As it happens (but not very often, really), author Tim O’Brien has a son named Tad. And, as he shared with a nearly full house at the Hopkins Center for the Arts Thursday night, young Tad’s first words were not garbled attempts to mouth the words “mama” or “papa”. No, young Tad’s first words were, “’Tis a tale told by an idiot.”
Or so the story goes. O’Brien (author of Going After Cacciato , The Things They Carried, July, July , and other novels, many about Vietnam) is in town for the Library Association of Hennepin County’s Pen Pals Lecture Series (he speaks again this morning at 11 a.m.), and his subject was the importance of imagination—to a writer’s life specifically, and to the mysterious business of being a human being in general. “Imagination is what separates us from squirrels,” O’Brien explained. “We have it. They don’t.”
To be sure, it’s not likely that a baby squirrel is ever going to utter the words, “’tis a tale told by an idiot,” and the father of a squirrel is not going to leap from tree to tree telling the squirrelly masses that his son chirps Shakespeare. (Squirrel babies, as everyone knows, quote Dante.)
The Tad story may or may not be true, but it takes a special kind of mind to elevate it to a tale told by a storyteller. What alarmed O’Brien most about his child’s first words wasn’t that they were so frighteningly erudite, or that he might have spawned a child who babbles in Shakespearean couplets (something that would make him instantly unpopular with the rest of the kids at daycare). No, what bothered dad was the thought that if his kid could spout Shakespeare right out of the chute, he would have no problem mastering the word “cocksucker.”
Admittedly, this isn’t the sort of story one might expect from a guy who made his name writing stories about Vietnam. But O’Brien is not a combat veteran who happens to be a writer, he is a writer who happens to be a combat veteran. And writing—the craft and importance of it—was his subject for the night. He didn’t even mention the word “Vietnam” until about an hour into his talk. Unexpected—perhaps—but according to O’Brien, it is the writer’s job to imagine the unexpected, to reach beyond the banal and predictable, into the formless realm of dreams and ideas, and bring back something surprising and delightful—a story, in other words, that says something meaningful. And if you can make it funny at the same time, so much the better.
So instead of telling the folks in Hopkins how he writes so compellingly about war and combat and fear, O’Brien told a story about Batman. As a child. Who had a tail. And helped his father invent a machine that paints yellow stripes on the road. Which made them millionaires.
Allowing the mind to play is an important part of being human, O’Brien argued. Writers do it for a living, borrowing bits and pieces of their life and stitching them together with the glue of imagination, often embellishing or distorting “what really happened” beyond recognition. Because “what really happened,”—that is, sticking strictly to the facts, —rarely makes for a good story. Journalists can sometimes do it, but it requires more than just listing the facts in great detail—it takes an act of imagination to recognize how those details should be arranged to make them meaningful and true.
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” goes the old adage—which can be dangerous advice for a journalist, but is pretty much the job description of a novelist. I aspire to the latter, so perhaps you’ll forgive me if I admit that it wasn’t O’Brien’s son Tad whose first words were Shakespeare. It was his oldest son, Timmy.
Tim O’Brien would understand.
Tim O’Brien speaks again today (Friday) at 11 a.m. at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, 1111 Main St., Hopkins.