Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Things We Carry

Visiting author vies for function of fiction

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Tim O'Brien, author of (among other things) The Things They Carried, a book of short stories that center on the Vietnam War. I read the title story when I was in college and the rest of the book earlier this year, and I enjoyed it immensely. When I learned he would be speaking on campus, I knew it was something I wanted to attend.

This is one of the major advantages of living near the university. Besides the fine athletic events that I enjoy so much, there are also frequent cultural events, and most of them are free and open to the public. I don't take advantage of this as much as I should, mostly because I don't usually about the events until after they happen (if then). I found out about Mr. O'Brien's visit to campus on a fluke. I think I'll make it a point to check the BGSU events calendar on a more regular basis (as well as the Creative Writing Department's reading schedule, which for some reason is not integrated with the events calendar). That website is terrible, but at least there's some info if you're willing to look for it.

There were a lot of people at the speech, and I was glad about that. I think I heard someone say there were 400 chairs set up, and some people had to sit on the floor or adjourn to an "overflow room" to watch the speech via video feed. My habit of arriving early to events paid off as I was able to snag a prime aisle seat in the fifth row, so I had one of the best seats in the house.

I was a little surprised when Mr. O'Brien took the stage, because he didn't look much like the author photo on the back of my book. He actually looks a little bit like James Caan. He claimed to be uncomfortable making a speech, but he was quite natural. He did have a speech prepared, but he was even a little better when he deviated from it and just spoke off-the-cuff.

I'm always interested to hear fellow writers talk about their craft. It's fascinating to hear about the way they approach it and their insights into the process. It so happens that the thrust of Mr. O'Brien's speech expressed a thought I've had about fiction for quite some time, and hearing him talk about it has helped me think of a way to articulate it. Fiction--good fiction--is a lie that illustrates the truth. He used as an example his story "Ambush" in which the narrator kills an enemy soldier in Vietnam. O'Brien himself is the narrator in that story, but he explained that the events in the story never actually happened. However, he says the story does deal with the feelings he has over the possibility that he killed a man in the war, feelings the narrator has to deal with directly because he's brought face-to-face with his victim. So while the events of the story were lies (fiction), the heart of the story is true.

Of course, he also cautioned against putting too much stock into the concept of truth. "Beware of the word 'truth,' especially if it's capitalized," were his exact words, because it's relative to a point of view. The example he used for this idea revolved around the statements "America is a country of the free" and "America once allowed slavery." These are contradictory ideas, but both are true, and the reality of contradictory truths is something we all have to deal with at some point.

Somewhat along the same lines, Mr. O'Brien also told a story about an incident from his youth that helped to shape him as a writer. This same incident also caused a couple of ordinary words ("turtle" and "engine") to take on additional meaning for him, so that he can't think of them the way most people do. This is an underlying element in a theme that holds great interest for me and that I try to touch on in my own writing. Over time, this happens to all of us, that certain words take on additional meanings beyond their ordinary usage. It's little wonder, then, that so frequently two (or more) people can have a conversation in the same language and yet fail to communicate. Because words can have different connotations, we can be operating on different planes despite the commonality of language.

I really enjoyed the speech, and I would like to read some more of his work. I would recommend The Things They Carried to anyone, as it's very well written and interesting. I got my copy of the book signed by Mr. O'Brien after the speech, and I wish I could have sat down to talk to him for a while about some of his ideas about fiction.

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