Writing About Anguish Beyond Words

How to convey the horror of war to someone who’s never witnessed it? It’s language, not the pain of remembering, that makes the task so hard.
  • Transcript


Question: How do you resolve the tension between the impossibility of conveying war’s horrors and the need to try?

Tim O’Brien: Well, through story, essentially.  The hope is that, when you do what I do, and you write novels, you are hoping for a sense of feeling to come through in the end.  That through non-fiction, the brain is engaged and the head is engaged primarily.  Not always just that, but primarily.  And with fiction, telling invented stories, the hope is that through the story, the reader lying in bed at night, or reading the book on the subway, or the bus, will sort of leave the bus or leave the bed and be transported to Madame Bovary’s bedroom.  And you’re kind of there, half a witness and half a participant in a story.  And my hope is that those who read "The Things They Carried," to my other books too.  You hope that they’re feel a certain identification thing that happens in a story, where you’re rooting for people, you know, or hoping the villain is caught, or your emotional take on—you’re in it, not just observing it the way you observe CNN, or observe the Fox Channel with disgust.

Question: How do you resolve that same tension in your own life?

Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I’ve ever tried to resolve it.  It’s just one of those things that just kind of resolves itself.  When I speak about Vietnam, or when I write about it, I’m not—my own selfhood kind of evaporates.  I’m interested in what’s occurring on the page and I’m interested in what’s going to become to these characters and I’m interested in the moral struggles they’re going through.  And I don’t—My attention is on the making of an object, in a way.  In an artifact, the way a sculpture may look at a piece of stone.  And you may have a vision for what you want that stone to become, but part of what you do is just, the stone kind of leaves you to what it’s going to become.  A vein of minerals may run through it, and ah, that’s there, that could become this.  And that’s a bit like writing fiction.  A bit of dialogue may pop out of a character’s mouth that’s unplanned, and unintentional on my part.  I have no volition over it, it seems to appear.  I know that it’s coming from somewhere inside my head and my history and my imagination, but it doesn’t feel as if I’m willing it and making it happen by volition; it’s appearing. 

Stories have a way of pulling you along, kind of chasing the story as you are writing it, and it doesn’t feel as if I’m playing that old childhood game of connecting dots, that they’ve all been planned and I’m just going to write sentences to connect it all.  It feels more as if I’m on a riverboat and watching people and scenery go by, and the novel, or story, as that feel of a voyage in which I’m partly a participant and partly a witness.

Question: Do you feel fresh anguish when writing about anguishing experiences?

Tim O’Brien: I wish I could say yes, because it would sound so much "Big Think-y," but the act of writing for me is largely the act of following sentences and making sentences.  And for most people that probably is the time to click off and look at something else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a sentence.  For example, the sentence, "This is true," began one of my stories.  I wrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea.  Then I wrote another sentence to follow that: "A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley."  Well, I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious about or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the character going to say is true, and does this character really mean it?  Does he really mean it’s true?  And to what degree does this character think it’s true?  And how can anybody say "this is true" without a little tongue-in-cheek action going on?  So, it’s a discovery, and what I think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, out of a scrap of language.  It’s forgotten by readers, I think, or largely forgotten, that there are 26 letters in the alphabet and some punctuation marks and that’s all we’ve got.  And that is what I work with sitting in my underwear, day after day, year after year.  I use 26 letters and these punctuation marks.  And out of that, characters come and moral quandaries are explored.  But in the end, the work of writing unfortunately is really the battling with A, B, C, D, and that comma which is so incalcitrant.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen