Tim O’Brien is the magnificent writer who penned The Things They Carried, which is (I humbly submit) the single most powerful work of literature to come out of the Vietnam War. I’ve taught the lead chapter in the volume (“The Things They Carried”) on numerous occasions, and it never ceases to move me.
This evening, I’m very pleased to report, I had the great pleasure of listening to O’Brien give a lengthier-than-planned lecture at the College of Charleston. He was, by turns, engaging, self-effacing, funny, poignant, honest, and insightful. In other words, like many of the stories he writes, he was human.
Listening to a good writer self-reflect on his or her place as a writer is always a wonderful thing, but I found this particular talk to be particularly fascinating. Much of it, I’m sure, is how O’Brien’s unscripted nerves were laid bare again and again. To hear his voice crack as he read his own description (from the chapter “Ambush” in The Things They Carried) of the killing of a young Vietnamese soldier — a story that isn’t true in a literal sense but is, as his own raw reactions made clear, true in the more powerful emotional sense — was really remarkable. The entire audience felt the moment come alive, which is what a born storyteller can do. It was a real honor.