On Writing from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

A close friend in California read this book in college and I remember him telling me how great it was.  I was reading something a while ago which mentioned this book so I decided to check it out from the library.

I love when I am reading a book and the writer digresses a bit to talk about the writing process, how they see it and how it works for them.  As I read The Things They Carried, I came across this passage below.  O’Brien writes:

I feel guilty sometimes.  Forty-three years old and I’m still writing war stories.  My daughter Kathleen tells me it’s an obsession, that I should write about a little girl who finds a million dollars and spends it all on a shetland pony.  In a way, I guess, she’s right.  I should forget it.  But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present.  The memory traffic feeds into a rotary up in your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets.  As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you.  That’s the real obsession.  All those stories. (p.33)

Sentiment can trap a writer.  I don’t necessarily find things to care about and write about them.  Those things are already within me.  They’re like a child that rises in the morning and says, “Here I am.  Good morning.  Write about me.”  But who wants to write about the same thing all the time?  O’Brien says, “But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget.”  Ain’t that the truth.  I could see why O’Brien would be drawn to war writing: he was in one.  Experiences like those you don’t forget.  It’s day in, day out.  It’s separation from family.  It’s death, the fog of war, the loss of friends, the loss of control.  War leaves a heavy fingerprint.  Some never figure anything out, there’s no communication, verbal or written.  It all gets repressed.  Someone snaps.

With writing, there’s figuring.

The intersection of past and present is crossed sitting down, wherever to write.  I am drawn to what I know and to what I’ve lived.  Lately it’s where I’ve lived.  I write and travel.  I cannot visit California and so the stories take me there.  I grew up there, lived there, sentiment’s got me.  Home is hard to extract.  Fiction helps.  Memoir pulls you in, laces its arm within yours and says, “Let’s go.”  With fiction though, you can get farther from sentiment, especially that one thing, that topic-stalker with ego.

Day in and day stuff, work, family, home are large and always there.  One could always write about these things.  One could say the same things over and over yet still have so much to say.  To say these things are important is not enough.  That’s evident but why say anything more?  Because life changes, circumstances change, people change.  And everyday, we miss something because we can’t say or see it all.  Maybe that’s why we go back.

To not write about the same thing over and over, doesn’t require much.  Observe life and see the opportunities for stories everywhere.  Irony.  A lifeguard who can’t swim.  A milk man whose lactose intolerant.  Triangles.  Conflicts between three people.  Sit down and write.  It doesn’t take much but it sure is difficult.





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