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.





Writing Well – Meaning, Sense and Clarity

In MentorTom Grimes writes about the genesis and history of his friendship with Frank Conroy, author of the memoir Stop-Time, novel Body and Soul and former director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Although some have not seen Grimes’s book in a favorable light, I found the book very valuable.  But that’s probably because I’m a know-nothing aspiring writer.

Nevertheless, if one is to write well, the writing must have meaning, make sense and be clear.  Simple wisdom enough for a writer but not always easy.  I’m speaking for myself.  Early on in Mentor, Grimes takes us into one of the workshops at Iowa, room 457 where Conroy is about to begin class.  Grimes writes

Frank didn’t take attendance.  Instead, he went directly to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk.  He wrote: meaning, sense, clarity (Grimes 24).

Conroy then tell the class, “If you don’t have these, you don’t have a reader” (24).  Next, Grimes writes, Conroy

Moved sideways and drew an arc.  At its bases, he wrote: writer, reader.  At the top of the arc he wrote: zone (24).

Conroy's Arc
The arc described by Frank Conroy in Mentor by Tom Grimes.

Grimes writes how Conroy breaks it down

The writer cocreates the text with the reader.  If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading (24).

Grimes continues citing Conroy

If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading.  So, you want to meet the reader halfway (24).

Conroy's Arc-1
Reasons why a reader may disengage.

Conroy then, according to Grimes, circled the word zone and said to the students, “That’s where you want to be” (24).

Opinions will vary obviously on the best ways to arrive at meaning, sense and clarity in a piece of writing.  To talk about how to perfect each of these in a writing seems an endless and monumental task considering how many resources and opinions are available.  For now, I just want to look at meaning.

First of all, meaning may differ depending on genre. How is infusing fiction with meaning different from the meaning required in nonfiction whether it’s a memoir or essay?  For example, one meaning in a short story may be directly related to a character’s fulfillment of some particular need.  Secondly, what is the meaning behind what a character says or does?  What is the meaning in the events that happen?  Is the meaning, a life lesson?  For example, in my short story “Blank“, there is meaning in the ending.  It’s not just about a guy who gets hit in the head with a baseball and loses his memory.  No.  It’s really about appreciating people in your life before it’s too late, before they’re gone.

Meaning, in nonfiction, may be related to a particular question or problem the writer attempts to solve.  For example, author Eula Biss, responding to the question, “How do you define creative nonfiction?” says, “I guess I could say that I pursue questions that interest me in ways that interest me on the page, but that’s awfully vague.  Phillip Lopate once wrote that part of the pleasure of reading a personal essay is the pleasure of watching a well-stocked mind grapple with whatever questions or problem it encounters.”

When asked if she returns “to a similar set of questions with each project” Biss says, “I think there is a preoccupation, in all three of my books, with what it means to lead a good life.  ‘Good’ in the sense of rewarding or fulfilling, but also in the moral sense…the question of what constitutes a good life is there in all of them.”


Trying to answer a question or deal with a problem can certainly give your writing meaning.  It’s a good reminder.  For example, if one is writing a memoir, should that memoir try to answer a question or problem about one’s life?  If not, what guides the writing?  Or is a memoir merely a series of random life vignette’s?  If we tell them, why?  Are they connected in any meaningful way?

In later posts, I hope to touch on sense and clarity along with trying to answer what a writer must do to get and keep a reader in the zone.




A writer can do so much with one word.  They can have so many ideas for a word, they know not which idea to use to write and so they may end up paralyzed; they may have a head full of ideas but they also have a blank page.  Yes, that happens to me all the time.  I find myself wanting to do too much with the one from the Daily Prompt.  I’m sure I’m the only one with this problem.  Do you take the word of the day and write a poem, some flash fiction or a nonfiction piece?  Take today’s word for example:  Transformation.  Am I to write about a person’s transformation?  And if so, whose?  Mine?  A character?  Someone I know?  A student?  A teacher?  Or is the transformation of a place, a neighborhood, city, state, home, etc.  Or maybe it’s the transformation of ideas, beliefs, institutions?  Ay caramba!

When I wrote “Brick” and “Blank,” I felt a lot of pressure, assigned by myself of course, to create something good, unique and under the one day deadline.  Whether the works were good and unique I’ll let another decide.  Because I’ve been writing a short story collection, flash fiction seemed right because I was already in the habit of writing fiction.  Flash fiction is more like one scene.  I could use those scenes later in another work.  It’s practice at least.  To me, one word is not enough for one day because the poem, the story or the nonfiction narrative can always be improved upon and that could take forever, like drinking an ocean with a straw.

I don’t need to transform my expectations of what or how I write so much as I need to be reminded that what I write will either stand finished as I complete it, like it or not, or, what I write will serve a much greater purpose down the road.  Like an ace up my sleeve.

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Buck and Tom peered in from the window and could only see the mother at the kitchen. She stood over the stove, stirring something that caused their stomachs to rumble.  The house was bare and neat with very simple furniture, a floral print couch and two mismatched chairs, a coffee table.  Buck felt the slow crawl of something down the back of his neck.  He smacked at it but it was only sweat.  Tom’s head swiveled left to right, watching.  In the distance, a set of headlights cut through night.

“What do you think she’s cooking?” asked Buck.

“Chicken probably,” replied Tom, laughing.  Buck snickered.

They looked inside, studying the house.

“Will you just get on with it,” said Tom, there waiting for us back at the house.  “They said this was easy.  Come on.”

Buck looked at the brick in his hand and tossed it lightly two times in his hand, studying its weight.

“You can’t throw it from here anyway,” said Tom, “you’ll have to move, like over there,” he said, pointing to some bushes farther away.  

“Don’t you think I know that!  This isn’t my first time you know!  I just wanted to see them up close, that’s all,” growled Buck at his friend.

“Yeah well I hope you would hurry up.  It’s just a little scare, remember, Boone wants us back as soon as possible,” said Tom.

She moved to the cupboard and grabbed some bowls, next a drawer for silverware.  Buck watched her set the table.  He’d seen this done a hundred times at home.  Suddenly, their shadows were thrown against the house.  A police car cruised by behind them, they crouched low and fast like like frightened animals as they watched the cruiser roll away.  When it was safe, they stood up.  They looked back inside the house and found a little boy and girl sitting across from each other at the dinner table.  The mother grabbed the pot and walked it carefully to the table, her lips blowing at the food inside.  She said something to the children and they laughed, smiled.  Buck’s grip on the brick loosened.

“Let’s get it over with,” said Tom, shoving buck in the shoulder.

“Wait,” replied Buck, something new in his voice.

She poured a hot soup of potatoes, carrots and beef into the girl’s bowl first and then the boy’s.  Buck and Tom watched.  The boy looked into his bowl, a dissatisfied look on his face.  He mouthed something to his mother.  She replied by looking into the bowl too and bringing her hands to her hips.  The boy spoke again.  This time, Buck made out the word please.  She poured another scoop into his bowl and he smiled.  She poured herself her bowl.

“Are you gonna throw the brick or not?” said Tom, angrily.

Buck watched.

She sat down in a chair at the head of the table, scooting her chair closer in.  She extended a hand to each of her children, and they took it.  She looked at the boy and spoke.  They closed their eyes and the boy prayed for their food, the way Buck had seen it done a hundred times at home.  

“No, I’m not throwing it this time,” Buck told Tom, dropping the brick and walking away.


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