Love, War, Courage, and Writing

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is not only an amazing book of stories about love and war, Vietnam and death, friendship and courage, but also the best collection I’ve come across about why we write stories, how to write them, and their effects on writers and readers. In other words, its both fiction masterpiece and how-to manual. And “Speaking of Courage,” one of Things‘ stories (or, rather, chapters), I’ve found to be an excellent piece to use as an introduction to the book as well as a prompt.

“Speaking of Courage” (the first half of the story can be found here; the second half here) follows a Vietnam veteran named Paul Berlin as he drives around a lake in his Wisconsin hometown and ruminates on the war, his youth, and his future. How I like to use this story as a prompt is by first reading aloud its beautiful opening paragraph:

The war was over, and there was no place in particular to go. Paul Berlin followed the tar road in its seven-mile loop around the lake, then he started all over again, driving slowly, feeling safe inside his father’s big Chevy, now and again looking out onto the lake to watch the boats and waterskiers and scenery. It was Sunday and it was summer, and things seemed pretty much the same. The lake was the same. The houses were the same, all low-slung and split level and modern, porches and picture windows facing the water. The lots were spacious. On the lake-side of the road, the houses were handsome and set deep in, well-kept and painted, with docks jutting out into the lake, and boats moored and covered with canvas, and gardens, and sometimes even gardeners, and stone patios with barbecue spits and grills, and wooden shingles saying who lived where. On the other side of the road, to his left, the houses were also handsome, though less expensive and on a smaller scale and with no docks or boats or wooden shingles. The road was a sort of boundary between the affluent and the almost affluent, and to live on the lake-side of the road was one of the few natural privileges in a town of the prairie—the difference between watching the sun set over cornfields or over the lake. 

Afterward, I invite others (or simply do the following myself if not working in a group) to write a piece of prose or a poem from the point of view of themselves or a character traveling by car, train, boat, plane, bike, or skateboard (or any other moving vehicle), describing what they or the character see, think, and feel while in motion.

In addition, to those unfamiliar with The Things They Carried, a book I love, I pass along an invitation to read it carefully, and often.