The Big Read Blog (Archive)

War, Sentence by Sentence

Washington, DC

Tim O'Brien in Conversation with Tobias Wolff on "Writing and War" from Stanford Humanities on Vimeo.

Back in February, Big Read authors and Vietnam veterans Tim O?Brien and Tobias Wolff sat down for a conversation titled ?Writing and War? at Stanford University. O?Brien of course authored the iconic war novel The Things They Carried, while Wolff---author of Big Read selection Old School---recounted his own Vietnam experience in In Pharaoh?s Army.

The 80-minute conversation now lives at, and it?s more than worth taking the time to watch it. The authors talk about everything from the need to aestheticize war so that we can study it, to avoiding literary clichés about Vietnam. O?Brien also talks about his own inner turmoil about his life as an unwilling soldier, while both men ruminate on the cultural and emotional implications of a draft.

There are a lot of gems throughout the talk, but here are a few lines from O'Brien that particularly jumped out:

?Part of what literature is about is a study of, and a contemplation of, and meditation on being human, in all its aspects.?

?All the linguistic machinery that we have for talking about [war] seems to kind of distance it, keep it away from us. Whereas story does exactly the opposite thing. It immerses us in it.?

?To be a good fiction writer, you have to have a poetic sensibility. Language matters. How a thing is said determines what the thing is. So my struggle really as a writer is not with war and big thematic stuff, it?s really on the sentence level. Not even the sentence level ? the phrase level, the syllable level, the rhythm level.?

?Why do men do these terrible things? Why do we do these things? I have no answer. I just want to explore the mystery and maybe even make it more mysterious. That?s my real interest.?

Please visit The Big Read website to learn more about O'Brien and The Things They Carried, as well as for more information about Tobias Wolff.

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