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Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”: A Radical Revision

Posted on Jun 7, 2007 by

When I think about revision—when it comes to writing or healing—I tend to think about it in radical ways. I’m not thinking so much here about rereading a paper or a story and fixing a few grammar or spelling mistakes. Those kinds of surface changes are important in late stages of the writing process, but I tend to think of those kinds of changes as editing or proofreading. When I think about revision I think of something that goes beneath the surface—and nearer to the root.

Looking again—and seeing something that one has never seen before.
Looking again—and seeing where the gaps are—-
Looking again—and changing the plot.

The story that comes to mind when I think about this kind of radical revision is Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” in his incomparable collection, The Things They Carried.

This is one of those stories better read in its entirety than described, but here is an excerpt to give some sense of it if you’ve not before come across it:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

The story is, at one level, about the death of Curt Lemon. It’s a story about a soldier, home from the war, trying to tell, among other things, about the death of his friend, Curt Lemon. The story is told in fragments—pieces—and at the center is Curt Lemon stepping on a booby-trapped 105 round and the explosion blowing him up into a tree. Curt Lemon’s best friend, Rat Kiley, another soldier, goes mad with grief, after. He shoots at a baby water buffalo in his grief. Over and over. And then he writes Curt Lemon’s sister and he tells her that Curt Lemon was a tremendous human being, that he loved him, the guy was his best friend in the world, his soulmate. And the sister never writes back.

The story continues.

The speaker of the story is home from the war, he’s telling the story, it’s twenty years later, he’s still telling this story, and then he’s telling what it’s like to try and tell it—and that too is all part of the story:

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of a kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

And then—it happens —–that point of radical revision:

. . . she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. . .

(She wasn’t listening. She didn’t understand why this was such an important story to tell—and why the teller needs to tell it over and over. She wants him to stop telling the story—find new stories—different stories.)

(Maybe—just maybe—-he’s telling the story over and over so that he can change the plot. Maybe that’s what needs to happen. He needs to change the plot—-and he needs someone to hear that the plot has been changed.)

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. . .

The plot has changed.

And then—-the final paragraph of the story. It’s been twenty years and the teller has told the story over and over and now it’s a written story. The plot points are the same—Curt Lemon still steps on the booby-trapped round. The baby water buffalo still dies. The sister still doesn’t write back. But at the same time, this deep and radical revision has taken place:

And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. 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.