"By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others."
"That's a true story that never happened."
"And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen."
"True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can't believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside. It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe. " [oh my dear writing students, are you listening to this???]
"Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometime remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
Tim O'Brien, I love you. I've loved you since 1999 when, in my college English capstone course, my favorite professor had us read the only book worth reading that term, In the Lake of the Woods (a novel about murder, politics, policy, lies, truth, fear, Vietnam, loneliness, haunting, terror, love, loss that surely comes as close to making you BE the 60's and 70's as any writing ever has). Later, I read the book which the above quotes are from, The Things They Carried-- the most evocative, well crafted piece of fiction / nonfiction I've maybe ever read (top 10 certainly). What is truth? Can't fiction be a more powerful truth? Does it matter what is true, what isn't? As a writer, the above quotes define how I think, why I write--I'd guess for many writers this is the case, especially the idea of making your stomach believe. Which is why my freshman composition students will always read this book in my class, and why they always respond so positively to it.
O'Brien is here at UNL for two weeks, and the last two nights I've heard a very down to earth writer speak charmingly, candidly, with great humor and timing (a good writer who speaks well to an audience, too? Who is human? VERY rare--paid well or not, even though I'm sure he's being paid quite handsomely.). Tonight he wore jeans, a tie, a suit jacket, and the requisite baseball cap. He writes in his underwear. And he's from Minnesota--what isn't to like? Read him. These books are pieces of writing that can save your life no matter who you are or what you do. A cliche to say, but I deeply believe that this is rare writing, forever writing, writing that can lead us--only in moments of course, which is the grace and burden of life--to where we could, are supposed to be, but may never be. That seems like a terrifying prospect.