. I don’t fit in and never did. As far as I can tell, the bulk of those who fought in Vietnam are proud of their service. I am not. They generally believe their cause was just. I do not. Many profess nostalgia about their days in uniform. I do not. Many would do it all again. I would not.

To read as a writer is to read not only with attention to artistry. It is also to read with jealousy, with ambition, with disputation, with rivalry, with fellowship, with fear, with hostility, with celebration, with humility, with proprietorial vigilance, with embarrassment, with longing, with despair, with anger, with defensiveness, with pity, and with a wolf’s steady contemplation of its next meal.

The essential object of fiction is not to explain. Explanation narrows. Explanation fixes. Explanation dissolves mystery. Explanation imposes artificial, arrogant order on human contradictions between fact and fact. The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable—who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave. In a story, explanation is like joining a magician backstage. The mysterious becomes mechanical. The miracle becomes banal. Delight vanishes. Wonder vanishes. What was once surprising, even beautiful, devolves into tired causality. One might as well be washing dishes.

Bad and mediocre stories explain too much: how the wicked witch became so completely and irreparably wicked—abused as a child, no doubt. Bad and mediocre stories tidy up the world, sorting out the human messes of serendipity and tangled motive. Who among us truly understands the plot of his own life? Do you, Tad? Do you, Timmy? Do you truly understand your own swirling, half-formed, and contradictory motives? Who recalls more than a tiny fraction of his own life—last Tuesday, for example? And if we cannot recall our lives, how can we pretend to explain our lives? It is guesswork. Scantily informed guesswork at that.

To trust a story is to trust one’s own story, not someone else’s. To trust a story is to avoid the predictable, the familiar, the wholly logical, the already written, the movie you saw last week, the bestseller you read last month, and even that classic you nearly finished back in college. To trust a story is to trust your own imagination, not the imagination of some literary predecessor.

Do not impose symbols on your work. Let symbols grow in and from your work. If you write a sentence that contains a symbol merely to insert symbolism, hit the delete key and dip your computer in Clorox.


  1. David, this is wonderful. Also, I want to see what your Commonplace Book looks like. May I? I am horrified to say I'd never heard of this until reading this column. I have journals that I clip sticky notes to in an effort to organize and find things later. I have notes in books that I then can't find later. There are two things I want to do better with: capturing what I observe and hear (memory), and capturing the important things I want to save from my reading and learning. The Commonplace Book is a perfect concept.

    1. Elizabeth, thanks for asking! I curate my Commonplace Book on my computer in a Word document, so it makes for a boring photo. It's pretty long (65 pages and growing at this point), but I do try to share some stellar quotes here at the blog every so often:

      Here's a nice article on how and why to keep a commonplace book: