The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Workshopping The Things They Carried

Joyce Wilson-Young. Photo courtesy of Wilson-Young

On April 4 and 5, residents of Cochran, Georgia, gathered for a two-night writing workshop based on the community's Big Read selection of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. More than a dozen participants, from high school sophomores to retirees, and some with family and friends in the military, gathered for the workshop, which was conducted by Joyce Wilson-Young and Adam Young, both professors at Middle Georgia College. Wilson-Young currently teaches composition and creative writing courses and is working on her memoir. We spoke with her via e-mail about the workshop.

NEA: What was the inspiration for this event? Why does The Things They Carried lend itself so well to a writing workshop?

JOYCE WILSON-YOUNG: Because The Things They Carried explores the very nature of storytelling, it’s the perfect book for a writing workshop. We discussed the motivating factors for telling our own stories, how we could structurally write them, and what makes for a great story, one that we want to read and tell over and over. Specifically, the stories “How to Tell a True War Story,” “The Lives of the Dead,” and “On the Rainy River” lend themselves to this sort of discussion because we see O’Brien struggling with the telling, the “story truth,” and the structure of a story.

NEA: What was the most important thing, or one piece of advice, you tried to convey to workshop participants?

WILSON-YOUNG: To accept failure. No one can expect to write “the perfect story” which will please everyone. There will always be one that’s better, for one reason or another, or someone who finds fault in the subject or telling of your story. I encourage my students to write for a specific audience and please that person/those people. And to continue to accept failure. Not every draft is perfect. All writers fail at least once. Those worth reading again and again have failed more than once. Failure has enabled them to write well.

NEA: Do you have a favorite short story from The Things They Carried? What makes it stand out?

WILSON-YOUNG: “The Lives of the Dead” is my favorite for a few reasons. First, I love the idea of a story having the ability of bringing the dead back to life. As little Linda tells young O’Brien in a dream, being dead is like “being inside a book that nobody's reading […] It's up on a library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading." As a writer of creative non-fiction, it’s important to me to tell the stories of others so that they are alive on the page. When I’m gone, I want my writing to be a record not just of my existence, but of who I was. Secondly, this story is wonderful because it captures the love story at the heart of the book---the love O’Brien felt as a child for little Linda, but more importantly, the love he felt for the men in his company, specifically for Kiowa. In “How to Tell a True War Story” he writes, “It’s not a war story. It’s a love story." I think, at least for me, that idea doesn’t fully resonate until we get to “The Lives of the Dead.” Plus, I simply love the way the narratives of Kiowa and Linda are woven together in the final story. The use of white space, of non-story, to impress upon the reader the feelings of loss and frustration are particularly moving.

NEA: Tim O’Brien is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and writing this book must have been very therapeutic. Have you see writing working this way in your own life? Was it addressed at the workshop?

WILSON-YOUNG: In my own life, writing helps me to sort out what I think about what I think. I’m the adult child of an incarcerated parent and writing about that experience has been particularly helpful with examining my past and trying to move forward. In the workshop, a few students found the exercises helpful in finding significance in their everyday lives. Many of them were intimidated by O’Brien at first, saying, “How can my experience live up to that? I’ve never been to war.” But once they started writing, they began to understand that just getting up in the morning can be a struggle for some people. Writing about those everyday struggles was just as significant as the larger global conflict within the book.

NEA: You focused on three genres---memoir, poetry, and short fiction---as different ways to tell a story. Briefly, what do you see as the advantages of each one?

WILSON-YOUNG: Poetry forces a writer to be concise. Diction matters. You have a small amount of space and time to convey a message---unless you’re Walt Whitman or Virgil. Each line of poetry is heightened, all of the senses must be used. Memoir and short fiction rely on heightened language as well---the prose must sound beautiful, not just tell a story. But the story must express the struggle of human existence. As Faulkner said, a good story should convey the “human heart in struggle with itself.” By focusing on different genres, participants could see how each is intertwined, yet how each genre plays its own role. Poetry awakes the senses; fiction takes us into the world of make-believe; memoir grounds us in the “reality” that is our world. A good story does all of these things.

NEA: Getting started can be the hardest part of writing. If I wanted to start writing my story---or begin to do any writing---how would you recommend that I begin?

WILSON-YOUNG: Finish this sentence: “The story I want to tell you about is…” Just say it. Ninety-nine percent of writing is showing up every day to do it. There are wonderful writing books on the market that can get you going---Metro and The Daily Writer are two that I use in my classes and on my own. But really, just committing to the telling of the story. It’s not easy, this writing gig. But if you want to make the dead come back to life, writing must consume you. You also have to read. Nothing makes a writer better at his/her craft than reading as much as possible. And not just within the genre you’re working on. I encourage my students to read as much poetry as they can no matter what they’re working on---it’s short, beautiful, and, often, overlooked.

NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about your own writing? What are you working on now?

WILSON-YOUNG: I’m currently working on a memoir about my life as the adult child of an incarcerated serial rapist. I hope to place it with a publisher in the next year. I also write creative non-fiction essays with a humorous slant. Because I live in the South but am from the West, I like to write about the little disorienting moments I sometimes have here.

NEA: The NEA’s tagline is “Art Works." What does “Art Works” mean to you?

WILSON-YOUNG: Holy cow! What doesn’t it mean? Art “works” in just about every aspect of life. Many of the students and people I encounter are not writers and don’t want to be, but something draws them to that art---the human spirit, the desire for self-expression or a connection to another person, an outlet to an otherwise stressful day. Since man could slap his own handprints into pigment and up onto cave walls, art has been working in our lives. Art does the heavy “work” of the human soul---it is what we leave behind when we are nothing but ash.


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