Art Works Blog

Notable Quotables: Tim O'Brien on the Power of Telling Stories

Nearly 30 years ago Tim O'Brien published his novel The Things They Carried, about the experience of being a foot soldier in the Vietnam War. As described for the NEA Big Read library, The Things They Carried is "part memoir, part fiction and O'Brien—the original master of truthiness—wishes you luck figuring out which is which." That relationship between truth and Truth,and the necessity of storytelling to articulating the difference, remains one of O'Brien's central preoccupations. Here are 10 meditations drawn from his writing for you to consider as you navigate the path to telling your own story of the things you carry.  

quote by Tim O'Brien

"Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is."

Tim O'Brien quote

"The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness." 

Tim O'Brien quote

"Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth."

Tim O'Brien quote

"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."

Tim O'Brien quote

"The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about what the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human."

Tim O'Brien quote

"Words, too, have genuine substance—mass and weight and specific gravity."

Tim O'Brien quote

"A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand upon those mysteries."

Tim O'Brien quote

"Writing doesn't get easier with experience. The more you know, the harder it is to write."

Tim O'Brien quote

"My life is storytelling. I believe in stories, in their incredible power to keep people alive, to keep the living alive, and the dead."

Tim O'Brien quote

"But this too is true: stories can save us."

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