Every cliché marks a little dead spot in the brain. Yet after any intense experience — sex, childbirth, love, death, war — they are on-the-ready to frame our experience the way we’ve heard before, in ways that dull our own rough, unwelcome, and unmanageable perceptions.
Giving into them is like sinking comfortably into a jacuzzi. Resisting is like swatting at the nasty flies buzzing around your head.
That’s precisely the role of the writer. It’s got to do with staying honest. Joseph Brodsky referred to it as resisting the “vulgarity of the human heart” — which is endlessly inventive in creating new clichés (yes, I’m aware of the irony) to do our thinking for us, to digest and regugitate our experience in pre-packaged, socially acceptable, and often sentimentalized ways.
We can jeer some of these prefabricated phrases, stereotypes, and the habitual ways of thinking and feeling into a well-earned oblivion — one by one, or, on occasion, in groups. So when writers Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien appeared in an onstage conversation Monday night to talk about writing and war, it was a rare opportunity. I wrote about their discussion here. Excerpts:
Wolff, author of Old School, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, noted that war writing is “so encrusted with cliché,” replete with images of “helicopters coming out of the mist” and jazzy lingo among soldiers. Wolff recoils at the clichés, adding that, for him, “When people use the word ‘Nam’ it’s like salt on a slug.”
Wolff, who has received two PEN awards and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, said war writing typically features “ossified conventions” – soldier teams that inevitably include “a Polock,” and “a guy who wears glasses; they call him ‘Doc.’” Wolff recalled hammy stereotypes of more recent vintage – a recent portrayal of a vet as an amputee, wheeling himself on a sort of scooter, “like Porgy.”
“It took years before I could deal with my memory honestly,” he said.
Wolff said he already had literary aspirations when he went to Vietnam. He wrote letters home with the idea that they would be the basis of his future writing. On reviewing them years later, he said, laughing, that “they were just crap.”
“They were totally untrue. They were literary. I was actually there, writing home literary experiences from books I had read,” he said.
His letters failed to capture the “growing corruption,” “the horrible way we treated people,” “the ironic vocabulary around every corrupt thing you did, how you became habituated to it, callous.”
O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, and July, July, noted that
he didn’t have the expected “shoot ‘em up stuff” in his books for a simple reason: “Part of it is that I can’t recall well. There was a general atmosphere of chaos, fear-based,” he told an overflow crowd at Cubberley Auditorium. “Memory evaporates,” said the writer, who has received a National Book Award. …
He added that he never saw war as “male adventure,” but was drafted: “I went to war kicking and screaming. I was terrified of dying.”
O’Brien considered how he writes about war: “You do it sentence by sentence, line by line, character by character, even syllable by syllable,” said O’Brien. “You have to have a poetic sensibility – that language matters.” He approaches his books not first by theme, but by language (another part that didn’t make it into the story) “out of that, your body as a writer is moving — I’m not talking mystically about hearing stuff coming at me.”
O’Brien turned audience expectations upside down again when a woman asked him about treating post-traumatic stress disorder. O’Brien took an unconventional stance: “One of the ways to deal with trauma is to be traumatized,” he said. “I worry that there’s not enough trauma,” said O’Brien. “We seem to heal too quickly, too easily, too smoothly. I think you’re nuts if you come back from what I went through and aren’t nuts,” he said. “If you don’t have anger issues, I think you’re crazy, you’re not human.”
Actually, I’ve often thought that myself: Why does therapy attempt to smooth out the rough edges of our life, to level the hard iron ore of experience? We talk about “processing” our emotions. What exactly do “grief counselors” do? We talk about “not being bitter” when people undergo experiences that are, essentially, bitter. Drink it down to the bottom and then move on … well, “move on.” There’s another one, eh?
Just when the audience was convinced that Vietnam was a meaningless horror, expectations turned again, with the poignant witness of a Vietnamese-American young woman, presumably a Stanford student, who said she felt “blessed” to be in the room — and without the American soldiers, she would not be privileged to be here. She asked about “demonizing the enemy,” and said when she visits Vietnam, it’s hard to believe anything ever happened.
O’Brien, who has returned to Vietnam in recent years, grew thoughtful. “There’s a beauty that I missed, the first time around. The tree was ugly to me because someone might be behind it, shooting at me.”
He recalled returning to Vietnam and feeling “forgiven.” He even went drinking with his erstwhile enemies, who joked about how easy it had been to find “big and noisy” Americans. For the Vietnamese, “Our American War was just a blip on their radar screen. Not as big as the China War.
“There was none of the bone-killing animosity,” he said, “which makes you wonder: Which is the real world? That one or this one?”
Postscript on 2/2: The video of the event has just been posted — included below.