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Seeking Extraordinary Truth at Sierra Nevada College

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When the author Tim O’Brien spoke to a few hundred people at the Sierra Nevada College Writers in the Woods program on Sept. 21, he had no simple message.

“I’m not being paid to be sweet and dishonest,” he said. “I’m here to tell the truth.”

O’Brien’s truths about the Vietnam War have changed many lives, and won numerous awards. The books he wrote after his tour of duty from 1969 to 1970 include the critically acclaimed “The Things They Carried,” “In the Lake of the Woods,” and “Going After Cacciato,” which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1979. Some of the stories he’s written are absolutely true; some are chopped up and reorganized into fiction so that O’Brien can share more powerfully the essential truths of what he saw and felt in Vietnam, and of what happens to soldiers’ lives after they kill, and witness unspeakable violence, and watch their friends die beside them. Now 40 years after his Vietnam experience, his stories endure in ways that many authors strive for.

O’Brien is an especially fitting visitor at Sierra Nevada College this year. It is the first year of the college’s new program, a low-residency Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. The program was launched by a dynamic duo, English Department Program Chair and Truckee resident June Saraceno and Brian Turner, whose second book of poems, “Phantom Noise,” was shortlisted for the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize.

“SNC has been focused on developing a literary community for many years,” said Saraceno, author of “Altars of Ordinary Light” and “Mean Girl Trips.” “In addition to O’Brien, the Writers in the Woods literary series has brought in writers such as [past Poet Laureate] Robert Hass, Lola Haskins, Chris Ware, Sholeh Wolpe, and other renowned guests. We have a strong BFA in Creative Writing and the time seemed right to develop an MFA.”

Five times during the two-year MFA program period, all students and teachers convene on the SNC campus for an eight-day intensive session of workshops, seminars, and readings. Faculty members help the students to explore writing issues and define goals. During the four semesters, faculty members work one-on-one with students, providing written critique and feedback.

The program gathers a writing faculty that is “both local and global,” said Turner. Faculty members include Kelle Groom, whose memoir “I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl” was published by Simon and Schuster in 2011, Patricia Smith, author of six books of poetry, award-winning novelist Joanne Meschery, and Suzanne Roberts, whose most recent book, “Almost Somewhere” about a hike on the John Muir Trail, was released by Bison Books this year.

When O’Brien visited the campus he also spoke to Incline High School students, met with college faculty, and taught a craft workshop. It was an impressive contribution to the literary world at the lake, and a sample of the kind of virtuoso performance to which writers aspire in order to be really good at what they do, in order to master their forms and write stories that stick.

“Art seeks through the grace and beauty of language to elevate ordinary material into the extraordinary,” O’Brien told his audience that warm Friday night.

The lucky students at the Sierra Nevada College MFA program are on track to finding their own truths so they can compose their own remarkable stories.


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June 14, 2018