Tim O'Brien, President's Lecture, 21 April 1999

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E. Gordon Gee: Before I introduce Mr. O'Brien, I want to applaud the work of Beth Taylor, one of our rising faculty stars, for organizing this conference (applause) - I didn't even get the words out, Beth, before they applauded - congratulations! Ladies and gentlemen, when I pondered how to start this evening, I had to ask myself the question, which I think, in my business, one often does ask, and that is how does one introduce an acclaimed writer like Tim O'Brien - what does one say about any writer is probably the question. We might say that writers are single-minded and focused, living in their imaginations with the companionship of a host of fictional characters. We may say that they are driven by their craft to give life to this imagination, ideas creating story-truths, as Tim O'Brien calls them, so that we might see the happening-truths, as he says, in a different light. The lesson we learn from talented writers like Tim O'Brien is that writing is a passion; done well, I would submit to you that writing is an art, and Tim O'Brien has proven that he is, indeed, an artist.

His award-winning novel, The Things They Carried, has been called one of the finest volumes of fiction bout the Vietnam War, and Stewart O'Nan, in his Vietnam Reader, called The Things They Carried "a mysterious blending of the real and the imaginary." O'Nan said it makes us feel the loss of friends and innocence, and the resulting confusion that gives the war a deeply personal resonance. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota, the son of an insurance salesman and an elementary school teacher, Mr. O'Brien was a self-professed dreamer and a self-taught magician. He once said that he was inspired to be a writer by his father's personal account of Iwo Jima and Okinawa which had been published in the New York Times. He could not have known, then, reading his father's clippings, how close he had come to what would be the ultimate truth of his life. He was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam as an infantryman; he spent the tour of his duty in Quang Nai province and was stationed in My Lai one year after the My Lai massacre. From a small Midwestern town to Vietnam is, we can imagine, a very long journey, and somewhere on that journey, the writer inside Tim O'Brien was freed. But he was more than merely a witness to the tragedy of the Vietnam war. He was hit by shrapnel in a grenade attack and awarded the Purple Heart. Like his father, he had written and published personal accounts of the war which had made their way into Minnesota newspapers. When he returned from Vietnam, he studied for his doctorate at Harvard's Kennedy School, and while doing so, he experienced his personal accounts into a book which would be, of course, his first. So with the publication of If I Die in a Combat Zone (Box Me Up and Ship Me Home), he began his writing career.

If the test of the writer is to create emotions as well as convey ideas, then Tim O'Brien passed the test with this very first book. He's a keen observer of people, a storyteller, a chronicler, a thinker, a poet, a reporter, he writes hard and his words can be bold, cutting, and as sharp as his perceptions and wit. Perhaps that is why he became a reporter for the Washington Post where, he says, he learned the virtue of tenacity. But after only one year as a journalist, Tim O'Brien decided to turn full-time to writing books, a decision for which, I might note, that we're all very grateful. It is said that Tim O'Brien is a meticulous craftsman, working many hours every day, often tossing out hundreds of pages, to find the few which meet his artistic standard. After completing In the Lake of the Woods, the novel he considers his finest work, Tim O'Brien stopped writing, saying that it had drained him emotionally. He has noted about his own work, "In every book that I have written, I have had the twins of love and evil. They intertwine and intermix; sometimes, if they're hooked the way balances are hooked together, the emotions in war and in our ordinary lives are, if not identical, damn similar." To answer our question, then, what do we say about writers like Tim O'Brien? We say his passions are raw, his words are profound, his imagination is rich, and we hope that he will never again stop writing. It gives me indeed a great-great pleasure to introduce a dreamer, a magician, a soldier, a journalist, an award-winning novelist, one of America's most talented writers, Tim O'Brien. Ladies and gentlemen-


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Tim O'Brien: Thank you. Thanks. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here tonight. I've got a really bad cold-both of my ears are stopped up; I can barely hear my own voice. I've got people in the audience kind of going like this and like this (gestures with hands) to kind of modulate my volume. When I began preparing this little talk, I was very quickly reminded that one of the reasons I became a fiction writer is I don't know anything. I don't mean this in a falsely humble sense. I mean, quite literally, that I have very little to offer you in the way of abstraction or generalization; the sort of thing that can be communicated in a President's Lecture. I'm not a literary historian, I'm not a critic, I'm not a teacher. I spend my days, and a good many of my nights, writing stories. And I don't devote a lot of time or a lot of energy worrying about the hows or the whys of it all, instead taking a kind of lazy man's conviction in the belief that stories require no justification; they just are. It's a conviction, too, I suppose, that abstraction and generalization are precisely the reverse of what I do as a storyteller. Abstraction may make your head believe, but a good story, well told, will also make your kidneys believe, and your scalp and your tear ducts, your heart, and your stomach, the whole human being. In any case, after, I don't know, twenty aborted attempts to compose a lecture for tonight, I finally gave it up, and decided to spend my time with you doing what I do best, which is to tell stories. I did, however, save a few nuggets from my original efforts at a lecture. I just want to share them with you; it'll only take about four seconds:

Number one: writing never gets easier, it gets harder. You can't repeat yourself. Unlike, say, a professional surgeon, you cannot perform precisely the same operation with the same protocol in case after case, and even for a surgeon, this would be risky, if one's first patient happened to end up in a mortuary. Number 2: use active verbs. Avoid ridiculous similes. For example: do not write, "her neck was like a swan's, long and graceful." Instead write, "she honked." Three: avoid unintentional puns. Do not write, "she came in a Jeep." Four (I did that in the Atlantic monthly, believe it or not): Four: avoid alliteration. Do not write, quote, "The red, rollicking river of his tongue rubbed me the wrong way." Instead write, "He kissed me with conviction," or, perhaps, more simply, "He kissed me. I gagged." Finally, as my last salvageable little jewel, I thought it might be helpful to begin by stating the obvious, or what should be obvious, a writer must, above all, write. Joseph Conrad, in a letter to a friend, describes his daily routine: "I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours every day, and the sitting down is all." Note Conrad says he sits down to write every day. Saturdays, Sundays, religiously, he says. Beyond anything, it seems to me, a writer performs this sitting-down act primarily in search of those rare, very intense moments of artistic pleasure that are as real in their way as the pleasures that can come from any other source - the rush of endorphins, for instance, that accompanies the making of a nice little bit of dialogue. And this isn't to say that writing isn't painful - and it is, most of the time - but at the same time, there is no pleasure without the pain. As much as writing hurts, it carries with it, at times, content, satisfaction, which, in part, I think, is what Conrad is getting at when he says, "The sitting down is all." In my own case, I get up at about six-thirty, seven o'clock every day, try to be at work by eight, work until about one o'clock in the afternoon, work out for a couple of hours -. Uh, lifting weights is my hobby, but even when I'm doing that, I'm still writing in my head, going over a bit of dialogue, kind of mumbling aloud, or trying to come up with just that right word that's been eluding me during the morning hours. Take shower, go back to work, and write until about six o'clock at night. I work on Christmas, I work at New Years, my birthday, my girlfriend's birthday - it's all I do. And yet, as monotonous as it might sound to you, it gives me great, great pleasure.

Now, what I thought I -. That's sort of the end of the little prepared thing I'd done. What I want to do with you now is to do - is to tell you, basically, two stories. Uh, the pair of stories are kind of wedded together by the common theme, that I hope will sort of soak through by osmosis. I grew up, as President Gee said, in a small prairie town in southern Minnesota, population, what, nine thousand or so? If you look in a dictionary under the word "boring," you will find a little pen-and-ink illustration of Worthington, Minnesota, where I grew up. On one side of town, of the highway coming into town, you'll see soybeans, on the other side of the highway, fields of corn. It's a place that gives new meaning to the word flat. The town, for reasons unknown, took pride, and to this day still takes pride, in calling itself "The Turkey Capital of the World." Uh, why they took pride in this I'm not quite sure. Every September in my home town, on September fifteenth there is an event called 'Turkey Day." And what Turkey Day consists of is the farmers will put their turkeys in their trucks, uh, drive them into town, dump them in front of the Esso gas station on one end of Main Street, and then they'll herd the turkeys up Main Street, and we, the citizens of Worthington, will all sit on the curbs and watch the turkeys go by (laughs). And then we'd go home. That's our big day! Well, you can imagine what the rest of the days are like.

Imagine yourself as a nine year old, ten year old kid, growing up in this godforsaken place; a place, by the way that's no better and no worse than any town like it across this country of ours; a town full of chatty housewives and holier than thou ministers, and the Kiwanis boys with their, you know, their white belts and their white shoes, and the country club set, a town that congratulates itself, day after day, on its own ignorance of the world: a town that got us into Vietnam. Uh, the people in that town sent me to that war, you know, couldn't spell the word "Hanoi" if you spotted them three vowels. They couldn't do it. In any case, they sent me - well, again, imagine yourself as a nine year old, in my case, boy, growing up in this place. What do you do to escape it? Well, one way to escape it, I found, was through books and through reading, and I spent a great deal of my youth in the Noble's County Library, on Fourth Street in Worthington, reading books like, you know, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer, but also stuff that was essentially crap: books like The Hardy Boys, as an example, for which, you know, the avenue towards literature really doesn't matter much, as long as you like reading, I suppose. It matters later. Then it didn't.

I spent most of my summers as a kid playing a crappy shortstop for the Ben Franklin-store Little League team - couldn't field, couldn't hit, couldn't run, couldn't throw - otherwise, a pretty good shortstop. I remember coming off of Little League practice one afternoon in July. It probably was nineteen fifty-eight, a particularly disastrous, even catastrophic day on the, on the baseball field, and going into the library-it was one of these little Carnegie libraries that dot small-town America, a place that, if I were to close my eyes right now, I could - I would be there. I could see the ceiling fan spinning as you're walking in, and the smell of Johnson's paste wax on the floor, and those smells of - library smells, of paper and books and ink and glue. A kind of, the atmosphere was a kind of place that, as you enter it, instantly makes your bowels kind of relax. You know the feeling, don't you? Kind of peaceful, at-home feeling. Well, on this day, I found a book called - it was as instrumental in my becoming a writer as, say, Marquez or Faulkner - the book was entitled "Larry of the Little League." I read this book in, what, a half an hour or so, but what a half an hour! This kid Larry could do everything I couldn't do: he could field, hit, run, and throw. I finished the book, marched over to the librarian, asked for a pad of paper and a pen, which she gave to me, went back to my desk, and over the course of the next hour and a half, at age nine, possibly ten, composed the first novel of my life, or what I thought of as a novel. The title was "Timmy of the Little League," essentially a rip-off of Larry. It - I remember on the - my mom and dad, I think, still have this aborted effort - I remember on page ten or so of this - it was hand-written, in big handwriting, but on page ten or so, uh, the Worthington Ben Franklin team won the Worthington, uh, Little League, you know, championship. And I, in the character of Timmy, got the game-winning hit. On page twenty or so, the team went up to Minneapolis-St. Paul Little League championship, where the Worthington Ben Franklin team defeated a team from Edina, this kind of ritzy-ditzy, rich people's suburb - you guys would fit in there - a place we really despised, and again, the game-winning hit was by little Timmy, and at the end of the book, on page thirty or whatever it was, when I called it????, the team went to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where they defeated Taiwan, like, eighty to nothing, and again, the game-winning hit was mine.

Well, I tell you this story for a reason; the reason being that writers often forget or neglect to talk about those sources that have very little to do with, you know the Shakespeares, and - all of which is important, I don't mean to denigrate that for an instant, but of equal importance in some ways is that experience in childhood, a source of loneliness and frustration I felt growing up in this town, escape through books, and a discovery of writing through a book like "Larry of the Little League." I learned other practical lessons, I might add, in writing that book, that I don't often talk about --. I certainly don't talk about them in interviews, but among them being that I was writing in that book the story, not of what was, the world I lived in, but the story of what could have been or should have been, which is what fiction is all about. And I could have been a good shortstop, I should have been - I wasn't. But in that book I became another person, assumed a new identity, and lived in another world, the world of success, in this case; a world outside of Worthington, Minnesota, and many years later - uh, what, twenty or something like that - I wrote a novel called Going After Cacciato, my sort of first successful book, that the premise of which was essentially that of "Timmy of the Little League-" a book about a soldier walking away from Vietnam, heading for Paris. Uh, I didn't do it, but I could have, and more importantly, I should have, because, you know, I was so opposed to that war. What's to stop me in the could-have part? You know, I've got the weapon, the water, the rations - the weapon to get more water and rations and - it can't be any more dangerous than Vietnam, just walking over those mountains, and heading through Thailand, and ending up in Paris.

As a fiction writer, I do not write just about the world we live in, but I also write about the world we ought to live in, and could, which is a world of imagination. I grew up, I left Worthington, went to college at a place called Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and during my four years in college, the Vietnam War began more and more raising its head. The war was escalating rapidly, and I spent my four years in Macalaster doing two things sort of simultaneously, and they were contradictory things. One was kind of trying to ignore it all, hoping it would go away, that it wouldn't capture me as a person. I had kind of a smug attitude about it all, thinking, "well, I'm a good student, and smart, and they won't take me as a soldier," I really believed that it was impossible. But by the time I became a senior I began to realize that it was more and more possible. I rang some doorbells for Gene McCarthy, running as a peace candidate. Uh, I was student body president, tried to use that as a, you know, in a minor kind of way, as a way of showing my opposition to the war. Stood in peace vigils on campus - I graduated in May of nineteen sixty-eight, which now seems a lifetime ago, returned to Worthington for the summer. I remember coming off the golf course in an afternoon in mid-June and going to the mailbox, and finding in the mailbox my draft notice. I took it into the kitchen where my mother and father were having lunch, and I dropped it on the table. My father looked at it, and my mom looked at it, and I looked at it, and there was an absolute silence in that kitchen. They knew about my feelings toward the war, how much I despised it, but they also knew I was a child of Worthington, this place, this Turkey Capital place I just told you about. My father had been a sailor in World War Two; my mother was a Wave, you know, a kind of Navy woman. Uh, there was a tradition of service to country in my family.

Well, anyway, a long time passed in that kitchen; it might have been a half an hour, when no one spoke. My mother fiddled at the stove, and my dad would you know, just sort of ate his soup, and, uh, finally he looked up at me and said, "What are you going to do?" And I said, "I don't know. Wait." Which was what I did for the rest of the summer of nineteen sixty-eight. I took a job in a meat-packing plant in my hometown, where I worked on an assembly line eight hours a day, or more properly, a disassembly line. It was a pig factory. The hogs were butchered in one part of the plant, they were strung up by their hind hocks, on a kind of high conveyer belt, and as they came by, my job was, I held a - it looked like a machine gun - it was a thing that was this big, it weighed maybe eighty pounds, and it was suspended from the ceiling by a heavy rubber cord strong enough to actually hold it, but it had some give to it, you could move this thing around. And as the hogs came by, the heads had been cut off, they'd been split open down the belly and pried open, so the blood had all congealed in the neck cavity - they were upside down - and my job was to get rid of the blood clots, essentially, these kind of big, grapefruit-sized clots of blood. And to do this, I'd take this machine which had a roller brush on one end and a trigger on this end, and I'd put the roller brush into the pig's, uh, neck cavity, pull the trigger, the brush would spin, water would come out, and these clots of blood would, uh, would dissolve into kind of a fine red mist. I spent the summer, essentially, breathing pig blood. Not a nice job. And especially not a nice job when one has a draft notice tucked away in a back pocket.

My dreams, obviously, were dreams of slaughter that summer - blood dreams. On top of everything else, I might add, I smelled like a pork chop. You couldn't get that pig factory smell out of your skin and your hair. You know, you'd shower at the plant and then again at home, but you really did smell like bacon or a pork chop as you'd spend your nights, you know, cruising around this small town in your father's car, stopping at the A&W for a root beer, and staring at the town lake, wondering what's going to become of me when the summer is over. Well, I've told this story before, and I've written about it in The Things They Carried, as some of you know, that read it. But parts of the story are hard to tell, and now I'm at one of those points. Near the end of the summer, something happened to me that, to this day, I don't fully understand. One day, at a pig line, as I was pulling this trigger, something exploded in my stomach. It felt like a water balloon that popped open inside of me. It was a leaky, gaseous, watery feeling - a feeling of, uh, real despair. I nearly began crying. I immediately put this gun down, walked out of the plant without taking a shower, got in my dad's car, drove home, uh, went in the house, and just stood in that kitchen, the kitchen I told you about, looking - my mom and dad weren't home, I don't know where they were that afternoon. Uh, I went down into the basement where my room was, and I packed a bag, filled it up with clothing - I had a passport from a trip to Europe the previous summer. I got back in my mom's car, and took off.

For those of you who don't know the geography, Minnesota is on the Canadian border, and eight hours later, after a drive I essentially forget, a blurry drive, just pure velocity, I found myself in a place called International Falls, Minnesota, up on the Minnesota-Canadian border. I hadn't planned any of this-I had sort of half-daydreamed about it, but never seriously. By that time it was close to midnight; I spent the night in the car, uh, in a-a closed-down gas station-very --. It was a sleepless night. In the morning, as dawn began to break, I got-I started the car, and I began driving east, along the Rainy River, which is a river that physically separates, uh, Minnesota from Canada. It's not just a river: it's as wide as a lake, in parts. It's a big river. Um, I was looking for a way across, you know, a bridge. Within a half an hour or so, I came across a closed-down, uh, resort along the river, a place called the Tip-Top Lodge. It wasn't really a lodge: it was a sort of-ten yellow cabins along the river. Tourist season was over by then, so the place was abandoned, but I stopped anyway, thinking, well, I'll think it over for one last night before I walk away from my own life and from the world I knew. I went up to the main building and knocked on the door. A little man came to the door. He was really a small guy, he was like a foot tall. I mean he was really a tiny little guy. He was dressed all in, all in brown, you know, the kind of north woods look - brown shirt and brown pants - brown everything. Uh, for the first time in my life I could actually look down at somebody-I remember looking down at the guy, and he looking up at me, and he said, "What do you want?" And I said, "A place to stay." He introduced himself to me; his name was Elroy Berdahl. The man is the hero of my life. If, uh, heroes come - come in small packages, this guy did. He took one look at me and I know that instantly he knew that here's a kid in deep trouble. Uh, he was no dummy. He knew there was a war on, he knew this was the Canadian border, he could see how old I was, he could see the terror in my eyes, I'm sure. He said, "No problem." He gave me a key, and walked me to one of his little cabins, and said to me, "I hope you like fish," and I said, "Yeah."

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Well, I spent the next six days with old Elroy Berdahl on the Rainy River, trying to decide what to do with my, you know, my life. On the one hand, I did oppose the war. It seemed to me that certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons - that is to say, the reasons for the war were all under dispute. It was a time when Hawks were at the throats of Doves, when smart people in pinstripes couldn't make their minds up about the rectitude of the war. You know, smart people were saying the war was right; smart people were saying it's dead wrong, and where was the truth in all this swirling ambiguity? Uh, I opposed it, but on the other hand, I was a child of Worthington, Minnesota. I didn't know everything. Uh, I didn't know much about the history of Vietnam, the politics of it all - maybe I was mistaken. Beyond that, I felt drawn by America itself, even by this little shitty town that I told you about. I felt drawn to it because, as bad it was, it was mine, and I didn't want to leave it, and I didn't want to leave America. I felt like I was one of those pigs that had been pried open, pulled two different ways - part of me being pulled toward the war; part of me being pulled toward Canada. And I was, hell, I was your age! And that's a tough thing to do when you're that old, to decide to walk away from your whole history.

Well, during those six days at the Tip-Top Lodge, what do I tell you? They were as important as anything that later happened in Vietnam. They were much more traumatic than anything that happened in Vietnam - I was wounded, and I saw death all around me. But those six days at the Tip-Top lodge were a lot worse. It was a poignant decision that I can't, uh, even begin here to describe for you, except as a storyteller. I remember old Ellroy watching me all the time during these six days - he was a very quiet guy. As I said, he knew something was wrong, but he was the sort of person who would never talk about it or ask about it. I mean, he was the kind of guy who, if you were to walk into a bar with two heads, and old Ellroy's sitting there, he would talk about everything except that extra head. He'd talk about the weather, and, you know, and Lutheranism, but not the extra head. That's the kind of Midwestern, even Minnesotan, way of dealing with things like this. Uh, but he saw some strange behavior on my part. I remember one afternoon we were out behind the - his lodge. He was showing me how to split wood. And I began sweating-I just couldn't shut the sweat off; I just was like a spigot had been turned on inside me, just full of it. One night I vomited at his table. Not out of - it wasn't the fish; it was a spiritual sickness inside of me. I remember lying awake at night, full of very peculiar hallucinations - I mean , it wasn't, it wasn't hallucination, really, but the kind of thoughts you have when you're suffering from the flu, or you're really sick. I'd imagine being chased through the Canadian woods by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and dogs barking, and spotlights on me - people even in my hometown yelling deserter, sissy, coward - things like this.

Well, near the end of my stay on the sixth and last day there, Ellroy did a thing that, in a way, made me into a writer, as much as, you know, Larry of the Little League. He said to me, uh, "Let's get in the boat. We'll go fishing." So we got into this, you know, little twelve foot boat of his, and we went across to the Canadian side, and he stopped the boat, maybe, I don't know, fifteen yards or so, from the Canadian, you know, where the wilderness was, and he tossed his line in and started fishing. I was in the front of the boat, in the bow, and he was in the back, where the engine was, and I can now, again like that library, I can feel myself there, bobbing in that slate-gray water, fifteen yards from Canada. It was as close to me as the third row here, fourth row, I could see the berries on the bushes and the blackbirds and stones, my coming future. I could have done it, I could have jumped out of that boat, started swimming for my life. So time went by; again, old Ellroy just said nothing, just let me bob there. I think he knew what he was doing. He was bringing me face to face with it all, and wanted to kind of be there for me the way God is there for us, you know - not really present, but sort of over our shoulder somewhere, whatever the stand-in for God might be for you, like a conscience bearing witness, and just here. After - not long, a couple of minutes - I started crying. It wasn't loud, just kind of like the chest-chokes, when you're crying, but you're trying not to, and even then, he said nothing, not a word. After, what, twenty minutes or so, he reeled his line in, said "Ain't bitin.'" Turned on the engine, and took me back. Well, after we got back to the Minnesota shore, I went back to my cabin, and I knew it was all over.

What I was crying about, you see, was - was not self-pity. I was crying with the knowledge that I'd be going to Vietnam, that I was essentially a coward, that I couldn't do the right thing, I couldn't go to Canada. Given what I believed, anyway, the right thing would have been to follow your conscience, and I couldn't do it. Why, to this day, I'm not sure, I can speculate it. Some of it had to do with raw embarrassment, a fear of blushing, a fear of some old farmer in my town saying to another farmer, "Did you hear what the O'Brien kid did? The sissy went to Canada." And imagining my mom and dad sitting in the next booth over, overhearing this, you know, and imagining their eyes colliding and bouncing away, and-uh, I was afraid of embarrassment. Men died in Vietnam, by the way, out of the same fear-you know, not out of nobility or patriotism; they were just af-they charged bunkers and machine gun nests, just because they would be embarrassed not to, later on, in front of their buddies. Not a noble motive for human behavior, but I tell you one thing, one you'd better think about in your lives, that sometimes doing the hard thing is also doing the embarrassing thing, and when that moment strikes, it hits you hard. I didn't see Ellroy again. I got up the next morning, and I went to, you know, his little lodge thing, and I knocked on the door, and he wasn't there. I could see right way he was gone, his pickup was gone. I left a little note for him, saying thank you. Uh, I got in my-the car, and I drove north-or drove south, rather, out of the pine forest, down to the prairies of Southern Minnesota. Within two weeks I was in the Army, and about four months after that in Vietnam.

Now, what I have told you is, is a war story. War stories aren't always about war, per se. They aren't about bombs and bullets and military maneuvers. They aren't about tactics, they aren't about foxholes and canteens. War stories, like any good story, is finally about the human heart. About the choices we make, or fail to make. The forfeitures in our lives. Stories are to console and to inspire and to help us heal. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. And a good war story, in my opinion, is a story that strikes you as important, not for war content, but for its heart content. The second reason I told you this story is that none of it's true. Or very little of it. It's - invented. No Ellroy, no Tip-Top Lodge, no pig factory, I'm trying to think of what else. I've never been to the Rainy River in my life. Uh, not even close to it. I haven't been within two hundred miles of the place. No boats. But, although the story I invented, it's still true, which is what fiction is all about. Uh, if I were to tell you the literal truth of what happened to me in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight, all I could tell you was that I played golf, and I worried about getting drafted. But that's a crappy story. Isn't it? It doesn't - it doesn't open any door to what I was feeling in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight. That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth. The pig factory is there for those dreams of slaughter - they were quite real inside of me. And in my own heart, I was certainly on that rainy river, trying to decide what to do, whether to go to the war or not go to it, say no or say yes. The story is still true, even though on one level it's not; it's made up.

The point was not to pull a fast one, any more than, you know, Mark Twain is trying to pull a fast one in Huckleberry Finn. Stories make you believe, that's what dialogue is for, that's what plot is for, and character. It's there to make you believe it as you're reading it. You don't read Huckleberry Finn saying "This never happened, this never happened, this never happened, this never happened-" I mean, you don't do that, or go to The Godfather and say, you know, no horse head. I mean, you don't think that way; you believe. A verisimilitude and truth in that literal sense, to me, is ultimately irrelevant. What is relevant is the human heart.

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All right, I want to finish up here with just a little-a short little snatch from something that is a little more based on-I'm not going to say based on-a little more out of the real world I lived in, and then I'll take whatever questions you might have, just for, you know, a brief time. This little thing, it'll only take, like, two minutes to read this, or five or something. When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked me if I'd ever killed anyone. She knew about the war, she knew I'd been a soldier. "You keep writing war stories," she said, "so I guess you must've killed somebody." It was a difficult moment but I did what I thought was right, which was to say, "Of course not," and then to take her onto my lap and hold her for a while. Someday, I hope, she'll ask again But here, now I want to pretend she's a grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to he that as a little girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep telling war stories:

He was a short slender young man of about twenty. I was afraid of him-afraid of something-and as he passed me on the trail I threw a grenade that exploded at his feet and killed him.

Or to go back:

Shortly after midnight we moved into the ambush site outside My Khe. The whole platoon was there, spread out in the dense brush along the trail, and for five hours nothing at all happened. We were working in two-man teams-one man on guard while the other slept, switching off every two hours-and I remember it was still dark when Kiowa shook me awake for the final watch. The night was foggy and hot. For the first few moments I felt lost, not sure about directions, groping for my helmet and weapon. I reached out and found three grenades and lined them up in front of me; the pins had already been straightened for quick throwing. And then for maybe half an hour I kneeled there and waited. Very gradually, in tiny slivers, dawn began to break through the fog, and from my position in the brush I could see ten or fifteen meters up the trail. The mosquitoes were fierce. I remember slapping at them, wondering if I should wake up Kiowa and go get some repellent, then thinking it was a bad idea, then looking up and seeing the young man come out of the morning fog. He wore black clothing and rubber sandals and a gray ammunition belt. His shoulders were slightly stooped, his head cocked to the side as if listening for something. He seemed at ease. He carried his weapon in one hand, muzzle down, moving without any hurry up the center of the trail. There was no sound at all - none that I can remember. In a way, it seemed, he was part of the morning fog, or my own imagination, but there was also the reality of what was happening in my stomach. I had already pulled the pin on a grenade. I had come up to a crouch. It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or justice. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away-just evaporate-and leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it. It was gone. The brush was thick and I had to lob it high, not aiming, and I remember the grenade seeming to freeze above me for an instant, as if a camera had clicked, and I remember ducking down and holding my breath and seeing little wisps of fog rise from the earth. The grenade bounced once and rolled across the trail. I did not hear it, but there must've been a sound, because the young man dropped his weapon and began to run, just two or three quick steps. Then he looked down at the grenade, turned to his right, and tried to cover his head but never did. It occurred to me then that he was about to die. I wanted to warn him. The grenade made a popping noise - not loud, not what you'd expect. Just a pop, and there was a puff of dust and smoke and the young man seemed to jerk upward as if pulled by invisible wires. He fell on his back. His rubber sandals had been blown off. He lay at the center of the trail, his right leg bent beneath him, his one eye shut, his other eye a huge star-shaped hole.

For me, it was not a matter of live or die. There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed me by. And it will always be that way.

Later, I remember, Kiowa tried to tell me that the man would've died anyway. He told me that it was a good kill, that I was a soldier and this was a war, that I should shape up and stop staring, that I should ask myself what the dead man would've done if things were reversed.

But you see, none of it mattered. The words, or language, far too complicated. All I could do was gape at the fact of the young man's body.

Even now, three decades later, I haven't finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don't. In the ordinary hours of life I try not to think about it, but now and then, when I'm reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I'll look up and see the young man coming out of the morning fog. I'll watch him walk toward me, his shoulders slightly stooped, his head cocked to the side, and he'll pass within a few yards of me and suddenly smile at some secret thought and then continue up the trail to where it bends back into the fog.



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This is - thank you very much - this is --. Actually I'm so relieved to have this over with. I've been terrified for a long while. It's, uh, this is my favorite part, though, the, sort of, ten, fifteen minutes of just questions and answers. I feel, uh, if I were in your shoes, and a writer visiting campus, I'd want to spend time talking with him, and I know this is kind of an odd venue for it, with all these people, but I would certainly think of it, at least, of asking a question. The problem, though, is, after having told you that first story, you probably think I'm going to lie to you with all my answers, which I won't do. I mean, I know what the truth is, in that sense, too. I'll do my best to respond to what you might ask, or at least evade with dignity. Yes, sir.

Male audience member (Frank Grzyb): Hello? I've read several of your books, and very curious about how much is real and how much isn't real. That's the first question. I find a lot to be real; you may have a different answer. The second question is I read a story that I find highly improbable, but it could be factual, knowing how weird Vietnam was, and that was, basically, about a guy who called and got his girlfriend to come into country, and she ended up in a Green Beret outfit, and I said, this could never happen, but Vietnam was so strange, it was liable to happen.

Tim O'Brien: Yeah. Well, I'll respond in two ways. One - excuse me, my cold is hitting me now - (coughs) Excuse me. Number one, uh, the literal truth is ultimately, to me, irrelevant. What matters to me is the heart-truth. I'm going to die, you're all going to die, the earth is going to flame out when the sun goes. We all know the facts. The truth - I mean, does it matter what the real Hamlet was like, or the real Ulysses - does it matter? Well, I don't think so. In the fundamental human way, the ways we think about in our dream-lives, and our moral lives, and our spiritual lives, what matters is what happens in our hearts. A good lie, if nobly told, for good reason, seems to me preferable to a very boring and pedestrian truth, which can lie, too. That's one way of answering.

I'll give you a more practical answer. The last piece I read for you, it is very, and it does approximate an event that happened in my life, and it's hard for me to read to you, at the same time it wasn't literally true in all its detail. It wasn't a hand grenade, it was a, was a rifle thing. We had circled the village one night - called it cordoning the village - and this stuff never worked in Vietnam-those vets who are here know what I'm talking about-these things never worked, but it did, once. We circled the village and we drove the enemy out in daylight, and three enemy soldiers came marching-the silhouettes like you're at a carnival shoot - and about eighteen of us or twenty of us were lined up along a paddy dike. We all opened up from, I don't know, eighteen yards or twenty yards away. We, really, we killed one of them; the others we couldn't find, which shows you what bad shots we were on top of everything else. Well, I will never know whether I killed anyone, that man in particular - how do I know? I hope I didn't. But I'll never know.

The thing is, you have to, though, when you return from a war, you have to assume responsibility. I was there, I took part in it, I did pull the trigger, and whether I literally killed a man or not is finally irrelevant to me. What matters is I was part of it all, the machine that did it, and do feel a sense of obligation, and through that story I can share some of my feelings, when I walked over that corpse that day, and looked down at it, wondering, thinking, "dear God, dear God, please don't let it have been my bullet, Dear God, please." Um, that's the second answer.

Then the third thing-I remember there's one other thing I should say, too-the story he's referring to is a story called "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" and basically he told you the plot: a guy in Vietnam writes a letter to his high school sweetheart and says, "Come on over, you'll love it!" And she does. And what happens to her is pretty much what happened to us: you know, you're sort of half terrified, you're full of all the romantic, na´ve bullshit, of, you know, the flag-waving bullshit we're taught in small towns, and quickly learn otherwise. She is partly seduced by the war, as many of us were. War is horrible, yes, but the dirty truth about war is it's also beautiful and seducing. When you're out on an ambush late at night and you feel that quarter moon rising over the nighttime paddies, your whole body is alive with electricity. You're so close to death, you've never been more alive. And that's what proximity to death does to you - it makes you tingle with your own aliveness. You love things you never knew you loved because you're so close to losing it all. Things like a Big Mac and a cold beer and cold sheets and your mom and your dad and the Minnesota Vikings - things you'd always laughed at, you suddenly love them. What happens to her is what happened to all of us: you partly hate the thing, but you're seduced by it the way you'd be seduced by a forest fire, knowing how, knowing it's killing things and terrible, but nonetheless it's spectacular, and, in some ways, seductive. Uh, or the way cancer might be under a microscope-it's deadly, but as it multiplies and divides, it has a certain beauty to it. Uh-these are ugly and bad truths, and she learns them in the course of the story. Well, is it true? Number one, irrelevant. Number two, it's one of the few pieces in The Things They Carried that's actually based on some fact. That is to say, as absurd as it sounds, that shows you how nutty that war was. Uh, I can't guarantee the authenticity of the story, but there were women in Vietnam, as Laura would be glad to tell you and will, later on tomorrow. Uh, Donut Dollies and nurses, journalists - it wasn't as if, you know, it was a feminine-free culture, uh, it wasn't. Beyond that, the story was really ultimately mean to aim at, I don't know, women, who, say to women, "What happened to me could happen to you - "we're different, yes, men and woman, there's no denying the differences - but it's not as if men are chipmunks and you're squirrels. I mean, we're part of the same gene pool and share some stuff, among which, you know, I think, we share a capacity now and then for violence. Witness Lizzy Borden, or Queen Elizabeth, or every one of my girlfriends-(laughter)-I mean-not-except you (laughter). That uh-that we're not that different. For women especially, if war is an incredibly foreign experience, but that's only by convention, and, you know, Western tradition, and not, I think, entirely by nature.

The last thing I should say, maybe, on the same subject, is - I'm sorry, this is a long answer, but what the heck-uh, the story was written partly out of a kind of theory on top of it all. There are other veterans here tonight, and I don't know if they felt how I did and my fellow soldiers felt, but it struck a lot of us that why the hell is it, back then anyway, that only men have to die in combat? I mean, what if we drafted, for example, only black people-it'd be, you know, fires in the streets. It didn't seem fair; beyond that, it seemed a clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to our constitution - that is, equal protection before the laws, right? It's something I think you should take before the Supreme Court. Uh, that is to say that, uh, there was a sense of, God, those back home are never going to know. Um, will never really fully understand this horror, on top of it. So those are some of the sources beyond it all. There's a true-I don't know-yes, sir?

Male audience member number two: I was wondering-when you were writing The Things They Carried , did you have an idea of how you wanted to write it, like, as a soldier sort of actually living it, or sort of as a veteran thinking back about it and trying to make sense of it? Was there any - did it sort of vary from story to story, or was there sort of some theme that you were trying to bring to light?

Tim O'Brien: Well, The Things They Carried was written a long time after the war was over, so it was written from the perspective of someone looking back on the war. The theme of the book, The Things They Carried -ultimately has to do with the things we all carry through our lives. I carried Vietnam with me for a long time, the physical wounds and the spiritual burdens and so on, but so do you. If your parents have been divorced or your boyfriend has just dumped you, um, you know a little bit of what it's like to be in a war. Uh, maybe even a lot. You know what it is to have time just stopped - those late hours on guard when you're just staring into the dark, and you look at your watch and it's 2 am, and you wait an hour and you look again, and it's 2:01, and you wait an hour and you-you know what that is like, and it's a little bit like Vietnam, where the time just went by in little droplets of now-now-now-just forever.

Um, the book was meant to be a bridge between the experiences of all of you, the things you carry through your lives, that I carry through my own - physical burdens but also spiritual, the things we'll all carry to our graves. It was also meant to be an act of honor for the dead, those ghosts in my life, from my past, not just guys in Vietnam, uh, but, you know the little girl who dies at the end of the book, uh, based on a real person. And all of us again, I think, war aside, do carry with us the ghosts of our own history, um, even the ghosts of ourselves as we were, as you guys were, say, eighteen years ago, that little girl, that little boy, if you were to look into a photograph from way back then and see a little gleam of yourself in that little girl, little boy's eyes, the you is still present, and that person is a ghost inside all of us. It was meant to- (tape cuts) but Vietnam, yeah, but it was also meant to be a larger metaphor for the things we all carry through our lives, which is what fiction's, you know, again, I think, partly about. And then the last thing, I guess, to say, is that the book is - this is too philosophical for this late in the evening - but it was meant to be, you know, an exploration of levels of reality, levels of truth: what's true and what isn't? The stuff we've been talking about here. You know, that truth can sometimes be a lie, and the other way around. Uh, so that - that theme for me was important, and in all my fiction's been important; everything I've written, maybe - is it hot in here, or is it just me? Man, I, whoah. One more question, and then we can - yes, sir?

Male audience member (Doug Johnson) I'm just wondering-it seems like so much of writing involves taking risks and allowing yourselves to be vulnerable, and I'm just wondering if that's gotten any easier for you, as you continue to write, and if it hasn't, how you've been able to deal with that in your writing.

Tim O'Brien: Deal with what?

Male audience member (Doug Johnson): The risks of, you know, sharing yourself with-those vulnerabilities, those things that-the themes that you share in your writings, which sometimes may be personal and sometimes may be not.

Tim O'Brien: Mm-hmm. Well, I'm reading right now a biography of Albert Camus, and in one portion of - it's really a great book, by the way, if you want a - I guess you guys've got enough to read - but when you're out of college, read the book! Uh, Camus says at one point in this that a writer who doesn't take risks isn't a writer. And I've always felt that way. To me, it doesn't even feel like risk-taking. It feels like something that I was grabbed by the lapel by, I don't know, some force that you can call a god, I was put down in front of a typewriter, and made to write. And when I'm typing away, trying to make my sentences and my stories, I'm not thinking of myself as a risk-taker; I'm not thinking of myself at all. I'm thinking, instead, I'm sort of looking through the language, seeing shapes emerge and people doing things, and behaving and misbehaving; watching, you know, their actions through the story, and listening to their dialogue. It's only after a thing is out there, and published, that I realize how much I've dredged up out of my own life, that I understand that I've put part of myself into a book. At the time it doesn't feel that way at all. It feels, um, like a really objective, uh, you know, the way a sculptor must feel as he's making a, you know, a statue: you're making a thing, and until the showing, the thing's unveiled, and the guy's wife says, "God, it looks a lot like you," you know, you don't think that, you don't think of that.

Um, so I don't - I don't - risk taking, to me, isn't part of what I do, really; it's, uh, we haven't even talked tonight about what I really do, which is language - that, for the stories to work, language has to work. And I spend my days and all these hours I told you about just playing with sentences, just over and over and over again, rewriting them and rewriting them, uh, trying to--. I'm a, kind of a bejeweled, flowery writer as I begin writing, and I find myself trying to crop it all back, and trying to find a unique spin to put on each little sentence, so that it may not stand out, you know, as - but it doesn't have any potholes, either, kind of, you know, bounce against it, and it just doesn't have a klutzy sound. That's how I spend my time, working with sentences, and those are the things, when I talk to writers here tomorrow, or people who are trying to write, that I'll be discussing, but here it seemed an inappropriate thing to discuss. But, by and large, I don't think of myself as a veteran, I think of myself as a writer, um, and not just a war writer, a writer about, you know, love, and hometowns, and families and things like that as well. Again, I want to say thank you all for coming tonight - goodnight.