Saturday, June 23, 2012

"How to Tell a True War Story" by Tim O'Brien

"How do you generalize?
     War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead."

I've been thinking about O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story" (the seventh piece in the collection/novel The Things They Carried) because I've been thinking about teaching. How do you explain that successful works of art combine resolution, a feeling of completeness, with irresolution, the sense that some other alternative, a wolf with great teeth or the ghost of a murderous white whale, waits just outside the door? We can say, "It is both ways, many ways, never one," but that is only a rule, a generalization, useful, but abstracted instead of actual. 

O'Brien's story gives us the generalizations paired, and that helps. It engages the mind's logic, the drive toward inquiry. How do you generalize? How do you tell a true war story? How do you tell any true story? It's the piece's main line of tension. As we read, we think we may come closer to an answer. We also get more pieces of the dramatic war story interspersed with the speaker's attempt to answer questions, but we know the essentials very early on: Rat Kiley's best friend "gets killed" (75). 

But that line doesn't say what's essential, and alone, no line in the story can. No single line any writer could pen would capture it. It needs to be told over and over again: "You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (83). 


  1. This entry is thought-provoking. So how do you teach it, that sort of artful ambiguity? And how do you teach vision? (I used to discuss this with Michael a lot, but we never came to any satisfying answers.)

    I always thought the best way is to let the student write (and almost always fail at it), give them open-ended, nonabrasive, but still challenging feedback, then let them jump back to the act. Lead them to water. That takes forever, though--a lifetime maybe. It's not something one could accomplish in a term.

    The trick seems to be showing them how to sharpen the intuition, learning when to trust their gut, no? O'Brien seems like a good author to use as a guide: fine literary writing, but with teeth and a bit of grit. This seems like a hard thing to teach even to grad-level students. It's probably more difficult than covering pure craft topics. It seems, also, that when students start incorporating a lot of craft concepts, they play things a little safer with their writing. That's one reason that teaching critical reading is every bit as important as teaching "creative writing." (Great blog!)

    1. Yeah-- I think vision is something you teach yourself in lots of ways, and over a long period of time. I probably start to think about it when I begin a new course because it helps me keep perspective and remember why I'm going over all the craft stuff in the first place-- it all serves this larger thing. Your observation that students are safer when they first learn to incorporate craft concepts is so apt. I've crashed into that wall over the last couple years! Thanks for commenting!

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