By Matt Tullis, Associate Professor, Journalism and Digital Media
When I think about Dan Lehman, my mind immediately jumps to Tim O’Brien. O’Brien’s writing has shaped me as a writer more than just about anyone else. I have read his words over and over and over again and I have, in many ways, sought to copy O’Brien’s style. He is a simple writer, one who values content and thought over the writing itself (the result being amazing writing, in my opinion). My first tattoo — “Stories can save us.” in typewriter font on my left forearm — is part of a sentence from O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and that sentence will also likely be a postscript on my memoir, should it ever be published.
Why do I think of O’Brien when I think of Dan? Because it was Dan who introduced me to O’Brien’s writing. The first thing I ever read of O’Brien’s was In the Lake of the Woods, a novel about a Vietnam veteran turned politician who thinks he has managed to distance himself from his own presence at the My Lai massacre. We read this in English 427 American Literature, which Dan taught in Fall 1997. It was the first semester of my senior year at Ashland University. I had taken other American Literature courses (two others, actually, in the preceding two semesters), but hadn’t fallen in love with anything we read. Judging from the C+ I got in English 426 in Spring 1997, I’m guessing I didn’t take it too seriously either. I was, for about two-and-a-half or maybe even three years, not a serious student. (Dan knows this as well, because he was my academic adviser and I had to retake English 101, which I failed as a freshman. I ultimately took the class with him as a junior. I got an A.)
But then I read In the Lake of the Woods, and Dan led discussions in the classroom and, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was starting to get it. I had always, for the most part, understood writing, or so I thought. I had been writing since I was in the third grade. I had also been reading since before that, but in this class, the first semester of my final year as an undergraduate, I finally understood what it meant to really, truly read, to interact with the words on the page, and I was able to get there because of Dan. I read that book so closely, and started making theories as to what really happened, and then going back in the text to find proof that my theory was right. I had never done that before, and it was exhilarating. Indeed, I still do that type of research now as a reporter whenever I am working on something large that requires significant book or archival research. It never gets old.
The next semester, my final semester, was one that would ultimately set the course my life would take. I took English 302 Writers Workshop Fiction/Nonfiction with Joe Mackall, and for the first time, started writing about surviving childhood cancer, which, quite frankly, I was still pretty much in the process of doing, having been diagnosed at the age of 15. One of the reasons I started writing about it was because that same semester, I took Dan’s class, English 325B Major Writers: Nonfiction Narrative, and we read more O’Brien. In this course, we read O’Brien’s memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and his biographical novel The Things They Carried. For the first time in my life, I read work that really, truly spoke to me. Sure, as a cancer survivor, I hadn’t fought in an actual war. But the emotions, the ideas, they were all there. Later in life, I would even start using war as a metaphor for how my disease was treated. In Dan’s class, we were all encouraged to explore those ideas, to see how the fiction and the nonfiction interacted, to see which had more resonance. For me, while I love The Things They Carried, a book I have read at least five times, the memoir, the account that wasn’t fictionalized, has always seemed more “true,” because it was, well, factual. The people O’Brien was writing about were real people with real emotions and feelings and consequences.
Taking Dan’s classes at the time I had just started seriously considering my illness and my survival was critical. Perhaps it was just luck that the two coincided, but I’ve never thought about my writing about cancer without simultaneously thinking about O’Brien and what he did with his experience on the page.
I still have the first issue of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, the journal that Dan and Joe were planning during my senior year, and published in the Fall 1999 semester. I remember opening it up the first time, and seeing before the editor’s note, which was titled “Facts that matter,” a quote from O’Brien, from The Things They Carried:
“Somebody tells you a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, ‘Is it true?’ And if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.”
I was excited when I read that, because we had spent time talking about that very idea in Dan’s class earlier in the year. And I remember being excited that the discussions we had in that class were now more concrete, solidified in this journal. And then that journal, over time, went on to become one of the most respected journals in the country, a journal devoted entirely to the genre I have spent my life writing: nonfiction.
Because of all of these reasons, I am sad that students won’t have the chance to take Dan’s classes anymore. But at the same time, I am heartened, perhaps selfishly so, that I still get to work with him on River Teeth. I’ve been helping Dan and Joe find great pieces of literary journalism that should be reprinted in the journal, and they’ve been gracious enough to give me the title Associate Editor in the masthead, something that made me giddy the first time I saw it. This work is just one more thing in my life that would have never happened had I not taken those classes with Dan during my senior year, and for that, I am forever thankful.