“It sounds like hope is kind of a risk that you take?” I asked.
“That’s exactly what I said at the talk,” she answered. I was seated across from Detroit-based writer and teacher at the College for Creative Studies Dorene O’Brien, speaking with her about the themes of her latest release, a collection of fiction called “What It Might Feel Like to Hope.” She continued, “I think that a lot of us suppress hope to defray disappointment,” adding that “We have to accept that failure is going to be a common thing and not let it destroy any inkling of hope.”
If I had to describe O’Brien in three words, I’d borrow from one of the most stunning moments of “What It Might Feel Like to Hope.” In it, Jack and Braelynn, a couple approaching an impasse in their relationship, take a road trip to symbolically test whether they will make it. During a spontaneous stop at a candy factory, they gaze upon the conveyor belts of sweets below. A young boy who is also touring the factory unthinkingly reaches up and takes Jack’s hand, who is caught off guard by the “easy, unconscious grace” of the boy’s unquestioning expectation that his real parent would be there to catch his hand. Having had the pleasure of both reading and meeting O’Brien, I’ve witnessed her own easy, unconscious grace, penning stories that hum with a delicate hope and emitting a gentle aura that corroborates her work.
Honoring the influence of other writers on her current work, O’Brien mentioned Andrea Barrett, explaining, “(Barrett) introduced me to the idea of quietly educating people in my writing. My favorite stories are the ones where I learn something I didn’t expect to learn.”
O’Brien sees something more, however, in the task of the writer, something that resides in her rich, lively dialogue and her ability to channel distinct voices. I delighted at this prioritization of character’s voices in every story, and when I asked O’Brien about it, she relayed an anecdote: “Every creative writing workshop I teach, the first day of class, I ask students if they hear voices in their head, and I joke that half of them raise their hands, and the other half drops the class.” Then, answering her own question, O’Brien added, “Most of my stories start with my characters talking to me. I think of someone and they start talking … It’s my job,” she continued, “to write these stories and channel the voices that come through me.” When she said that, I could not help but think of Arundhati Roy’s meditation on the duties of a storyteller: “Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I’m beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it’s actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world … They commission us. They insist on being told.”
As O’Brien indicates in the anecdote above, teaching is also part of her professional endeavors. And I could tell she’s a teacher from the way she would answer my questions, from the way she would take them seriously, answer them methodically and even thank me for them. “I love talking to people about this,” she told me, “hearing the things that you’re saying. You may think I know all these things, and I don’t …You’re giving me a lot of insights that I didn’t consciously set out to do.”
In her stories, too, she invests in mutual learning in the form of intergenerational relationships, harvesting them as sites of growth for both generations involved. “We don’t live in generational bubbles. I think it’s so important that generations feed off one another — they learn from one another,” she began. “I’ve been writing for more than 30 years, and I’m still learning. I’m still growing. I think it’s a long, long apprenticeship. Any writer who says, ‘… I’m a full-blown writer,’ I think that’s a little arrogant because it’s an evolving practice … How can you say I’m a writer and I learned everything I’ve got to learn if the field is just constantly evolving?”
More than anything, it is impossible not to see how carefully O’Brien regards her position as a writer, how she does not take any of her power or talent for granted. In fact, while speaking with O’Brien, I finally got the chance to ask a question that nags me every time an author kills off a character in what seems like vain and what feels like emotional manipulation of the reader.
I asked for her thoughts on what a writer, for lack of a better word, owes not only their readers but also their characters. In response, she discussed at length one of the stories in the collection called “turn of the wind,” in which the main character, an aging crystallographer, tries to make connections and do meaningful work as Alzheimer’s seizes his memories. O’Brien discussed her difficulties with honoring that character: “Where I did him a great disservice was, he had Alzheimer’s, so … very conveniently, when I needed him to forget something, he would just forget. But then, when I needed him to be lucid, he would be lucid. And I realized that he is just a prop in my plot,” she admitted. O’Brien then relayed how she redressed this treatment of her character: “I had to do a lot of research on Alzheimer’s. That’s what he deserved. That’s what my character deserved. And that’s what my readers deserved as well. Because I’m the one saying I want to quietly educate readers, and I’m misleading them.”
In this instance and virtually every other one that gave O’Brien the chance to speak about her characters, she spoke about them as though they are her neighbors, her old friends. People that trust her, and people whose trust she would not dare squander. She treated me in a similar, heartening way: Like I’m a real person who wants to talk to her and not just a journalist with a recording device. I have a hunch she regards her students in the same way: Like they are real people in the desks before her with valuable stories to learn to tell.
In her writing but in our conversation, too, Dorene O’Brien quietly educated me. On what it means to be a writer and on what it means to cull stories from the world. It was a privilege to have culled hers, here.