Sun. Jul 3rd, 2022

On Nov. 11 at 7pm, renowned novelist and short story writer Tim O’Brien visited West Chester University’s campus. O’Brien writes about his wartime experiences serving in Vietnam, and is perhaps best known for his work The Things They Carried, in which he relays truthful stories about his experience in war through fictionalizing reality. The stories are not true in the literal sense, yet O’Brien writes, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen… there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”
O’Brien’s visit was made possible through the efforts of English department faculty members, Dr. Eleanor Shevlin and Dr. Kuhio Walters. The two received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in conjunction with Arts Midwest. The NEA is devoted to revitalizing the role of literature in American culture, and to encourage citizens to read for pleasure and enlightenment. Through Dr. Shevlin and Dr. Walters’ hard work, West Chester was able to host over 34 NEA Big Read 2013 events on campus leading up to O’Brien’s visit. Such events included 10 book discussions, two film showings, special lectures and readings at the Chester County Historical Society, the Chester County Art Association, thr Hickman Center, as well as special panels at West Chester.
O’Brien’s lecture Monday evening was the last of four different talks O’Brien gave during his visit. He gave two talks at local high schools, and two talks on West Chester’s campus. Dr. Walters, who had helped transport O’Brien between lectures throughout the day added, “though the ideas and some phrases were repeated between his four lectures, the stories and tone of each talk was unique.”
His first on-campus talk was from 3:30-4:30pm in the Philips Autograph Library. Approximately 40 students and faculty gathered to hear O’Brien speak informally about his writing style and answer questions from the audience. One student in particular, a war veteran himself, approached O’Brien at the end of his lecture and asked him, “How do you make people understand what they can’t possibly understand?” To which O’Brien replied, “Tell them the truth.”
The last, and largest, lecture began at 7pm in the Asplundh Concert Hall. Approximately 520 people gathered for his final two lectures. Dr. Walters added, “Tim clearly wasn’t bound by a pre-written script, either. He explained to us, as we drove him from one event to the next, that he always wrote up his presentations but rarely used them when actually presenting.” During his approximately hour-long lecture, O’Brien described his techniques in writing about his experiences in the war, showing how, through fiction, he allows his audience to experience the emotions he felt in the moment.
Through fiction, O’Brien was better able to convey the truth of reality. He demonstrated these skills in the beginning of his lecture with the retelling of a particular chapter in The Things They Carried. The chapter was entitled “On the Rainy River.” O’Brien, a then recent college graduate, spent the summer in angst over his draft notice, calling him to fight for a cause he did not believe in. He explained to the audience how he had traveled North in search of an escape – to leave the country and live in Canada. During the excursion, he met a man named Elroy, the innkeeper of the Tip Top Lodge in Northern Minnesota who, with few words or actions, played a profound impact on O’Brien’s ability to cope with his inner angst, and ultimately to return home and follow the draft.
After retelling the heart-wrenching story and keeping his audience on the edge of their seats, O’Brien reveals that this chapter was fabricated, compiled from the collection of internal emotional confusion, division, and alienation he experienced throughout the summer. O’Brien transitioned into explaining how the underlying emotions of his experiences before, during, and after the war are the important truths he hoped to convey to his audience and to his readers. O’Brien explains in his novel, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
By the end of the lecture, O’Brien had much of his audience in tears, telling a story filled with regret in delaying the start of his children’s lives. He waited to have children until he was already entering old age, and now regrets he will not be present to watch his children grow up. He recites a letter he wrote to his first son just months after he was born. In the last minutes of his lecture, O’Brien once again demonstrated the power behind storytelling in conveying real emotions to an audience. O’Brien did not reveal if the facts of this last story were true, though his audience did not care either way, because the power of a story is not in whether or not the events literally happened, but that they are entirely truthful.
Dr. Walters reflected on O’Brien’s visit saying, “it was clear he’s a great story-teller. I’m happy West Chester was able to host him for the day.” Dr. Shevlin noted her plans to continue the momentum of the Big Read through her recently established Center for Book History.
Laura Wayne is a fourth-year student majoring in English literature. She can be reached at

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