‘The Things They Carried’ author says writing about Vietnam was way to ‘salvage that waste’
Lies, two-headed boys and hope. Out of the shared experience of Tim O'Brien's Big Read book, "The Things They Carried," Homer readers received those odd gifts from a visit last week by the writer himself.
Thursday night, high school and college students and local writers attended a master class by O'Brien at Kachemak Bay Campus. The capstone event was on Friday, when O'Brien read from his book and talked about writing at the Mariner Theatre.
At both the writing class and the talk, O'Brien quoted Pablo Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." That phrase could describe "The Things They Carried." A short novel told in a series of short stories, the book is not only about the Vietnam War, but the social chaos raging around it. Clearly labeled "fiction," the novel seems autobiographical. Like O'Brien the author, there's a character named Tim O'Brien who fought in Vietnam. Soldiers in O'Brien's platoon also appear, again by real names. There's a story about O'Brien going back to Vietnam after the war with his daughter — except he said on Friday that late in life in his 60s he finally became the father of two boys.
As Big Read and Friends of the Homer Public Library coordinator Erin Hollowell noted in her introduction of O'Brien, part of what's interesting about "The Things They Carried" is how it blurs the boundaries between story and truth.
The audience on Friday got a taste of that when O'Brien read "On the Rainy River," a chapter of "The Things They Carried." Actually, O'Brien didn't read it so much as tell it.
"I'm retelling it to you knowing you've read it," he said. "Giving you the connection between life and literature."
"On the Rainy River" is one of the non-Vietnam parts of the novel, about the summer when the narrator, Tim O'Brien, has been drafted and contemplates his future going off to Vietnam. He had protested the war in college and didn't believe in it. Coming from a conservative Minnesota town, O'Brien said he thought about running away to Canada, where he couldn't be extradited for resisting the draft. If he ran away, he said he couldn't imagine the scorn and gossip his parents would endure.
One day, he left home and just drove — "it was just motion" — and wound up at the Tip Top Lodge on the Rainy River across the border from Canada. An old man, Elroy, took him in, and for six days Tim stayed at the lodge.
"To this day he's the hero of my life," O'Brien said of Elroy.
One day, Elroy took him fishing in a boat on the Rainy River, and they anchored 20 yards from the Canadian shore. In that boat, so near to escape, he started bawling.
"What was I crying about? I was crying because I knew somehow by being that close to the Canadian shore I wasn't going to Canada," O'Brien said. "I realized I was a coward going to that war."
Why a coward?
"If you believe something is wrong, and you do it anyway, and you're afraid, I don't know what cowardice is," O'Brien said. "I was afraid of gossip … I was afraid of embarrassment, and that was what I was crying about."
As the audience sat somberly, sharing O'Brien's grief and confusion, he then pulled the rug out from under them.
"It's not true," O'Brien said. "No Elroy. No Tip Top Lodge. I've never been to Rainy River."
The literal truth is that the summer before he went to Vietnam, O'Brien played a lot of golf. "On the Rainy River" is still true, though.
"It's true emotionally," he said.
There's a resonance like that between O'Brien's book and the war itself.
"The reasons for the war were extremely messy and ambiguous," he said.
Other things were certain, like death.
"The best you can say about Vietnam, the very best you can say, certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons," O'Brien said. "Truth itself gets undermined. That's the thing I'm getting at in 'The Things They Carried.'"
That dichotomy is like his son, Tad, O'Brien said. He told an anecdote about when his youngest son was 5 and the boy peed in a wicker basket in the bathroom. O'Brien asked his son why he did it, and Tad said it was because he had two heads.
"One head said, 'Daddy's not going to like this,' and the other head said, 'This is going to be fun,'" O'Brien said Tad told him.
Life is like that, where we go through the world with two heads, O'Brien said. Should I go to Canada? Should I go to war? On the one hand this, on the one hand that.
At the writing class, O'Brien talked little about Vietnam, saying that at 66 he finds writing more interesting. At the public talk, though, with an audience of gray haired men and women who grew up during the Vietnam War era and might even have fought in it, O'Brien talked more about the war.
"It was unrelenting nastiness. You're endlessly and always tired. Pretty soon the fatigue becomes part of your soul," he said. "You're carrying all this stuff — the things you carry."
From childhood, O'Brien had always known he was a writer, and so he told himself that if he survived Vietnam, he'd write about it. It became something so life shattering he ended up talking about it the rest of his life.
"You want to testify," he said. "Not just the details, but the hope that comes out of survival."
In an odd way, Vietnam gave him a story.
"I think I've salvaged something out of that waste, the way someone salvaged something out of a bad marriage or a concentration camp," O'Brien said.
He writes about Vietnam for another reason, too, he said. Somewhere in Florida he imagines the mother of one of his fellow soldiers, a man killed, who wakes up every night saying, "Where's my baby? Where's my baby?"
"I write not just for him — he's dead. I write for her, and for the casualties of the war," he said. "I write partly as a voice for those who can't get up here and do it."
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Advice and comments from Author Tim O'Brien
At a writing class at Kachemak Bay Campus, Tim O'Brien's talk ranged from keeping prose moving to the point of fiction. Here are some quotes and advice for writers he gave in that talk:
• "I work by trial and error — mostly error."
• "Fiction exists for a reason. You can reach beyond what is into what could be, what should be."
• "I'm a believer in animation in fiction. The world is not static."
• "We're so wrapped up in the dialogue, we forget what's around it."
• "Sometimes the tension between what is said and what is done is the heart of the story."
• "You do enough to make it feel entertaining — entertaining in a rich way. If there's too much, you can't behold it all."
• "Trust your story. Trust it. Trust it."
• "To trust in a story in the end is to trust in the extraordinary. Something out of the ordinary occurs."
• "It isn't sufficient to be clear. It isn't sufficient to be funny."
• "The world is not relentlessly sad. The world is not relentlessly funny."
• "Avoid editing your own imagination."
• "There are contradictory tensions that are essential…. I believe in contradictions. That's how the world is."
• "Prose itself: How do you teach that? You teach that yourself. Pay attention to the inner ear."
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