On Tim O’Brien’s Relationship to Writing and Fatherhood
Teresa Fazio Watches the Documentary The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien
Parenting, like writing, is an art, and no one has infinite time for both. The documentary The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien follows the famous author through the process of writing what he says is his last book, Dad’s Maybe Book, a missive to his two sons. As a veteran contemplating parenthood who knows all too well how war bends a life’s chronology, I was intrigued.
O’Brien, drafted into the Army in 1968, deployed to Vietnam from 1969 to 70, returning with a Purple Heart. Since then, he has continuously published both fiction and nonfiction wrapped around his wartime experiences. To truly reintegrate into society after homecoming, we veterans have found we must drop the rigidities of military hierarchy in favor of better connecting with our fellow citizens. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, O’Brien has done much to facilitate these kinds of connections by providing a window on soldiers’ emotional landscapes, including his own.
Now in his seventies, O’Brien had children in his late fifties. In gestures as simple as a son’s hand on a father’s shoulder, the film shows the intimacy of parenthood, while also highlighting O’Brien’s sense that time is running out, both for his writing and with his sons. When he says he “would trade every syllable [of his writing] for an extra five, ten years” with his kids, it’s clear he views his two boys as the greater legacy.
Parenting requires a combination of instruction, discipline, and nurturing, and good father figures emotionally engage with their children, coaxing sparks of young curiosity into flame. Parenthood and art both offer opportunities to make sense of one’s life and surroundings, while simultaneously being fraught with pitfalls: hypocrisy, grandstanding, miscommunication, failure. Parents pour tremendous love and effort into their children, with no guarantee their messages will be received in the intended way (or at all), and have little control over how their children will ultimately fare in the world.
So it goes for writers and their books.
O’Brien’s creative process is intense, as many are, but through the success of his books and speaking appearances, he can afford to write full-time, as not all writers can. For him, the stuff of life—children’s roughhousing and basketball games, an impromptu doorbell, car trouble—present big obstacles to getting writing done.
It comes as no surprise, then, that his wife Meredith’s dexterous upkeep of the home front, wrangling orthodontia appointments and exterminators, mirrors what many men of O’Brien’s generation have been culturally afforded: time and space to devote themselves to their careers and passions, independent of family. Neither the film—nor most white male Boomers—acknowledge that those types of interruptions are de rigueur for women creators of all eras; only recent decades (or significant wealth) have more routinely offered women this opportunity, frequently at the expense of bearing children.
And when it comes to fear of time running out, women contend with biological clocks that expire earlier than men’s. In the film, O’Brien reveals that Meredith was the one who convinced him to have children. If O’Brien had been female, given the expectations for women of his generation, he may never have had kids at all.
Regardless of gender, parenthood was no sure path for him. Of his own father, he says, “there was the vodka dad and the other dad… I loved him and I idolized him, but I was sometimes afraid he was going to kill me.” O’Brien has spent decades scraping that pain out of his chest through writing. When perceptive kids join the military, any trauma predating their service has the potential to compound over decades, as the experience of war intertwines with family life. I know this territory intimately, having lived through family trauma before joining the Marine Corps.
Even after war, pain persists. “Wars do not end when you sign peace treaties… my children will be the inheritors,” O’Brien says. Military families suffer the consequences of veterans’ trauma, and his children, who’ve named his red-faced emotional shock waves “Dad’s bad time,” are no exception.
As O’Brien ponders his legacy, he also endures mysterious dizzy spells and a severe bout of pneumonia, likely a result of his decades-long, two-pack-a-day Carlton habit. This jolt of mortality increases his motivation to communicate everything he needs to say about war and life to his sons.
And yet, old folks do not have a monopoly on a sense of mortality. Young troops feel this, too. The film’s images of soldiers in Vietnam versus now might as well be a time warp. Here is O’Brien: lean, young, and shirtless. Here are unnamed soldiers hustling towards a firefight, or crawling into a cot, or playing guitar in their downtime. Their faces mirror the faces of my 19-year-old Marines in Iraq, now married fathers in their late thirties. No matter the era, their expressions—our expressions—are the same: bravado and mirth and focus and fear, all to mask awareness of the “very evil casino” O’Brien describes that decides who will die young in war.
Despite the obvious “Russian roulette feel” of a combat zone, most of life is a gamble. When making myriad choices—relationships, moves, jobs, even deciding to conceive children—we never truly know how the results will turn out. To make this uncertainty bearable, we have a few healthy options, including connecting with others and communicating what feels necessary, all the while recognizing that these uncertainties breed a kaleidoscope of results that no two people will perceive identically.
O’Brien meets countless veterans at speaking events and in classes, acknowledging the variety of their reactions to service. “One man’s pride is another man’s sorrow,” he says. “One man’s service to country is another man’s dead son.” Still, he feels compelled to tell the truth of wars in order to end them, not to glamorize or glorify them. “War sucks! Don’t do it!” he says, addressing imaginary potential enlistees. “You’re gonna be fuckin’ dead forever!” Although writers’ creations are intended to outlive them, O’Brien seems dismayed by his fame as someone who writes about war, saying, “The worst thing in my life that ever happened to me, for which I will always feel intense moral failure and shame, is the thing I’m going to be remembered for.”His primary audience for his last book, though, is neither veterans nor the general public. It is his sons.
His primary audience for his last book, though, is neither veterans nor the general public. It is his sons, whom he tells, “we will never run short of gentle-hearted Timmys and Tads who, fearing censure, fearing ridicule, join the parade of those who kill and die and cannot quite remember why.” There are indeed a river of us gentle-hearted folk running throughout military history. We are Vietnam-era draftees, those who join to escape poverty or fulfill a family tradition, or who, like me, go to college on a ROTC scholarship, only to be swept up in the tide of history.
If I come to parenthood at all, I, like O’Brien, will come to it late. For both of us, that timeline has no small amount to do with early trauma compounded by war, and the compulsion to make sense of intense experiences before embarking on more of them. But nothing has cemented my desire to be a parent so deeply as watching O’Brien’s tenderness with his adolescent sons, and the joy he takes in their proximity. Whether via writing or parenting, human nature includes the instinct to connect. Whether we die at 23 in a war or live to a hundred—or whether our souls die young in war and we stumble along as husks thereafter—none of us truly knows how long we have to walk the earth. All we can do, as O’Brien has done, is tell our truths to the next generation.