Tim O'Brien: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson provides a biography of the life of American novelist, Tim O'Brien, best known for his award-winning novel, The Things They Carried (1990). The lesson also introduces and analyzes several key quotations that characterize the author's literary aesthetic.


As a kid, Tim O'Brien had it all. He lived the all-American childhood playing little league baseball and fishing in his small hometown in Minnesota. The son of an elementary school teacher and an insurance salesman, O'Brien was always a bookworm. He loved to read about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. He eventually went to college and earned in a degree in political science from Macalester College in 1968.

Then life changed. He was drafted into the Vietnam War. O'Brien considered dodging the draft, but he was afraid of bringing shame to his parents. So, he went to war. From 1969 to 1970, he served as a foot soldier in the 46th Infantry in Quang Ngai province. He was injured in a grenade attack, for which he earned a Purple Heart.

Back in the states, O'Brien applied to graduate school. He went to Harvard to study government, where he published in his first reflections on Vietnam in a memoir entitled If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. The success of this book encouraged O'Brien to pursue creative writing full-time. He is best known for his novel, The Things They Carried (1990), which is also based off of his experiences in Vietnam. His other novels include: Northern Lights (1975), Going After Cacciato (1978), In the Lake of the Woods (1994), Tomcat in Love (1998), and July, July (2002). O'Brien now resides in Texas, where he teaches creative writing courses.

Memorable Quotations

'As a fiction writer, I do not write just about the world we live in, but I also write about the world we ought to live in, and could, which is a world of imagination.' (Lecture at Brown University)

Here, O'Brien explains the role of the novelist. He stresses that the novelist has an ethical obligation to the public, not just a desire to entertain or amuse. This same idea is conveyed throughout his fiction, for instance, in The Things They Carried, in which the narrator explains that he has a duty to carry the story. This quotation also emphasizes the unique power of fiction. For O'Brien, narrative is not just mimetic (reflective of reality); it is also creative. It can bring a certain kind of world into being. This is a very postmodern notion of narrative.

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