My Father, My Teacher

Every writer benefits from a teacher.
Someone who is experienced and at ease with the medium.
Someone to guide her and help her steer straight.
My father was my teacher.

  Robert O'Brien and me, riding in Westport, circa 1965

Robert O'Brien and me, riding in Westport,
circa 1965

Daddy was a writer, a lifelong journalist, and he taught my sister and me the rules of the trade.

Always speak with a pen in hand and a notebook at the ready. Take notes. Ask questions. Make damn sure your quotes are exact. Keep a journal. A writer is someone who does not know how she thinks till she puts words on the page. A writer is someone who doesn’t know what she feels till she puts words on the page. A writer doesn’t feel she has lived till she puts words on the page. Writing comes first. Always write first thing in the morning.

Daddy said that Zola said a writer is a person with ice or steel in her heart: she lives, laughs, loves and suffers, but part of her is always at a remove—outwardly seeing while inwardly recording. Growing up, my sisters and I were taught that getting pay for good sentences was the best thing possible. It was better than what our friends’ and neighbors’ fathers did. And in Westport, Connecticut, during the 1970s, our neighbors and the parents of our friends did some pretty major things. There was a TV news anchorman across the street and the president of IBM down the street. There were freelance artists, too, and plenty of inheritors—“custodians of money” was his term for these.

But chauvinism about writing was instilled in us, or rather installed in us—something big and bulky and seemingly (but only seemingly) unremovable. Nevertheless, the satisfaction of writing good sentences beat everything. The objective to write well was esteemed more highly and reckoned a more enduring goal than a good and happy relationship or great sex or true love. Or, maybe, true love was on a par with fine writing. But for love’s postscript—i.e. suffering—a pad and pen, or a typewriter with two sheets of paper rolled in it, these were fine consolation and reliable companionship.

Writing well is the redeemer of any experience.

All of this knowledge and spin emanated from our father, Robert O’Brien, Yale Class of ’33, reporter and author of the “Riptides,” a daily column for The San Francisco Chronicle, ghost writer, freelance writer, book author, Reader’s Digest senior editor and Madison Avenue copywriter. Everything we ever had—our homes, matching dresses and stuffed animals, our Pop-Tarts and Swanson’s TV dinners, our cars, membership at the country club, candy money and college tuition—Daddy earned through his gilded sentences.

Above all, write!

This was the undeclared O’Brien family motto.

  Robert O'Brien signing his book   This Is San Francisco  , circa 1950. Check out the hats—the ladies LOVED feathers!

Robert O'Brien signing his book This Is San Francisco, circa 1950. Check out the hats—the ladies LOVED feathers!

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