By Dan O'Brien
Drawing on O’Brien’s experience of cancer and of childhood abuse, and on his ongoing collaboration with a war reporter, the four essays in A Story that Happens—first written as craft lectures for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the US Air Force Academy—offer hard-won insights into what stories are for and the reasons why, "afraid and hopeful," we begin to tell them.
Publication Date: September 14, 2021
Originally written as a series of craft lectures delivered at the annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2017-2020, A Story that Happens offers practical reflections on techniques of storytelling in the theatre that are also relevant to other disciplines, and to creativity in general. This book is simultaneously a deeply personal memoir, as O’Brien relates his craft to his and his wife’s cancer experience, and to his childhood abuse. Despite their subject matter, these essays are entertaining and inspiring as they offer hard-won insights into what stories are for and the reasons why, “afraid and hopeful,” we begin to tell them. This book is a love letter to the theatre from a dedicated and impassioned practitioner, lyrically articulating the need to write boldly in times of personal and political trauma.
In 2015 on the anniversary of 9/11 — an event that may have contributed to their cancers, as their downtown apartment had been suffused with the World Trade Center’s carcinogenic dust — O’Brien’s wife, TV and film actor Jessica St. Clair, discovered a lump in her breast and was subsequently treated with surgery and chemotherapy. On the day of her final infusion, O’Brien himself learned that he had colon cancer and would undergo his own intensive treatment over the next nine months.
A Story that Happens was written in the wake of this trauma, and during a period of societal trauma. As O’Brien explains in his preface: “In the January of the new president’s inauguration, I was timidly venturing forth from the cave of my convalescence when I felt an overriding urge to reexamine and challenge who I was as a writer, just as the country’s identity would be reexamined and challenged in the years ahead…. Above all my goal in writing these essays is to articulate why the theatre and writing for it matters. To elucidate how the endeavor of serious theatre-making is not frivolous or ornamental, but an existential struggle to justify, comprehend, and even alter who we are.” The book concludes with a chapter written during the ongoing pandemic that sounds a note of hope for survivors: “And when it is all over…we may have forgotten who we were. Who we are. We will have to find out. And the theatre as always will show us.”
"This is a book for our times. It reminds us that theatre is 'fractured and failing yet struggling towards the mouth’s translation of the heart’s tongue.' Like [O’Brien], we buzz with the desire for the 'chance for more life, and for that most valued of theatrical currencies—change'." —Alice Jolly, Times Literary Supplement
"Part memoir, part philosophy, part pragmatic advice for young writers, [these essays] read like a master class in surviving through art." —Los Angeles Times
"All the essays were written during the tumultuous Trump years, a period of bombastic rage, where the truth was not only clouded but disrespected . . . O'Brien does an unforgettable job accompanying the reader through the prism of his life experiences, offering more than mere lessons." —Jonas Schwartz-Owen, Broadway World