Writing in Truth and in Full, with Dan O’Brien

Dan O'Brien photo

By Will Zimmerman

“You can’t escape who you are,” said Dan O’Brien (ΦBK, Middlebury College). “Warts and all.”

The author hasn’t shied away from his past—not in his plays, poems, or opera librettos—but with his first memoir, From Scarsdale: A Childhood, released in October 2023, there are no masks or actors disguising his story. It’s intimate and provoking. It’s disquieting but inspiring. It’s the story he’s been writing ever since his mother brought home the bread loaf.

The bread loaf, of course, being the bread loaf anthologies—a compilation of craft lectures, short stories, poems, and essays published by instructors and attendees at Middlebury’s esteemed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences.  


Amid Vermont’s dense forests and sloping mountains, O’Brien’s auctorial aspirations became tangible. Prior to arriving in the bucolic college town, his conceptions of poets, authors, and playwrights had been imbued with mythic, almost heroic qualities—he’d only ever seen their names on book bindings. At Middlebury, where O’Brien earned Phi Beta Kappa honors, the figures were made real. So real, in fact, they taught his seminars. “It was incredible to see the human side of these people,” O’Brien remembered.

The talent these writers possessed was undoubtable, but O’Brien came to understand that their successes were predicated on more than the words they put to page. Professional authors showed perseverance, maintaining their resolve even as unrequited and rejected pitches to literary magazines, book publishers, and fellowship sponsors mounted. They remained dedicated to the craft, maturing as writers and readers simultaneously. Chief of all, conviction in their voice never wavered. Authenticity was the author’s highest ideal, and O’Brien, a voracious reader, had begun to recognize the distinction in writing in truth and in full even before he had arrived at Middlebury.

“The first writers that meant a lot to me were the confessional poets,” he said. “Writers like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath who were telling the truth about their lives—telling the truth about difficult if not shameful things.”

The traumas these writers explored in their poems resonated deeply with O’Brien who, at age 12, had witnessed his brother, then 17, attempt to kill himself.

“My family and my young life were chaotic and painful and also such a secret,” he said. “This was something that I couldn’t—that I wasn’t supposed—to tell anyone about.”

O’Brien continued: “To read [poems by the confessional poets] was the closest thing I could get to therapy. It told me that there were other people in the world, if not a lot of people, that had [survived] similar struggles.”

At Middlebury, O’Brien began experimenting with his own incantations of confessional writing, embedding, he explained, “the heart and soul of what I was going through” in poetry and plays. Through English and creative writing courses, he honed his voice and learned to further embrace vulnerability. Through the smorgasbord of other classes that rounded out his liberal arts education—in disciplines spanning philosophy, history, and theater, among others—he broadened his perspective and fostered a deeper curiosity about the wider world, and his place within.

O’Brien’s time at Middlebury culminated with a senior thesis project, for which he chose to write, direct, and produce a feature-length play. He calls the experience a privilege—both putting the production together and then sharing it with college students and town residents. The endeavor instilled within him a confidence in his craft and his process, as well as the conviction that he had what it would take to make a career as a writer.

What O’Brien remembers most vividly from the experience though, was the response of one attendee—a Middlebury town resident who wrote to the school paper, denouncing the production and its offensive elements. O’Brien was shocked by his first bad review. “I had written this out of love,” he said, “and here was a stranger outraged by what I had presented.”

Some thirty years later, he can still recite his professor’s response: “‘Congratulations, you’ve graduated to the level of being disliked.’”

The plays O’Brien studied at Middlebury and the lyrics of the confessional poets he pored over as a teenager were provocative, and often inspired wildly different responses from audiences and readers. But this was his own work. It was a realization that could’ve crippled the budding author—that no matter what he did as an artist, he would never be able to write for everybody. Instead, O’Brien said it was a liberation.

Over the course of a career that has spanned almost three decades, O’Brien has undertaken a plethora of writing endeavors. Still, at his core, he’s writing for the same person he was writing for when he was aged 12, scrawling in his journal and trying to make sense of his brother’s suicide attempt: himself. And yet, nothing O’Brien has written since he first dared to put his story to paper has been just for himself—there are no private catharses.

O’Brien writes his memoir, plays, operas, and poems for anyone with a loved one struggling with depression or mental health issues. For anyone with a parent or sibling whom they’ve had a falling out with. For anyone with a spouse diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, or who has received a diagnosis themselves. 

He writes for everyone looking for, as O’Brien said, “the beauty and the meaning in the chaos.”

By delving headlong into the most complicated, personal, implicative narratives in his own life and in the lives of those he cares about most, O’Brien is doing for others what the confessional poets did for him.

“If I can write something that might be helpful to other people in some small way . . . I feel lucky to have that goal in mind,” he said.

The wherewithal to confront these intricacies and implications with raw honesty and empathy, as O’Brien said, is also his liberal arts education come full circle:

“My experience at Middlebury dovetails almost perfectly with the idea of being a writer, these ideas of a constant curiosity and learning for learning’s sake.”

Much like his senior thesis play, he said his induction into Phi Beta Kappa was incredibly affirming—an indication that he could be one of the professional writers he spent his adolescence in admiration of.

“Doing something so personal, something I was so passionate about, it made me feel even more confident that I could make a go of it,” O’Brien said.

And he’s still going.

Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an interdisciplinary degree in journalism, film, and creative writing. He was inducted into the Delta of North Carolina chapter several weeks before his graduation.