Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”

As mentioned in an earlier post, I first came across Tim O’Brien in the Pushcart Prize anthology, where I read his short story “Nuclear Age,” what later became the novel of the same name.  I had never read writing like that, and then when I went to UF, I found out O’Brien was going to be at the Augusta Writer’s Conference and I went.  There, I watched him sitting in the audience with a typed manuscript in his hand waiting to read.  That manuscript was “How to Tell a True War Story,” and after he read it, I was once again faced with a kind of writing I’d never experienced.

“How to Tell a True War Story” hits on so many levels.  Emotionally, it’s a powerhouse of love and beauty and innocence and loss.  Technically, it’s a masterwork of narrative.  It has a dramatic narrative thread, but it also experiments with storytelling, collapsing time and replaying scenes in an almost cinematic rewind.  It’s also a brilliant piece of metafiction (a story about storytelling) that gives insight into not only experience and how we process experience, but also how we tell effective stories, how we make them real.  As Tim’s narrator writes:

In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.

For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

What’s interesting is “How to Tell a True War Story” does analyze. Part of the story is pure narrative. Other parts are straight exposition–almost like a professor comes in the middle of the story and gives pointers on how you can tell it’s real. There are moments in the story when it’s pure grunt-soldier language, and then there are moments when the prose reaches for poetry. Yet, as Tim says in the above excerpt, the story hits hard on the gut level. You feel it over and over again.

Finally,  like the story that keeps on giving, it is a lesson for fiction writers.  It holds keys to how to write convincing fiction.

Which is one of the things I took from it as I sat in the audience the night he read it.  Later, back at UF, we were asked to turn in a published story we liked. I’d found what I thought was “How to Tell a True War Story” in Esquire. Turned out, it was a short story called “The Things They Carried,” the title story to the interlocking story collection he would later publish.

Click here to read “How to Tell a True War Story.”

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2 responses to “Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”

  1. I read The Things They Carried recently and then gave the book to my father in law saying “if you don’t like it, don’t tell me.”
    I catch myself thinking about pieces of that book through out my day. It feels embedded in my brain.

  2. I wonder if he ever read it.

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