Tim O’Brien, Texas State University – San Marcos Endowed Chair in Creative Writing, visited our class today to talk about the story we read for our class out of his book, “The Things They Carried” which is a fictional account of soldiers (Army) in Vietnam and the “things” they carried physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
My friend Nettie told me that he was a good writer (and a good man) and she was sure right about that. He began his talk, before he opened it up for Q&A, about his creative writing process (he’s written several books and received numerous awards) which I was particularly interested in hearing about since I love to write.
Tim said that everyday, rain or shine, no matter the holiday or celebration; he writes 8 hours a day. He correlated writing to being similar to dreaming and that “if I leave it too long, for 2-3 days, I lose the passion for what I wanted to write about”. I sure do understand that. He also said that the second part of his writing process was endless revisions of his writing. He said that 95-98% of his what he does every day is revision and that he learns about his story as he is writing. I wonder often if my friend Cyndi will ever publish the book she’s been writing on for quite awhile now because of her endless revisions, but Tim gave me a new perspective on Cyndi’s process. She’s just fine tuning while learning and someday, hopefully, she’ll share it with us all if we’re lucky!
One of the points Tim made about “learning as he is writing” is that it took about a month and a half for him to get a sense of what “The Things They Carried” was about. He knew that they definitely carried physical stuff, so he began to write about what he knew and then as he wrote he also realized soldiers carried emotional, mental and spiritual stuff as well. He discovered that he was writing a story about what we all carried. He also used the word “carry” (or variations of it) to help get the point across about the burdens that were carried through word repetition.
He spoke about some of his experiences in Nam, such as his platoon coming upon My Lai about a year after the massacre, and seeing the destruction and desimation. He said a lot of things, but the quote that made a point in my head was “a bullet or bomb cannot only kill the enemy, but it can manufacture the enemy”.
I know that I am very interested in Vietnam because of how the war impacted my own family. In 1968-1969, my parents divorced and my father did two tours then (as well as TTY’s to Japan in the early 60’s) to Nam as a pilot in the Air Force. I think my parents did a good job of buffering the horror of the war that was coming across our television as well as the reality of my Dad’s going to war from completely devestating my brother and I, but there were still a lot of questions about it in my head. What I understood about the war when my father returned was that he did not want to talk about it much. Every now and again, my Dad would share some things but not a whole lot. It wasn’t until years later that my Dad, after 2-3 vodkas straight up, would tell us about some of his experiences as a pilot. Some of his duties included flying down canyons to draw out enemy fire and take photos of them, at night and then have to make return trips until all the film was used (this was before digital cameras!).
Today, I also understand better the burdens that my Dad carried when he returned from war and continued his career in the military. I respect him for his convictions even if I don’t always agree with them. What I did see happen in our class today as a result of Tim speaking with us is that there were some Iraq vets in our class who have never spoken a word over the entire semester, who asked Tim questions. We know there is power in people helping people and most assuredly in vets helping vets.
I wonder what it would be like to have a symposium, retreat, class that offered veterans and civilians the chance to ask questions of each other and to talk about their experiences. Tim spoke about the “distance between those in Viet Nam and those not at war” and that while in Nam, they would refer to going back to the states as “going back to the world” because their experience did feel so other worldly.
One of the students in our class asked if Tim thought that there would be writers from the Iraqi/Afghanistan War writing and he defiinitely believed they are now and that they will be others once they woke up.
It is my hope that this time we can have more interaction and more conversation about the experiences of war and at home so that we can learn from each other and come together instead of isolating.