A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss

IMG-8526 (1)
Jack and Sadie on a trail along the James River at Pony Pasture Rapids on April 11

April 11

It is a Thursday afternoon, warm–but the kind of warmth easily defied by the shade. The tall, thick, green grasses along the James River have just begun sprouting up out of the newly awakened earth. Jack stops every few feet to snack on some of the young blades. Bluebells hang their pretty little heads all along the paths that parallel the river at Pony Pasture Rapids. Some delicate white flowers–I don’t know what they are–join the bluebells along the trail. The wetlands are soggy and stagnant, but haven’t been that way long enough to accommodate mosquitoes just yet. The day is quintessential spring, and I am grateful to have this afternoon to take Jack and Sadie adventuring. We don’t get very far; not too warm for me is slightly too warm for Jack and Sadie, always wearing fur coats–but we spend close to an hour wandering around the woods, watching the river race past its banks, swollen with spring rains to the west.

April 13

I sit in the lobby at Veterinary Referral and Critical Care (VRCC). It’s cold, over-air conditioned. Jack is somewhere in the back, having his bladder emptied. He began shaking as soon as we walked into the clinic, but not because it’s cold. Because he is scared.

I look around the lobby. A wall of windows behind me. A wall of windows to the left of me. Magazines scattered on every flat surface (who can read a magazine in a time like this?). A TV endlessly playing cooking shows–but once, a wildlife show. I like the wildlife show better. The reception desk is straight ahead. Two industrious women sit in swivel chairs with wheels and answer phones and take payments and file folders. Above them, perched atop a door leading into what looks to be a file room, rests a hand-painted wooden sign. “Be Kind,” it reads, in bold, black lettering. It’s adorned with red and pink hearts on a white background. It looks amateur, like something I would set out to make with a beautiful image in my mind only to get, well: that. Something I would make with the best intentions–something that would have been pretty if someone else had done it. I assume it’s a gift from a grateful client whose dog (or cat) is happy and healthy again, and the clinic staff feels obligated to display it.  But I like its message, despite its aesthetics. I find it somewhat comforting.

April 15

Last night I promised Jack I wouldn’t take him back to VRCC to have his bladder emptied again. He has been on new medication for going on three days now. It should kick in any minute.

It is a little before 11:00 PM. I have to break my promise to Jack. He is in the back at VRCC again. I am sitting in the cold lobby with a plastic cup of water in my hand. A competition cooking show is playing on TV. One of the contestants is cooking plantains. The receptionist behind the desk under the “Be Kind” sign tells me she doesn’t like plantains. I don’t like plantains either. I stare at the clock. It is a Monday night. I am tired. Jack is tired. We get home sometime after midnight and fall asleep together in the family room.

April 16

It is a Tuesday afternoon, warm–but it started out chilly. I have shed my coat and sit beside Matty and Sadie in the backyard grass with Jack, leaning against the sun-warmed brick foundation of our house. Jack doesn’t want to come inside. He lays in the grass or makes a nest in the moldy dust under the shed. The sky is robin’s egg blue. When the wind blows, yellow clouds of pollen dust drift through the air, taking flight from the tufts of white pines’ needles. The dogwoods are almost done blooming, their white blossoms giving way to green leaves. A pair of robins build a nest in the bushes to our left. New life is everywhere.

The medication is not doing its job.

I text our sister-in-law, also our vet, who gave Jack a home until he joined our pack. I fill her in on the latest details, ask for her honest professional opinion.

“I think it’s time,” her text tells me.

I put my arm around Jack and cry, my hand shaking after I text back, “Okay.”  Jack stands beside me, squinting in the sun, wagging his tail.

Less than an hour later, I squat on the floor of Room 5. Jack is lying like a sphinx on a cold, metallic table draped in a plush, blue blanket. The hairs of other dogs and cats are stuck in the fibers. Matty, Sadie, and my mother-in-law are there. Jack is trembling. My face is level with his front paws, my hands on his shoulders. I talk to him. I sing to him. “Shepherd Show Me How to Go” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” I tell him not to be scared; it’s okay. But I am scared and none of this is okay with me. I sing again. I am amazed at my ability to sing and not sob. How am I doing this? After a shot the shaking starts to subside, and his eyes grow drowsy, though he is fighting sleep with all his might. I lift my face to look into his eyes. He meets my gaze. His eyes hold mine as I sing, until they glaze over and he gently lowers his head. He is asleep. I rest my head on the edge of the table. After a moment, I stand. I press my face into the fur on the back of his neck and inhale deeply. I will miss this warmth, this softness, this smell.

When we turn around and walk out–I am the last to leave–I can’t shake the feeling that I am abandoning him.

April 19

Jack and I used to go for a walk every single morning, no matter what. He and Sadie would eat breakfast, I would eat breakfast, and then Jack and I would head out, Sadie joining us on occasion if it wasn’t too dark, too early, or too cold, by her standards.

Now that Jack is gone, my morning routine feels disjointed, inefficient, disturbed. I am awake, I have eaten, but there is no dog waiting to go for a walk with me. Sadie is snuggled back up in her bed. I hold up her harness and dance around and sing and try to convince her she wants to go for a walk. She looks at me and lowers her head, resting it on the bolster of her bed. I decide to go for a quick run. I lace up my shoes and step out into the cerulean morning.

Alone.

I am about half a mile away from home when the sight of a black sock on the shoulder of the road stops me in my tracks. The sense that Jack is with me, leaving me a message, is overwhelming. Every morning when we woke up, Jack would stand patiently in front of my dresser, waiting for me to take out a pair of socks and give it to him. Then, he’d run around the house with the socks in his mouth until I had his breakfast ready. Every afternoon when I got home from work, Jack would root around in my gym bag or work bag until he found a sock (or shoe) to parade around the backyard with. Matty and I were forever finding missing socks and shoes out in the backyard, where Jack had deposited them. In this moment, in the quiet predawn with the birds singing, when I would normally have been out walking with Jack, it feels like he is with me.

April 20

The next day is a Saturday. Matty, Sadie, and our four friends (two humans and their two dogs) are at the Northern Neck. It is the first weekend we have come here without Jack. Last time we were here, just weeks ago, he was here, too. I am walking Sadie with my friend, Ashley, and her dogs, Gryff and Ellie. I look down to my left and a slight, delighted gasp escapes my throat. I feel elated. A well of emotion springs up in my chest. “Look!” I say. There, on the sidewalk, is a single green sock.

April 22

Yesterday was Easter. Ashley and I don’t have to work today, so we decide to take our dogs to Pony Pasture for an afternoon adventure. It is the first time Sadie and I walk these trails along the river without Jack. Eleven days ago, he walked them with us. Eleven days. A week and a half. Last time we were here, Jack was here, too.

We are almost to the trails in Ashley’s white Dodge minivan when something catches my eye on a tree to my right. It is a white sign with pink and red hearts. “Be Kind,” it says in bold, black lettering.

April 23

It has been one week since we said goodbye to Jack. I am half a mile from home on one of Jack’s favorite walking routes, out for a quick run before work. In the grass along the sidewalk, in the half-light of morning, I see a brand new, unused dog-poop bag. I stop running, bend down and pick it up. No sense in leaving it there to litter the neighborhood, especially when I could use it on a future walk with Sadie. The bag bears some kind of cutesie pattern, but I can’t really see what it is; it’s still fairly dark out.

When I get home and turn on the light in the mud room, I can see the bag’s decorative pattern. It is a white bag, adorned with tiny, little, green alligators in a repeating pattern. Some of Jack’s (many) nicknames were Alligator Face, Alligator Mouth, and Chompy-Chomp, because when he was really excited, really happy, or really trying to get me out of bed, he would smile and gnash his teeth like an alligator trying to snatch an unsuspecting gazelle from around the watering hole.

Instead of adding the poop bag to my stash in the mud room, I tie it to the handle of Jack’s red leash, still hooked to his black and gray, reflective, skulls-and-crossbones harness.

April 27

In January 2015, I wrote a diary entry about a walk I took with Jack and Sadie in the Northern Neck. It morphed into a blog post, which morphed into a submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, which morphed into a story in the book. Over a month ago,  several weeks before we lost Jack, I  scheduled a reading of the story and a book signing at the Richmond SPCA to raise funds for its dogs and cats. Jack and I had had a fulfilling experience completing three or four levels of agility classes there, so it seemed an appropriate venue and beneficiary. After the reading, as I sit in the lobby with Sadie and Matty, I look up to my left. There, above the reception desk, is the same sign I saw at VRCC and Pony Pasture: “Be Kind.”

IMG-8803
One of the many “Be Kind” signs I began seeing around the Richmond area in key locations. This one hangs at the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed several levels of agility classes and I held a reading and book signing to raise funds for the shelter.

April 28

This evening brought my most intense bout of regret yet. People talk about our pets crossing the rainbow bridge and waiting for us while they scamper and play. I don’t know what I believe, but tonight I am tormented because popular belief says Jack crossed the rainbow bridge; Jack was afraid of bridges. Jack was afraid of bridges and I left him while he was asleep and didn’t stay for his last breath like I always thought I would and what if he was afraid to cross that bridge without me?

May 4

I am just blocks away from my dad’s birthday brunch when my car strikes and kills a bird. I slam on my brakes and peer down at his little broken body–just in case. Maybe he’s not dead. But he is dead and I am as crushed as his delicate bones and I arrive to lunch a wreck. But as I approach the door, I see a stone with a dog painted on it. A dog that looks like Jack. And, instead of feeling more sorrow, I feel slightly comforted. And then I walk inside and on the floor is a mat bearing the same canine likeness. And in the bathroom, a sticker on the paper towel dispenser.

 

After I order my food from a waitress who discreetly supplies me with extra napkins (I don’t even have to ask her) to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, I glance around the restaurant and there, just above the mirror at the bar, hangs the sign: “Be Kind.”

IMG-8879
The “Be Kind” sign at Millie’s

Eventually, my sobbing subsides and I am able to eat most of my food, though I hardly touch the virgin drink I ordered. My dad, mom, brother, and I pay, and they walk me back to my car. As I get in and close the door, I look up to see the back of my dad’s T-shirt. “You Should Know Jack,” the lettering says.

And I did. And I am so glad I did. Jack and I shared a bond that, for a while, I took for granted as the bond all dog owners form with their dogs. It took me a long time to realize that Jack and I were a special pair. It was not telepathy, not really–but we had an understanding that transcended words. We communicated with each other through a look, a slight gesture.

An emergency vet I took Jack to several years ago in the middle of the night when he was suffering from pancreatitis commented on how in-tune he and I we were with each other. Strangers sometimes approached me to comment on the way Jack watched me. Matty was always telling me, “I have known people with dogs all my life, and had dogs all my life, and I have never seen anything like what you and Jack have.” If any dog could find a way to reach me, to communicate with me beyond my ken, I know Jack would be that dog. And there is a skeptical side of me that says the socks and the signs and the subtle little hints are just coincidences, or would have been there but gone unnoticed if Jack were still with me. But I prefer to believe that’s not true. I prefer to believe Jack is with me, somehow.

A few days ago I was out for a run when I came across two of my neighbors walking their dogs. I stopped to chat and pet all the dogs. In the course of conversation I heard myself say, “When Matty and I were walking Jack and Sadie earlier–” I stopped. “Well, Sadie,” I corrected myself. But as the conversation wound down and I resumed my run I said aloud, “But maybe Jack was there, too.”

IMG-8949
I love you, Jack. Forever and ever, my whole life long.

 

Advertisements

Based on a True Story: Why Writers Write Fiction

Anne Lamott writes, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This advice resonates with me, because one of the struggles I face most frequently regarding my writing life is what I can safely say, and what I would be safer never to say at all. Because of this ongoing internal battle–to write it, or not to write it–I focused my graduate Capstone project in 2013 on arguably semi-autobiographical fiction. Three years ago, I spent six to eight hours of each summer day immersed in research for my Capstone project in order to complete my Master’s of Liberal Studies in Arts and Culture with a focus on Creative Writing from the University of Denver. This process ranks among one of the most arduous, yet most enjoyable and rewarding, of my academic career. If, like me, you often wonder if you might be risking too much by writing this or revealing that, the research below on authors Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien might interest you.

Abstract

This project examines the semi-autobiographical fictional work of two American authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. The research is mainly secondary, analyzing not only pieces written by these two authors, but also dozens of essays and criticisms about the work of these authors. This project seeks to understand what fictional techniques draw writers to work in fiction, despite the fact that their subject matter may be drawn from real life. This piece argues that writers like Hemingway and O’Brien opt to work within the genre of fiction because doing so allows them to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects. Works examined include the short stories that make up Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Ernest Hemingway’s shorts stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Up in Michigan, and “Old Man At The Bridge.”

Analysis Essay

Based on a True Story:

Literary Techniques that Make Fiction an Appealing Genre for Writers

Introduction

When I was a freshman in high school, there was a banner on the wall of my English classroom that read in big block letters, “We read to know we are not alone.” Ever since, I have been struck by the truth in that phrase. How many times have I been reading a poem, novel, or memoir (nearly anything!) and been suddenly touched by how true the words I read are to my own experience—even if the experience related in the poem, novel, or memoir is, on its surface, very different from anything I myself have lived? How many times have I read words written by another and thought, “Yes! That’s it! I know that feeling!”? The incidents are innumerable. As I have grown and taken up studies of literature as well as creative writing, I have come to believe that we not only read to know we are not alone, we also write to know we are not alone—and to let others know they are not alone. Fiction writing is one genre among many that allows writers to play their role in the larger human family. Although traditionally thought of as a genre in which occurrences and characters are drawn from the writer’s imagination, due to the many literary techniques it provides, fiction can also be appealing for writers who wish to deal with material drawn from their own real-life experiences. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects.

Multiple Points of View and Counterfactuals

Many writers of fiction seem to agree that there are two types of truth, the factual truth and the emotional truth, the latter referring to the truth about the way it feels to be human and the former referring to indisputable facts. Writing fiction allows these writers to imagine and explore the points of views of multiple characters, who, though experiencing the same circumstance, may experience it very differently. None of these perspectives of truth are necessarily untrue (or factually true); they are simply different experiences of the same circumstance. By allowing a writer to experiment with multiple points of views, fiction allows a writer to explore the multiple truths created by various perspectives.

In The Writing Life: Authorship and Authority in Recent American Autobiographical Narratives, Jonathan L. D’Amore argues that even when writing non-fiction, the presentation of truth is “slippery, mutable, and inexact” because truth is “tied to their [the authors’] experience of their lives” (D’Amore 2011, 5). In other words, a writer’s experience is colored—biased—by his or her own point-of-view, regardless of the degree of objectivity he or she is attempting. Fiction writers’ work, however, does not purport be factually true at all. With fiction, there is no need for writers to “overcome their subjectivity and ‘tell the truth,’” which is nearly impossible (D’Amore 2011, 11). Instead, through fiction, writers can expose subjectivity and reveal multiple truths, or multiple perspectives of the same reality. In fact, although the traditional perception of fiction is that it is inherently made up, novelist Anneli Knight asserts that “fiction is an ideal form through which to explore the multiplicity of realities” (Knight 2011,1), or the variety of ways different characters might perceive the truth. This, she claims, is due to the fact that fiction allows “a freedom and flexibility of form that enables the author to present the perspectives and inner lives of multiple characters” (Knight 2011, 6). To illustrate her point, consider the following circumstance: A young woman sits down to write about her parents’ impending divorce. She has many genres from which to choose. For example, she can write a narrative essay from her own perspective, based on her own emotions and thoughts regarding the situation. She can also choose to write a fictional story loosely based on her experience. Choosing the latter option would allow her to include not only her own perspective—perhaps embodied by a young girl experiencing the loss of a cohesive family, but to imagine what her parents might be experiencing, as well. If she chooses an omniscient narrator, she will be free to imagine the way each party is experiencing a singular event, namely, the breaking up of a family. In this way, “fiction can work to reveal, and create an understanding of, the subjective realities of others” (Knight 2011, 2).

In examining the works of two well-known authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the drive for fiction writers to explore and express multiple points of view is clear. For example, in Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan,” readers are made privy to the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, Liz, who pines away for another character, Jim. Readers are also made privy to Jim’s perspective; they learn he does not think of Liz, though she often thinks of him. In its simplest form, this is the circumstance: There is a man and there is a woman and they know each other. The man experiences the acquaintance as just that—Jim knows Liz exists. He knows who she is, talks to her, finds her pleasant, but not much more. The woman, however, experiences the acquaintance much differently. In fact, Liz is so infatuated with Jim that she “couldn’t sleep well from thinking about him” (Hemingway 1987, 60). Had this piece been written in a genre other than fiction, Hemingway would not have been free to imagine the points of view of both parties involved. He would have been confined to his understanding and his perspective of the happenings. By opting to work within the genre of fiction, Hemingway was free to imagine into each point of view whatever worked for the story.

Like Hemingway, Tim O’Brien uses his memory and his imagination to create his fictional works (Calloway 1995, 2), and these works “often offer multiple versions of reality” (Smith 1994, 2). Tobey Herzog, an English professor and Chair of the Division of Humanities at Wabash College, asserts that fiction allows O’Brien to “explore recurring subjects from different angles, especially subjects from his own life” (Herzog 2000, 908). In a review of O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, Andy Solomon of The Philadelphia Inquirer states that the work is “a series of glimpses, through different facets, of a single, mysterious, death stone” (Solomon 1990, 1). O’Brien’s tendency to relate different points of view of the same circumstance is evidenced in many of the short stories included in The Things They Carried.

The first story in the book, which bears its title, is an apt example. As it opens, readers are made privy not to narrator-O’Brien’s[1] perspective, but to what author-O’Brien imagines to be the point of view of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The fact that O’Brien is working within the genre of fiction allows him to imagine the point of view of any of the characters that people his story. In this case, O’Brien—though he could not possibly know with any factual certainty unless Cross himself told him—conveys what Cross imagines, knows, and wants with regard to his love interest, Martha. “He [Cross] would imagine romantic camping trips…. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her….” (O’Brien 1990, 1). Although author-O’Brien very well could have observed a fellow soldier tasting the envelope flaps of a letter he had received while in the field, he would have had no way of knowing why. However, fiction allows O’Brien the liberty of imagining why, and of imposing this perspective on his character. In a similar fashion, O’Brien takes liberties with point of view regarding Kiowa’s thoughts after their comrade, Ted Lavender, has been suddenly shot and killed. Narrator-O’Brien explains what Kiowa wished, felt, and wanted regarding the situation (O’Brien 1990, 18), though author-O’Brien can only have imagined this, or imposed upon the character of Kiowa what author-O’Brien himself wished, felt, and wanted.

Two more examples of O’Brien’s ability to explore multiple points of view due to his choosing to write fiction appear in “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed.” In the latter, narrator-O’Brien imposes on a corpse certain fears, memories, and experiences that neither narrator-O’Brien nor author-O’Brien could ascertain in reality. In the former, narrator-O’Brien imagines Norman Bowker’s point of view regarding his thoughts and emotions upon returning to his parents’ home after the war has ended. Either author-O’Brien is imposing his own experiences on the character of Bowker, or he is able to speculate on what Bowker’s point of view might have been using his own imagination and drawing somewhat from his own experience. In addition, writing this story in fiction allows O’Brien to imagine counterfactuals that his character, Bowker, considers.

A counterfactual is essentially an occurrence that could have happened, but did not. It is any happening that did not occur, but could be imagined to occur. The genre of fiction allows writers to use the technique of counterfactuals in their work. Herzog asserts that the use of counterfactuals enables O’Brien “to explore events years after the fact, imagining alternate possibilities, reaffirming previous decisions, and recovering key emotions” (Herzog 909, 2000). For example, O’Brien’s Bowker imagines telling the story of Kiowa’s death to his father, though he knows he will never tell it. The not telling is the fact within the story; the telling is the counterfactual.  As author-O’Brien imagines what Bowker would imagine, and narrator-O’Brien relates Bowker’s musings to readers, O’Brien is able to reflect on his own return home after the war, just as he allows the character of Bowker to reflect on his actions in the war as he imagines relating them to his father.

O’Brien also imagines counterfactuals in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Narrator-O’Brien explains that characters Mary Anne and Mark Fossie had always “known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old together” (O’Brien 1990, 94). This scenario, ironically, ends up being not the fact, but the counterfactual, as Mary Anne ends up joining the Green Berets and, ultimately, disappearing into the mountains of Vietnam.

Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” also provides an apt example of the use of counterfactuals. Most of the story is told through dialogue, a conversation in which a wife assails her husband with could-have, would-have, should-have elements. The husband, in turn, laments his lost promise as a writer; he is dying, having never written down all the stories in his head. Not only does Hemingway give his characters the opportunity to imagine counterfactuals to their circumstance (they are on safari, an activity Hemingway himself experienced), but the story in and of itself imagines a counterfactual for Hemingway; namely, he could have ended up like the husband-character he creates—having never written any of his stories down. Instead, he seems to say, he is the opposite of this character, having mastered his art and used his talent to the fullest (Harding 2011).

A Safe Way to Explore Threatening Subject Matter: Creating Emotional Distance

In addition to allowing writers the freedom to imagine various points of view and counterfactuals, many writers may choose to write fiction because it allows them to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. For some writers, the subjects they explore in their fiction may seem too threatening to convey in any other form. Somehow, fictionalizing the topic, whatever it may be—war, domestic violence, crime, regret, disappointment—makes the topic more accessible to the writer as subject matter. In his discussion of some of Norman Mailer’s work, D’Amore asserts that Mailer’s use of the third-person, even in his nonfictional autobiographical work, “allows Mailer freedom” because it distances him from his own experiences (D’Amore 2011, 116). Fictionalizing a life experience can provide further emotional distance for a writer, thus allowing for more fearless exploration of the experience. John Edgar Wideman, another author studied by D’Amore, “has protected himself with…fiction, his ‘memory whiting out what it doesn’t require to construct a representative day’ that lets him keep what he want [sic.] to remember and forget what he feels he needs to” (D’Amore 2011, 166). In fictionalizing a traumatic or difficult experience, a writer is able to choose with which material he or she will work. He or she can consciously decide on which elements of the experience to focus, and can fill in the blanks with imagination. An author studied by writer Anneli Knight explains that with fiction, “you can really answer those bigger questions…. You can explore things that are really difficult to explore” (Knight 2011, 3).

Fiction’s allowance for the creation of emotional distance is likely one reason it is a genre in which Tim O’Brien chooses to work. Much of O’Brien’s writing is self-reflexive, and The Things They Carried is no exception (Smith 1994, 1). In “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien explains, “…the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that really happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that…help to clarify and explain” (O’Brien 1990, 158). Herzog writes with some perplexity as to why author-O’Brien, in talks and interviews, has often “given contradictory responses to questions about his own postwar adjustment” (Herzog 2000, 901). Based on O’Brien’s statement above and his use of fiction writing to help “objectify [his] own experience,” one may wonder if perhaps he himself does not know the answers, but is using the emotional distance he creates through his writing to find them. Narrator-O’Brien says in “Good Form” that writing allows him to “look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God” (O’Brien 1990, 180). In other words, the emotional distance fiction allows O’Brien to create enables him to explore deep human emotions and questions, such as those mentioned above.

One threatening incident author-O’Brien considers in The Things They Carried is the fact that he entertained the idea of fleeing to Canada rather than allowing himself to be drafted into a war he did not support. The actual details related in his short story, On The Rainy River,” however, are not factually true. They are imagined, invented (Herzog 2000, 895). Imagining a scenario in which to express the inner conflict he felt allows O’Brien to achieve the emotional distance he needs in order to relate the real emotions he experienced as a young man. Through a make-believe situation and make-believe characters (narrator-O’Brien and the old man who houses him for six days), author-O’Brien is able to safely explore and express the real emotions he experienced. Narrator-O’Brien relates, “I can still feel the tightness. And I want you to feel it…. You’re at the bow of a boat…. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared….

“What would you do?

“Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood…?” (O’Brien 1990, 56). In this passage from “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien uses emotional distance in at least two ways. First, he begins in the first-person perspective. Despite the use of first-person, O’Brien has achieved a small degree of emotional distance for himself here solely in the fact that narrator-O’Brien is not exactly the same man as author-O’Brien. In creating narrator-O’Brien, who experiences a similar internal struggle but in an imagined circumstance, author-O’Brien allows himself to relive and explore this emotional and tumultuous experience. Second, though O’Brien increases emotional distance for himself, he decreases it slightly for his audience. When he jumps from first-person to second-person, O’Brien is demanding that the reader consider how he or she would feel in the same position. He is almost forcing his reader to feel what he felt, to ask the questions he had to ask himself. Marilyn Wesley, an English professor at Hartwick College, asserts that O’Brien’s desire to “engage the reader”—to make the reader feel what he felt—“is so powerful that O’Brien frequently presents his own experiences in the second person” (Wesley 2002, 2).

Another example of an experience for which O’Brien uses the technique of emotional distance is the death of his childhood love, Linda, who died at age nine. Narrator O’Brien explains in “The Lives of the Dead”: In objective reality, Linda is dead, “But in a story…I can revive…that which is absolute and unchanging…. Miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up” (O’Brien 1990, 236). It is very possible that one reason O’Brien choose to render this and other difficult experiences in fiction is due to the fact that the genre allows him not only to create emotional distance that enables him to look back with a little less pain, but also because it provides him the opportunity to imagine the counterfactual: Linda as not dead, but as being saved, and very much alive, in a story.

Hemingway, too, writes in a way that allows him to maintain emotional distance but that creates a very impactful emotional experience for readers. His short story “Old Man At The Bridge” is based on a first-hand experience he had in Spain, and provides an example of this talent. At just 800 words, the story is one of Hemingway’s shortest (Schoettler 1999, 1). The tale tells of an old man, a refugee of the Spanish Civil War, who has had to leave the farm where he was taking care of a few animals, about whom he is very worried, and feels badly about leaving. At the end of the brief story, a reader is left with a keen sense of tragedy and sadness. In under 1000 words, “Hemingway sums up the hopelessness of the refugee and the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Civil War” (Schoettler 1999, 4). MIT associate professor William B. Watson calls the short story a “portrait of a moment central to the experience of…all wars in which ordinary people are innocent victims” (Schoettler 1999, 4). Although this story aligns very closely with what Hemingway himself was believed to have experienced regarding this old refugee, he still opted to write the tale as a fictional one, allowing himself the comfort of emotional distance.

Coherence, Meaning, and Human Connectedness

Thus far, two techniques usable in the writing of fiction have been discussed here; namely, multiple points of view and counterfactuals, and emotional distance. Another technique fiction writing allows a writer to utilize is imposed coherence in order to communicate a specific purpose, meaning, or theme. While people read to know they are not alone, they also write because they are not alone. “The primary purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone” (Hallberg 2012, 50). One might note here that whether “us” refers to writers or to readers is ambiguous, and likely, the pronoun refers to both antecedents, because “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist…loneliness” (Hallberg 2012, 51). Fiction writing, then, satisfies one’s own need to feel connected, as well as communicating to others their own connectedness, their own belonging. Because fiction writing allows a writer to add, subtract, or imaginatively create certain scenarios, conversations, circumstances, etc., the fictional story can be made to work for the writer’s purpose—can be made to convey the exact theme or message the author intends. So, why write fiction? Allan Peterkin, MD, the founding editor of Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine; The Arts and Humanities, asserts that many contributors to his publication choose to write fiction because “stories…insist on meaning” (Peterkin 2010, 1650), something humans have always sought. Peterkin goes on to explain that to make a story “comprehensible or…interesting” a writer has to “re-enter and re-imagine” the motivating real-life experience at the story’s core. “Fiction-writing physicians…identify the impetus for a story…. Part of craft is using that detail as a point of departure, then moving onto something entirely new” (Peterkin 2010, 1651). Essentially, each writer’s life is clay. To write fiction is to take each real-life experience, and morph it as necessary to extract the desired message or meaning.

Poet Inger Christensen explains that “One of the most important elements…is the novelist’s message,” the emotional truth he or she wants to impart (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 4-5). Because fiction allows a writer to impose his or her own structure and coherence to express the desired meaning, it is a desirable genre in which to work for writers who have a specific theme in mind. “Narrative structured as fiction can provide clarification and some access to the truth of one’s experience” (D’Amore 2011, 224). Fiction writers who write from their own life experiences then, as O’Brien and Hemingway do, are—because they work in the flexible world of fiction—given the capacity “to select, and then translate and illuminate, everything that has been observed so that it seems to the audience something entirely new, something entirely true” (Trollope 2001, 1). In her critique on O’Brien’s semiautobiographical novel The Things They Carried, Lorrie Smith explains that the book “celebrates the reconstructive power of the imagination, which gives shape, substance, and significance to slippery emotion and memory” (Smith 1994,1). Indeed, much of what narrator-O’Brien relates to readers seems to support Smith’s assertion. In “How To Tell a True War Story,” narrator-O’Brien asserts, “All you can do is tell it…adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth” (O’Brien 1990, 85). In this statement O’Brien confirms the fact that writing fiction—“adding and subtracting, making up a few things”—is what allows him to impose coherence on an experience, and thus to extract meaning, or “get at the real truth.” In “Spin,” narrator-O’Brien fairly states why author-O’Brien might use fiction to impose coherence: “Stories are for…when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are” (O’Brien 1990, 38). In fiction, what is forgotten can be filled in with imagination, and what is imagined is malleable and can be worked into a piece that conveys the author’s specific intent.

For example, author-O’Brien does not have a young daughter named Kathleen, but he makes one up for narrator-O’Brien of the novel. Why? The character of Kathleen, who constantly questions why her father feels the need to write war stories all the time, allows narrator-O’Brien to remember, reshape, and reflect on his war experience (Smith 1994, 4). “All we have are a series of disconnected moments with infinitely discoverable meanings” (Whitlock 2003, 1), and writers can discover and express these meanings through fiction writing by imposing coherence—such as author-O’Brien’s need to create the fictional daughter, Kathleen.

Herzog refers to O’Brien’s somewhat muddled mixing of his real life with his fictional Tim O’Brien narrator’s life as “literary lies” (Herzog 2000, 895), and discusses readers’ frustration with their inability to discern what is fiction from what is fact. He asserts that what many readers may be missing, is the fact that O’Brien’s goal through his fiction is to “make readers feel rather than know” (Herzog 2000, 911). Author-O’Brien is not interested in whether or not there was a real man named Henry Dobbins who always wore his girlfriend’s stockings tied around his neck for comfort and good luck. He is not interested in whether or not when, upon learning that “his girlfriend dumped him…he went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter” (O’Brien 1990, 118). What author-O’Brien is interested in is that his readers are made to feel, through his constructions, the loneliness of all soldiers at war. What writing fiction does in allowing for imposed coherence, is allow the “use of imagination to transform facts and reveal emotional truths transcending the limits of his or her [the writer’s] memory” (Herzog 2000, 906). As O’Brien’s character Mitchell Sander’s says after telling his own story to some of the men (which is then retold by narrator-O’Brien to the reader), “I had to make up a few things…But it’s still true” (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 3). Similarly, as narrator-O’Brien explains regarding “On The Rainy River,” “Some of it’s true,…not in the literal sense,” but “in the way I worried about it” (qtd. in Mehren 1990, 2).

O’Brien’s short story “Speaking of Courage” is an apt example of O’Brien’s using imposed coherence on a story in order to communicate his desired meaning. The story tells of character Norman Bowker’s experience after he has returned home from Vietnam. It predominantly traces one evening, which Bowker spends driving around and around the same seven-mile circumference of a lake near his house. In the story that comes after “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien confesses his use of the fictional device of imposed coherence, explaining he had used a letter from Bowker as the “emotional core” for the story, and then, “To provide a dramatic frame, I collapsed events into a single time and place” (O’Brien 1990, 158). He also created a “natural counterpoint between the lake and the field. A metaphoric unity….” (O’Brien 1990, 159). O’Brien’s reasons for choosing to express this story in fiction are clear.

“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” also hints at O’Brien’s reasons for writing fiction. In this short story, narrator-O’Brien relates to readers a story he heard from another character in the story, Rat Kiley. Rat is narrating the story to Mitchell Sanders, and at one point asks Sanders to predict the outcome of the story. To explain why he predicts the outcome he does, Sanders lists the occurrences and clues provided in Rat’s story, and then says, “—all that had to be there for a reason. That’s how stories work, man” (O’Brien 1990, 102). Sander’s response is telling.

Preservation of Privacy

In addition to allowing writers to explore multiple points of view and counterfactuals, create emotional distance to explore and reflect on difficult subjects, and impose coherence for the purpose of extracting meaning, writing fiction also allows writers to preserve their own privacy, as well as the privacy of others who may somehow play a role in their literary works. “Whether labeling their work fiction or nonfiction, writers who use their own lives as source material…work within the same constraints they live; namely, that we are not alone” (D’Amore 2011, 69). In other words, people will read what has been written, and people’s lives may be affected by what was written. Fiction, however, can guard against some negative effects of possible public scrutiny of an author’s personal life, or the personal lives of his subject, because fiction allows far more than the simple changing of names and dates; in writing fiction, an author can alter entire situations, as needed. When writing fiction, “A writer can use his or her own life as  material…in a way that distances the finished text from the private person” (D’Amore 2011, 56). Because there is no need to be honest—factually truthful, that is—in writing of one’s life in the context of fiction, a writer of fiction can take creative liberties that a journalist or other nonfiction writer may not be able to take (Herzog 2000, 894).

David Ignatius, who writes spy stories based on experiences he has had working as a journalist overseas, sometimes in precarious situations, says he writes fiction to protect not only the identities, but also the safety, of the people who inspire his stories. He explains, “I learned…the inner details of the operation [the CIA’s recruitment of Yasser Arafat’s intelligence chief in the 1970s]—including the names of people who were still at risk…. [T]he best way to narrate what I knew as in a novel” (Ignatius 2011, 1). Ignatius’s decision to write of his experience in fiction was pragmatic; it allowed him to get at the emotional core of his experience while avoiding the endangerment of those involved.

Former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and author Oliver North, who writes mysteries and thrillers inspired by people he considers real-life heroes, chooses to write fiction for a similar reason. He explains, “…telling these stories presents the prospect of disclosing information or identities that would put brave men and women in…peril. That’s why these are novels—where actual names, dates, places, and classified tactics, techniques, and capabilities are altered” (North 2012, 1).

Hemingway, too, likely chose fiction in part to preserve his own privacy and the privacy of many of the women in his life. In his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” discussed earlier for its use of counterfactuals, Hemingway’s character Harry considers why he never wrote about all the good times and bad times he had experienced with his various past lovers. Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that “He had never written any of that because…he never wanted to hurt any one” (Hemingway 1987, 49). If, as discussed above, Harry is somewhat representative of Hemingway in his talent for writing (despite his lack of ability to now use that talent), and is in fact a sort of anti-Hemingway in that Hemingway seems to be declaring to readers that he himself has not squandered his talent as his character has (Harding 2011), readers can also deduce that while Harry did not write of “any of that” to avoid hurting people, Hemingway did write it; he just wrote it in fiction, in a way that would still preserve the privacy of those who had been involved.

Conclusion

Although popular thinking on the genre of fiction seems to imply fiction is imagined or otherwise untrue, many writers choose to write fiction for the flexibility it offers in terms of the use of artistic literary techniques. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to imagine multiple points of view, thus enabling them to explore multiple emotional (as opposed to factual) truths. Fiction writing in particular allows writers to explore multiple truths or points of view, because they can create and access the perceptions and perspectives of the various fictional characters they create. In addition, because fiction allows for a certain amount of creation and imagination, it permits a writer to imagine counterfactuals, or the way things could have been. Exploring the way things are not allows writers to explore possible reasons for the way things are. Fiction also allows writers to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. Some fiction writers use their works of fiction to explore the meaning in their own experiences, as well as to give significance to their lives and the lives of others, as D’Amore (2011) asserts of Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History[2]. Because fiction allows its writers to create emotional distance between themselves and their subjects or topics, these writers are able to explore otherwise difficult topics, as may be the case with Tim O’Brien’s war stories. While exploring the way things are and expressing truths about the way things are, writers of fiction are also able not only to discover they are not alone in a myriad of ways, but also to express this grand and comforting truth to their readers. Fiction enables a writer to do this because it allows a writer to manipulate occurrences for his or her own artistic purposes. In other words, fiction allows for the imposition of coherence on a story and thus can allow the writer to more effectively communicate his or her intended message, theme, or meaning. In this way, fiction writing becomes not only a selfish act of self-reflection, but also a selfless act of communicating to others their own connectedness to a larger human family, a family that shares similar emotions and experiences. Lastly and perhaps most simplistically and obviously, some fiction writers choose the genre based on their need to protect their own privacy and/or the privacy of those about whom they write and from whom they glean inspiration.

[1] In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien gave his fictional narrator his own name. To distinguish between the real Tim O’Brien and the narrator of the novel, the distinctions “author-O’Brien” and “narrator-O’Brien” will be employed when necessary. The former refers to the real man, whereas the latter refers to the speaker in the text.

[2]  Although Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History is often labeled nonfiction, Mailer says “The idea that non-fiction is reality and fiction is fiction is something I have been trying to disabuse people of for 50 years…I have always liked to mix the categories…to the point where they [the readers] will begin to see there is not that much difference” (qtd. in D’Amore 2011, 67).

Reference List

Adams, Tim. 1998. Novelist leaves his wife and kids. Novelist writes about

why a man leaves his wife and kids. Fiction. Or is it? The Observer May 11.

Calloway, Catherine. 1995. How to tell a true war story: Metafiction in

The things they carried. Critique 36, no. 4: 249.

D’Amore, Jonathan L. 2011. The writing life: Authorship and authority in

recent American autobiographical narratives.

David, Dan. 2004. Why do they write? Windspeaker 22:18.

Hallberg, Garth Risk. 2012. Why write novels at all? Riff January 15: 50-51.

Harding, Jennifer Riddle. 2011. “He had never written a word of that”:

Regret and counterfactuals in Hemingway’s “The snows of

Kilimanjaro.” The Hemingway Review 30:21-35.

Hemingway, Ernest. 1987. The complete short stories of Ernest

         Hemingway: The Finca Vigia edition. Ed. Charles Scribner, Jr. New York: Scribner.

Herzog, Tobey C.  2000. Tim O’Brien’s “True Lies” (?). Modern Fiction Studies

        46, 4: 893-916.

Ignatius, David. 2011. Why I write. Publishers Weekly 258, no 18: 25.

Knight, Annelli. 2011. I believe you, liar: Can truth be told in fiction?

         Journal of the Australian Universities Modern Language Association

116: 45-63.

Mehren, Elizabeth. 1990. Fiction rings true in O’Brien’s Vietnam. Orlando

        Sentinel April 06: E4.

North, Oliver. 2012. Why I write…Oliver North: Mysteries and thrillers.

Publishers Weekly 259, no. 47: 20.

O’Brien, Tim. 1990. The things they carried. New York: Broadway Books.

Peterkin, Allan. 2010. Why we write (and how we can do it better). Canadian

         Medical Association Journal 182:1650-1652.

Schoettler, Carl. 1999. At times he put pure gold on paper. The Sun July 21:

1E.

Solomon, Andy. 1990. Review of The things they carried, by Tim O’Brien

The Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review, March 25.

Andysolomonwriter.com.

Smith, Lorrie N. 1994. “The things men do”: The gendered subtext in Tim

O’Brien’s Esquire stories. Critique 36, no. 1: 16.

Trollope, Joanna. 2001. One of England’s most popular novelists reflects on

what writers do and why fiction matters. The Washington Post September 30: WBK.8.

Wesley, Marilyn. 2002. Truth and fiction in Tim O’Brien’s If I die in a combat

        zone and The things they carried. College Literature 29, no. 2: 1-18.

Whitlock, Nathan. 2003. Twisting one’s own arm to write fiction. Books in

        Canada 32, no. 5: 3.

 

 

Got 10 Minutes? New Anthology Accepting Submissions

Want to write and maybe even see your work published, but don’t feel like you have the time? Well, good news: You do. That is, if you have ten minutes to spare, you do.

The Life in 10 Minutes method of writing encourages people to set a timer for ten minutes–that’s all–and just write. You can work from a prompt, or just write whatever comes out. The only thing that matters is that you write. For ten minutes. And then you stop. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over-edit it. Don’t apologize for it. Just write it.

In addition to providing you with a way to make sure you write each day, if only for ten minutes, Life in 10 Minutes offers workshops for writers of all levels, from all backgrounds, throughout the year. Over the winter months, I participated in one of these workshops, and I highly recommend it to any writers looking to work with like-minded people, channel their creativity, experiment, learn, and receive immediate and personalized feedback.

Life in 10 Minutes also provides a platform for writers to publish their 10s (pieces they wrote using the Life in 10 Minutes method described above) online. You can read samples of other writers’ 10s here. (Shameless self-promotion: You can find my 10 here.)

image
The Life in 10 Minutes method encourages writers to write a short piece in just 10 minutes–and then submit it to their brand new anthology, due out in October. Submissions are due July 15.

The newest development in the Life in 10 Minutes world is the anthology, both digital and print, which has a publication goal of October 2016. Submissions are due by July 15, 2016, and guidelines can be found here. Here are the basics:

  1. Hand write one, two, or three 10s. Pieces between 100 and 600 words will be given priority.
  2. Type up your 10(s), editing (not butchering–be gentle; the piece should be raw and honest and organic) as you type.
  3. Submission can be published nowhere else, short of your own blog or lifein10minutes.com.
  4. To submit, click here.
  5. If your piece has been chosen for inclusion, you will be notified by August 1.

Happy writing, and best of luck!