Saturday, May 27, 2006

Happening-truth versus Story-truth (Version 2.0)

Note: I have updated this post since yesterday. I didn't like the last sentence, and, like a true "talker," I added a new paragraph in it's place.

In my Booking Through Thursday post, I mentioned something that Tim O'Brien talks about in his book, The Things They Carried, and how it deals with what is true. I said that I thought the critics of James Frey should take a look at what Mr. O'Brien has to say. Well, the subject of telling the truth in writing has come up a couple of more times in unrelated places so I thought I would let you know exactly what he said.

The Things They Carried is a study of young men fighting in the Vietnam War. I can't do justice to describing it more than that, but in the book, O'Brien introduces us to many of his fellow soldiers and himself through multiple vignettes. More than two-thirds of the way through the story, O'Brien confesses:
It's time to be blunt.

I'm forty-three years old, true, and I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it's not a game. It's a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I'm thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, , almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

"Daddy, tell the truth," Kathleen can say, "did you ever kill anybody?" And I can say, honestly, "Of course not."

Or I can say, honestly, "Yes."
I was really wowed by this intrusion into the book's narrative. I had already read A Million Little Pieces a couple of months before. Reading The Things They Carried helped me deal with the fact or fiction controversy surrounding James Frey's novel. Although I wish Frey's book, like O'Brien's had been classified as fiction, I can still appreciate its story-truth.

Beyond that, though, these words have just stuck in my consciousness. I think about the power of writing to help you feel something. And I guess by "you," I mean the writer or the reader. Writing his stories helped O'Brien deal with his war experiences. Reading his stories helped me feel closer to my uncle who died a couple of years ago. He was 18 or 19 when he was in Vietnam. It changed his life absolutely. I feel as if I know something of my uncle's experiences now.

Why share this? I don't know. I've come across a blogger or two who seem to be struggling who how transparent they can be in their posts. It is a forum pretty much anyone can access. If they tell private details of their lives they risk offending involved parties. They also invite unwelcome comments and criticism from those referred to as "trolls." I wonder if there isn't a way to incorporate O'Brien's thoughts on story-truth and happening-truth in the blogosphere. I know for myself, if I could take some of my happening-truth and craft it into a story, it might be cathartic for me. Something to think about.


chickenone said...

I was wondering if anybody would respond to your last sentence before you changed it.

Mary-LUE said...

Should I put it back?

Terri B. said...

I think that turning happening into story is incredibly cathartic and encourage you to do it. It is a way to make sense out of what has happened. It gives you the time and space to think and reflect. Changing the actual into story makes it no less true. Of course you run into people who then read your work and ask "did that really happen?" There will always be assumptions that your expression is autobiographical. I wrote an angry little poem a number of years back and had some interesting conversations with a couple of readers about how the event in the poem did not happen; I wasn't writing about an event -- I was writing about an emotion that we've all faced.

Sheila said...

I agree - I like the blog format, because there is the audience to consider. Yes, if you only know me by my blog, you don't REALLY know me. I edit out things. But, on the other hand, the blog helps because if something happens that is frustrating or horrible-but-funny, then the prospect of putting it into a blog post makes the awfulness of the situation productive.

Good stuff. What was that last line? Was it sarcastic and provoking?

Mary-LUE said...

Not sarcastic... Just asking a question. It just felt like, as part of the written piece, it didn't flow well. I was merely asking, "Do any of you have any truth to tell?"