How to Tell a True Story

One summer in high school I took a college class, just for fun, at a local university. We read and read, and I wrote and wrote, and it was the happiest I’d ever been. I remember the title of the course (“Journeys in Literature”), and I’ve saved most of the readings in a fat folder that comes with me each time I change my address. One essay in particular rocked my clock. It was my first brush with meta — the magical synthesis of lit and philosophy that I still love: Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story.


I don’t have any war stories. Not yet; and knock on wood. But I’ve got stories, same as anyone, and sometimes on stage I tell them. If I’m lucky.  If my scrawny wrists can arch the way Mavis Beacon taught me and let the whole story fly. If the curators of the show say, “Yes, you.”

I’m not always so lucky, and I don’t always tell the best stories. I don’t ever tell how we threw coins in every fountain or watched the sunrise from every pier. I don’t ever tell how one morning my favorite mug was broken, but I didn’t remember breaking it. I watched you tell stories, though, and that’s how I learned — about the time you skated headfirst down the cemetery hill, or lit that field of tires on fire, or saw the ghost on the ship. And I was always right there with you, watching as you felt the cold breeze of a long-dead sailor whistle up your spine and out to sea.

“It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. It was a ghost story. But you can’t say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth. No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. And it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.

In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.” 

— Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

My dear friend SJY is telling a story at Second Story on January 9 and 10. Come see her, if you’re in Chicago, won’t you? The theme is journeys. Last time, remembering this class.

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