By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. – Renowned author Tim O’Brien wowed a standing-room-only audience Monday evening with a reading of “How to Tell a True War Story” from his acclaimed novel “The Things They Carried” about his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Earlier that day, he explored time, truth, and why he loathes to write but loves story.
Invited by the Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series and primary sponsor Gonzaga’s Center for Public Humanities, O’Brien discussed how the war changed him after being drafted right out of college.
“I went to the war young and I came home the oldest man on earth,” O’Brien said in the afternoon session. “As any foot solider will tell you, you go to war full of kind of a romantic, idealized naïve image of yourself in the world and you learn, among other things, about your own mortality, which you know about intellectually but you don’t confront.”
While writers’ primary influence is experience, writers – like most people – remember little, he said.
“Very little of yesterday remains. How much of the day before yesterday do you remember? Or of three weeks ago? Or of March 3, 1999 – almost nothing. And yet we all think we know each other and know ourselves,” he said. “When I write about Vietnam, I’m going on only the flimsiest of memory, the haziest of memory. Most of Vietnam, like most of life in general, has been erased for me. In fact, it was erased as it was happening. The mosquitoes and the endless drudgery of the march and the digging of foxholes and the going into villages and the coming out of villages when they all become one village. It’s all vapor except for a few heavily punctuated moments of terror and even those are kind of in vapor.”
Decorated with a Purple Heart, O’Brien does recall being wounded.
“I can remember looking down and seeing a red can come sailing out of this deep brush,” he said, noting the homemade hand grenade landed three feet from him. “I remember four or five centuries going by and then the hand grenade exploded.” His next memory was of surprise that he was alive.
A difficulty for writers trying to be honest is how “truth changes over time,” he said.
“The world was once flat; that was true – then. It changed when we discovered the world was spherical,” he said, noting truth is perceptual, like belief in Santa Claus.
“Your perception of things changes as you mature and learn about the world. I once thought I was a good guy and could never do anything naughty in the world,” he said. “I believed that about myself. Then there was this terrible collision with Vietnam and I learned what I was capable of.”
Also, contradictory truths can exist side-by-side, he said. While there are many examples of American honor, there are equally true stains on our history such as slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and McCarthyism, he said.
“It gets complicated. We tend to generalize about truths because of the complications,” he said. “All this stuff sounds abstract until you’re in the middle of it yourself, until you’re in a war and you’re killing people. Then, the abstractions are no longer abstract and this truth-fiction thing begins to blur in your own head.”
In the end, we’re all mysteries unto ourselves, he said.
“And we’re always going to be mysteries to ourselves,” he said. “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Because the ‘you’ you are now is not the ‘you’ you’re going to be tomorrow, nor when you’re an old man.”
O’Brien said he hates “every second” of writing and dreads and despises its awful subjectivity. He’s written less to spend more time as a father to his sons, ages 11 and 13. Still, his lifelong love of story bring him back to the solitary craft.
“You work as hard as you can to write a paragraph of what you want to be beautiful prose – and beautiful doesn’t mean flowery or decorative, it just means fresh and alive,” he said. “There’s a subjectivity where even you, the author, change minute-by-minute, second-by-second. Do I use that word or that word?”
He compares writing to picking a scab.
“You pick it and pick it and pick it and finally you just surrender – you don’t win. There’s no logical answer to whether you should use the word ‘evolved’ or the word ‘hardened,’” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve been for my entire life a lover of story. It’s in my genes or DNA. It’s in the child I once was.”
Ultimately, stories are not only about the world as it is but also as it should have been or could be.
“Story,” he said, “is what brings me back at 1:30 in the morning every day and makes me get out of bed then and face what I hate because I love story.”