A version of this article originally ran April 5, following the book's publication in the U.K.
Dan O'Brien is out with a new book in the U.S. September 14, called A Story that Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas. The playwright and author presents four essays—all previously used as lectures at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference—to take a look at what it means to be an artist in today’s world and how personal pain can be used to create stories.
O’Brien’s work includes The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, winner of the 2018 PEN America Award in Drama. His The Body of an American received an off-Broadway premiere at Primary Stages in a co-production with Hartford Stage and won the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play as well as the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama. It also ran at the Gate Theatre in London, Portland Center Stage, and other regional theaters in the US. His plays are published by Samuel French / Concord Theatricals and Oberon Books / Bloomsbury. His other books include the poetry collections War Reporter.
What can readers expect from your book?
Dan O'Brien: My hope is that readers find this book to be a deeply personal contemplation of playwriting, and of writing in general, from the point of view of a survivor of childhood abuse and, more recently, cancer. Throughout, I try to relate my ideas about playwriting—certainly I don’t intend to deliver rules or maxims, because I don’t believe in them—to my personal story, and why the theatre and writing plays for it has been so crucial in my life. In a larger context, and considering that the concluding essay was written in the heat of last summer’s pandemic unrest, the book is about our very human reactions to catastrophe and how we can find resilience if not transformation by making sense out of chaos.
What spurred you to present these specific essays together?
I’d been teaching playwriting at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference almost every summer since 2009, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to deliver a lecture there yet. Traditionally the “senior” playwrights did this: Paula Vogel, Beth Henley, Naomi Iizuka, Romulus Linney, Lee Blessing, and Daisy Foote, to name some of the playwrights I’ve co-led workshops with at Sewanee. In 2017, I was offered the opportunity to deliver my own lecture, and with no small amount of fear and insecurity, I accepted the challenge. I had just finished cancer treatment and I was already, naturally, in a state of profound displacement and high-stakes reflection.
With that first lecture, which became the first essay in this collection, I felt compelled to rethink and maybe even reinvent some of my ideas about playwriting. When I wrote that first essay I was harboring a secret ambition to write one of these each year until they became some kind of book. That said, I didn’t know how many years (or months) I might have. But this sense of mortality and immediacy became the central theme of the book: how trauma wakes us to the reality of our lives, just as a drama onstage wakes us to that play’s concerns.
What are some examples of times you “bet on yourself,” like playwright Chris Shinn suggests in your book?
Just writing these essays, and thinking of it as a long-term project for the last four years, is an example. The same goes for the new plays and poems I’ve written since my cancer treatment, as both are such long-term and often inconclusive endeavors. Of course, Chris was talking about “betting on yourself” in terms of survival: that even if one’s statistical odds are daunting that doesn’t mean one needs to give up hope. We can choose to believe that we may be the exception. Such a choice is familiar to artists: we are always creating in the face of staggering odds—odds of “success” commercially, but artistically too. Yet we do it anyway.
In light of several personal tragedies, you say “In all these cases the thought occurred to me, concurrent with my panic and dread, that I was receiving a gift, if only I could survive it.” Where does that mentality come from?
I suppose this special brand of optimism was an adaptive mentality formed in childhood. My family was significantly dysfunctional, riddled with secrets and lies and abuse. And early on I discovered that writing—a poem, a play, a story—offered me clarity, a sense of reality that lit a pathway out. So when other uncontrollable and painful events have occurred in my life—being disowned by my family in my earlier thirties, my wife’s cancer diagnosis followed six months later by mine—writing has always been how I’ve tried to survive. And writing not just to escape but to connect to others, to receive understanding and to give mine in return. This is why I love the theatre so dearly: our connection happens publicly, conspicuously. The intimate connection a reader has with a poem or a novel is precious in a different way, but the communion of strangers in a theatre exercising their empathies upon the same, singular story—this is the gift I wish to receive and to pass along. It’s the gift of trauma reimagined as art.