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2020-11-23T18:18 [writing/homework age/university] How to Tell a True Story

Sam Hatfield

Professor Mayhan


How to Tell a True Story

Storytelling is an act of self expression that people do on an every day basis: friends telling each other funny events in their lives, family sharing anecdotes at mealtimes, and writers inscribing narratives in book form. Tim O’Brian has written various books’ worth of stories, inspired and shaped by his experiences in the Vietnam War. One particular piece, “How to Tell a True War Story”, shifts its focus from a direct experience in Vietnam to the act of telling stories about the experience. This piece features two storytelling voices, the author’s and that of a character in the story, Mitchell Sanders. The technique of embedding a story told by a fictional voice within the larger text is a clever allegory for the author’s own writing. Not only does O’Brian’s “How to Tell a True War Story” explore telling stories about war in various ways, but it also explores how a good story is told.

The essence of storytelling is found in the dichotomy of reality and perception, or as O’Brian puts it, “happeningness” and “seemingness”. Philosophically, the distinction between reality and perception has been debated extensively; however, in storytelling, actual events do not matter, happeningness is irrelevant. What seems to happen, the cognitive perception of events is more important– “what seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way” (545). This is because storytelling is an act of self-expressing art, not of empirical science. What actually happens to Lemon is that he “stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead” (548). How it seems to O’Brian is this; “They were goofing. There was a noise, I suppose…so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into the bright sunlight…and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” (545). The second passage is more involved that the first one, because perception influences experience.

The perception of the soldiers in Sanders’ story is equally influencial upon their collective experience while on LP. The soldiers hear “gook opera and a glee club…and Buddha-Buddha stuff” (546); “Vietnam, the place talks” (547). How can Sanders claim that the story is “absolutely dead-on true” (546)? This reflects the happeningness vs. seemingness dichotomy; how something happens is more vivid in the artist’s mind that what actually happens.

How a story happens is a foundation upon the construction of the story– how it is told. But how many ways can a thing be said? The events “How to Tell a True War Story” are told in nonchronological fragments with authorial interruptions of narrative. If the story were to be told ordinally, the first passage would describe Lemon’s death; however, the beginning scene is about Rat’s letter to Lemon’s sister. Furthermore, O’Brian does not show us the death of Lemon just once, but three times. The third time, O’Brian writes, “if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth” (551). Because O’Brian revisits the death of Lemon multiple times, each from a different angle, our vision of that moment becomes more sophisticated than if the narrative described it at the beginning and left it there. How the tale is told is the essential skill of a storyteller.

Just as our view of Lemon’s death is different with each version, the nature of an entire story changes each time it is told. With each rendering, some parts are retracted, and some elements reappear in different ways. Whether the story is spoken or written determines the nature of change made by repetition. Oral storytelling predates writing, but both forms are equally valid. In fact, O’Brian executes both of these forms within “How to Tell a True War Story”.

Oral storytelling involves the direct interaction between storyteller and audience. After opening his story to the narrator, Mitchell Sanders “glanced at [him] to make sure [he] had the scenario” (545). Oral storytelling is a performance, with dramatic pauses, voice inflection, and gestures. Sanders takes a pause from his story, “[he] was quiet for a second, just working the yo-yo” (546).

The details of an oral story change with each telling, When Sanders approaches O’Brian again, and retells the story by repealing some details, “I got a confession to make…the glee club. There wasn’t any glee club” (548). Although a small change in the scheme of the rest of Sander’s story, it reflects the storyteller’s challenge of getting the details just right to convey a greater meaning.

The challenge of remembering minute detail is alleviated to a degree for written works, only because the details are recorded in tangible form of ink and paper. The difficulty for writers in achieving their artistic effects lies in the fact that it is a literary art, and therefore no audience participation. Because

“How to Tell a True War Story” is not only a study of storytelling, it is a well-written story in itself. The well-written story has continuity, and it converges on a concise ‘point’. Every detail in the story contributes to the effect. The voice of the story is written in first person, to make it more personal. One of the motifs in this story is ‘how people don’t listen’. The first thing that O’Brian tells us about is how Rat writes a letter to Lemon’s sister, but “the dumb cooze never wrote back” (544). One of the morals of Sander’s story is “Nobody listens. Nobody hears nothing.” (547). The “older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics” tells him it was a good story, but that he should “move on. Find new stories to tell” (551). O’Brian says she isn’t listen either. These three instances of ‘how people don’t listen’ are explicated at the end of the story, in which O’Brian writes, “In the end, a true war story is never about war… It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen” (552)