The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried Literature and Writing Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Story Title.Paragraph)
I feel guilty sometimes. Forty-three years old and I'm still writing war stories. My daughter Kathleen tells me it's an obsession, that I should write about a little girl who finds a million dollars and spends it all on a Shetland pony. In a way, I guess, she's right: I should forget it. But the thing about remembering is that you don't forget. You take your material where you find it, which is your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come. That's the real obsession. All those stories. (Spin.13)
When Kathleen accuses Tim of being obsessed with war stories, he points out that it's not that he's obsessed with war stories – he's just obsessed with stories, period. Because he's a writer, he uses stories to process memories, and his memories are of war. This plays into his whole thing about story-truth, too: stories are based in memory, not in fact.
And sometimes remember it will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. 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. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except that story. (Spin.34)
O'Brien is shooting for posterity with The Things They Carried. He wants it to be read a hundred years from now. It might sound egotistical (and it is, a little), but it also makes sense if you buy into his ideas of story-truth and happening-truth. The war in Vietnam was important. The lives of soldiers are important. In a hundred years, we'll have the happening-truth in all the many documents and videos of the era, but everyone who experienced it and who can tell us what it really felt like will be dead. That means we'll need a record of their memories – we'll need the story-truth. That's what this book is supposed to be.
"Hear that quiet, man?" he said. "That quiet – just listen. There's your moral." (How to Tell a True War Story.62)
The moral of a story doesn't need to make sense for it to work as a moral. Mitchell Sanders's moral here makes absolutely no literal sense, but like Tim O'Brien's stories, it feels right in a way that's difficult to articulate.