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The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien Anne Cullen recommended this to me as a beautifully written book, and it is, although of course it is also very disturbing and very sad. I like the way he circles around the stories, tells them again in different ways, and even talks some about the process of writing. "I do not look on my work as therapy, and still don't. Yet when I received Norman Bowker's letter it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.In any case, Norman Bowker's letter had an effect. It haunted me for more than a month< not the words so much as its desperation< and I resolved finally to take him up on his story suggestion. At the time I was at work on a new novel, Going after Cacciato, and one morning I sat down and began a chapter titled, "Speaking of Courage." The emotional core came directly from Bowker's letter: the simple need to talk. To provide a dramatic frame, I collapsed events into a single time and place, a car circling a lake on a quiet afternoon in midsummer, using the lake as a nucleus around which the story would orbit. As he'd requested, I did not use Norman Bowker's name, instead substituting the name of my novel's main character, Paul Berlin. For the scenery I borrowed heavily from my own hometown. Wholesale thievery, in fact. I lifted up Worthington, Minnesota - the lake, the road, the causeway, the woman in pedal pushers, the junior college, the handsome houses and docks and boats and public parks -- and carried it all a few hundred miles south and transplanted it onto the Iowa prairie.The writing went quickly and easily. I drafted the piece in a week or two, fiddled with it for another week, then published it as a separate short story.Almost immediately, thought, there was a sense of failure. The details of Norman Bowker's story were missing. In this original version, which I still conceived as part of the novel, I had been forced to omit the shit field and the rain and the death of Kiowa, replacing the material with events that better fit the book's narrative. As a consequence I'd lost the natural counterpoint between the lake and the field. A metaphoric unity had been broken. What the piece needed, and did not have, was the terrible killing power of that shit field.As the novel developed over the next year, and as my own ideas clarified, it became apparent that the chapter had not proper home in the larger narrative. Going after Cacciato was a war story; "Speaking of Courage" was a postwar story. Two different time periods, two different sets of issues. There was no choice but to remove the chapter entirely. The mistake, in part, had been in trying to wedge the piece into a novel. Beyond that, though, something about the story frightened me -- I was afraid to speak directly, afraid to remember -- and in the end the piece had been ruined by a failure to tell the full and exact truth about our night in the shit field. Over the next several months, as it often happens, I managed to eras the story's flaws from my memory, taking pride in a shadowy, idealized recollection of its virtues. When the piece appeared in an anthology of short fiction, I sent off a copy to Norman Bowker with the thought it might please him. His reaction was short and somewhat bitter."It's not terrible," he wrote me, "but you left out Vietnam. Where's Kiowa? Where's the shit?"Eight months later he hanged himself.In August of 1978 his mother sent me a brief note explaining what had happened. He'd been playing pickup basketball at the Y; after two hours he went off for a drink of water; he used a jump rope; his friends found him hanging from a water pipe. There was no suicide note, no message of any kind. "Norman was a quiet boy," his mother wrote, "and I don't suppose he wanted to bother anybody."Now, a decade after his death, I'm hoping that "Speaking of Courage" makes good on Norman Bowker's silence. And I hope it's a better story. Although the old structure remains, the piece has been substantially revised, in some places by severe cutting, in other places by the addition of new material. Norman is back in the story, where he belongs, and I don't think he would mind that his real name appears. The central incident -- our long night in the shit field along the Song Tra Bong -- has been restored to the piece. It was hard stuff to write. Kiowa, after all, had been a close friend,and for years I've avoided thinking about his death and my own complicity in it. Even here it's not easy. In the interests of truth, however, I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own." pp. 158-161.