Excerpts from Tim O'Brien's talk, "The Things That Writers Carry"
Although tonight's event was billed as a lecture, it really won't be. I'm not the kind of person who has a temperament for abstractions and generalizations. They have a place, of course, but a good abstraction or generalization is by and large aimed at your head and what your head believes. As a storyteller and as a person who trusts story, I think a well-told story, a good story, addresses not just the head. It addresses the whole human body: the tear ducts, the scalp, the back of your neck and spine, even the stomach. So what I thought I'd do tonight is instead of delivering a formal lecture, I'd deliver a sort of informal one, hoping that through telling a couple of stories to you, just extemporaneously, my message would come through.
For those of you who don't get the message I'm going to tell it in advance. What I'm going to be talking about more or less is everything but Vietnam. I'm known as a Vietnam writer. And I am, but I am not just that. Vietnam was thirteen months of my life. I bring to my writing a lot more than a war. I bring to it a childhood, and a mom and a dad and girlfriends and a brother and a sister‹a whole constellation of things. You don't need to go to a war, climb a mountain, have cancer to be a writer. A life itself will deliver plenty of sorrow and tragedy and betrayal and grief; you don't have to go looking for it. So what I thought I'd do tonight is tell you one or two stories in hope that these sources that go beyond Vietnam, that have meant a lot to me as a writer, I can share with you. For those of you who want to be writers or are even contemplating the possibility, I offer by way of small ordinary stories a little encouragement that you can do as well.
I grew up in a small prairie town in southern Minnesota. The town was called Worthington; the population about 9,000 at the time. If you look in the dictionary under the word "boring" you'll find a little pen and ink illustration of my hometown. What do I tell you about this place? On one side of Highway 16 coming into town is a big field of soybeans and on other side a field of corn. Take your pick! The place billed itself‹and to this day does bill itself‹as "The Turkey Capital of the World," and takes incredible pride in that for reasons that are well beyond me. I should tell you about Turkey Day. Every September there was an event called Turkey Day. I think it was September 15 or some day around there. I want to tell you what Turkey Day was. On the morning of Turkey Day the farmers would get up around six o'clock in the morning and would put all their turkeys in pick up trucks and they'd bring them into town. They'd dump their turkeys at one end of Main Street in front of what was then a Standard Oil station. We the citizens of Worthington around nine or ten in the morning would congregate on Main Street on the curbs and sidewalks, and we'd watch the farmers march their Turkeys up Main Street and then we'd go home. And this was our big day! So imagine what the rest of the days were like. If that's your best day, the rest must have been a total nightmare. It was. It was a town full of typical Kiwanis boys and holier-than-thou preachers‹Mid-America. I'm sure there are a million towns like it spread out across the universe, not just America. The kind of town Sinclair Lewis wrote so actively about.
What do you do if you're say, seven years old or so growing up in this godforsaken spot in the universe? Well, one thing you could do if you were a boy back then, you could play little league baseball in the summer. There was a very well organized little league thing going on in Worthington, and I played a crappy short-stop for the Kiwanis little league team. I couldn't field. I couldn't hit. I couldn't run, couldn't throw. Otherwise not a bad shortstop, I guess. I remember a day somewhere in the mid-fifties coming off the baseball field after a particularly abysmal practice session, booting ground balls left and right, making a total fool of myself and trudging home on a hot, hot Friday afternoon. On the way home I passed a building that for me was the only real refuge in Worthington‹a place where you could find a kind of sanctuary from the relentless monotony. The building was the Nobles county library, one of the old Carnegie Libraries that dot the Midwest and I think a portion of the South as well. I went into this place, and a thing happened in that library that meant as much to me as anything that happened in Vietnam, and had as much to do with my becoming a writer as anything that happened to me in Vietnam. I was a seven- maybe eightyear-old kid. If I were to close my eyes now, I would be back in that library. I could see the ceiling fans spinning, smell the wax on the floors, smell the glue and ink‹those library, kind of musty, smells that physically made my whole body relax. The first thing I did was look for a bathroom, just to let it out. You know that library, peaceful feeling? That's what it did for me.
Well, on this particular Friday afternoon, I went into the children's section, and just by the gratuity of life came across a book that made me into a writer in a lot of ways. It was not Shakespeare; I was nothing out of the modernists or post-modernists. It was a book called "Larry of the Little League." I read this thing in an hour. It was a short little book for kids, and this kid Larry could do everything that I couldn't do as a shortstop. This kid could flied, hit, run and throw. He could do it all. What a player! So I went over to the librarian and I asked her for some paper and a pen. In the course of the next two hours or so, I composed the entirety of my first novel. It was only thirty pages long, but I thought of it as a novel. The title of which was "Timmy of the League." It was a direct rip-off of Larry. My mom and dad still have this‹what I thought of as my first novel. They threatened to turn it over to the Washington Post or the New York Times if I misbehaved. On page ten or so of this first novel, "Timmy of the Little League," the character of Timmy gets the game winning hit as the Kiwanis little league team defeated the Ben Franklin team one to nothing, and I'm the hero of the game who drove in the run. In the middle of the book somewhere, the Worthington, Minnesota, Kiwanis little league team goes up to the Twin Cities, where we defeated a team from a very ritzy suburb called Edina. We all heated this place: it was full of rich kids. We beat them thirty to nothing, and I scored all thirty runs, got all the hits. I threw the ball to first base, caught it at first base. I did it all! At the end of the book at page thirty, the Worthington, Minnesota, little league the Kiwanis Little League team went to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to the little league world series, where we defeated Taiwan eighty to nothing. I scored all eighty runs again! I don't know how it happened!
There's a reason I tell you this story, a couple of reasons. One is that the sources that go into the desire to write are not all what we think of in the traditional sense of major import: war, cancer. They can have to do with very minor little things like, "Larry of the Little League." A little event in your life can mean a lot to you. But more importantly, I tell you this story for another reason which is this: too often established writers are asked questions on television or interviews about the sources that go into their writing; they forget to mention books like "Larry of the Little League" or the Boxcar Children or Wonder Books or Hansel and Gretle, whatever first when you're very young generates an interest and a love of writing and reading. We always point to the Shakespeares and so on, but we neglect those little sources that mean so much to us that make us want to, in our dreams, become writers.