Writing About Anguish Beyond Words

Question: How do you resolve the tension \r\nbetween the\r\nimpossibility of conveying war’s horrors and the need to try?


Tim O’Brien: Well, through story, \r\nessentially.  The hope is that, when you do what I\r\ndo, and you write novels, you are hoping for a sense of feeling to come \r\nthrough\r\nin the end.  That through\r\nnon-fiction, the brain is engaged and the head is engaged primarily.  Not always just that, but\r\nprimarily.  And with fiction,\r\ntelling invented stories, the hope is that through the story, the reader\r\n lying\r\nin bed at night, or reading the book on the subway, or the bus, will \r\nsort of\r\nleave the bus or leave the bed and be transported to Madame Bovary’s\r\nbedroom.  And you’re kind of there,\r\nhalf a witness and half a participant in a story.  And\r\n my hope is that those who read "The Things They\r\nCarried," to my other books too. \r\nYou hope that they’re feel a certain identification thing that \r\nhappens\r\nin a story, where you’re rooting for people, you know, or hoping the \r\nvillain is\r\ncaught, or your emotional take on—you’re in it, not just observing it \r\nthe way\r\nyou observe CNN, or observe the Fox Channel with disgust.


Question: How do you resolve that same \r\ntension in your own\r\nlife?


Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I’ve ever tried \r\nto\r\nresolve it.  It’s just one of those\r\nthings that just kind of resolves itself. \r\nWhen I speak about Vietnam, or when I write about it, I’m not—my \r\nown\r\nselfhood kind of evaporates.  I’m\r\ninterested in what’s occurring on the page and I’m interested in what’s \r\ngoing\r\nto become to these characters and I’m interested in the moral struggles \r\nthey’re\r\ngoing through.  And I don’t—My\r\nattention is on the making of an object, in a way.  In\r\n an artifact, the way a sculpture may look at a piece of\r\nstone.  And you may have a vision\r\nfor what you want that stone to become, but part of what you do is just,\r\n the\r\nstone kind of leaves you to what it’s going to become.  A\r\n vein of minerals may run through it,\r\nand ah, that’s there, that could become this.  And\r\n that’s a bit like writing fiction.  A bit of \r\ndialogue may pop out of a\r\ncharacter’s mouth that’s unplanned, and unintentional on my part.  I have no volition over it, it seems to\r\nappear.  I know that it’s coming\r\nfrom somewhere inside my head and my history and my imagination, but it \r\ndoesn’t\r\nfeel as if I’m willing it and making it happen by volition; it’s\r\nappearing. 


Stories have a way of pulling you along, kind of \r\nchasing the\r\nstory as you are writing it, and it doesn’t feel as if I’m playing that \r\nold\r\nchildhood game of connecting dots, that they’ve all been planned and I’m\r\n just\r\ngoing to write sentences to connect it all.  It \r\nfeels more as if I’m on a riverboat and watching people\r\nand scenery go by, and the novel, or story, as that feel of a voyage in \r\nwhich\r\nI’m partly a participant and partly a witness.


Question: Do you feel fresh anguish when \r\nwriting about\r\nanguishing experiences?


Tim O’Brien: I wish I could say yes, because\r\n it would sound\r\nso much "Big Think-y," but the act of writing for me is largely the act \r\nof\r\nfollowing sentences and making sentences. \r\nAnd for most people that probably is the time to click off and \r\nlook at\r\nsomething else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a \r\nsentence.  For example, the sentence, "This is\r\ntrue," began one of my stories.  I\r\nwrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea.  Then I wrote \r\nanother sentence to follow\r\nthat: "A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley."  Well,\r\n I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious\r\nabout or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the\r\ncharacter going to say is true, and does this character really mean it?  Does he really mean it’s true?  And\r\n to what degree does this character\r\nthink it’s true?  And how can\r\nanybody say "this is true" without a little tongue-in-cheek action going\r\non?  So, it’s a discovery, and what\r\nI think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, \r\nout of a\r\nscrap of language.  It’s forgotten\r\nby readers, I think, or largely forgotten, that there are 26 letters in \r\nthe\r\nalphabet and some punctuation marks and that’s all we’ve got.  And that is what I work with sitting in\r\nmy underwear, day after day, year after year.  I \r\nuse 26 letters and these punctuation marks.  And \r\nout of that, characters come and\r\nmoral quandaries are explored.  But\r\nin the end, the work of writing unfortunately is really the battling \r\nwith A, B,\r\nC, D, and that comma which is so incalcitrant.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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