I’m doing some research and came upon this speech given by Tim O’Brien in 1999 at Brown University, in which he offers some relevant tips for writing and shares his thoughts on why stories matter. After telling an eloquent and gripping tale of the events that followed in the summer after he got his draft notice (found in a different form in The Things They Carried), he noted:
“…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.….”
There are any number of interviews with Tim O’Brien all over the internet, but this one, because it was transcribed from his talk, sounds to me the most like I remember him from the several times I encountered him and studied with him at various writers’ conferences. I recommend reading this talk (even with its poor font and formatting!), or, better yet, listening to the accompanying audio.
The man is a genius and is one of the greatest influences on my writing life and that’s the true truth.
Here’s the link: http://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/WritingVietnam/obrien.html