5:25 AM = Late again.
“But this too is true: stories can save us.” – Tim O’Brien
Tim O’Brien spoke at my school yesterday. He was scheduled to speak in the Student Center banquet hall between noon-2:00, exactly when I have a class meeting across campus. This class is a good class. Good students. But none of them read voluntarily. You won’t find these youngsters toting books or even an Entertainment Weekly. They’re interests reside in sports and rodeo and raising children, not in narrative and how our memories cloud and affect and determine the narratives we choose to tell. But I took them to hear Tim O’Brien anyway. Ten minutes before we left the classroom I gave them an introduction to O’Brien and to The Things They Carried, which I finished reading just yesterday morning. I explained to my students that The Things They Carried is a book about the Vietnam war and about a group of men who travel and fight that war together. They listened with polite eyes, ears tuned to a music swirling around the inside of their skulls in a Taylor Swift centrifuge. But I also told them this:
Maybe you are not a soldier, maybe you have not fought in a war, and – God forbid – you ever will, but this book is about more than being a soldier in a war with other soldiers. This book is mostly about friendship, people committed to one another for the long-haul. And it’s about stories – our need for stories to keep us sane and even alive. It’s about how our memory makes stories bigger than they actually were so that we can never tell a story exactly how it happened. And these are ideas that most of us can relate to on some level.
You say these things to your students wondering if they listen. And then you send them across campus with their personal effects and instructions on how to interact with Tim O’Brien and you wonder why you’re sending them. What will they get out this moment? And you marvel that you can feel so much giddiness to see O’Brien with your own eyeballs and hear the swerve in his voice, so much excitement to record mentally his intonations reading a passage of a book that you just sent into your head with the automaton voice of your mental reader, but these kids – these college students who should be shedding their skin everyday to make room for all their questions and narrative hungers – slumber out the door with atrophied curiosities like the walking dead army in a Robert Kirkman story. And you realize, I’m sending them to listen to the wrong war.
Yes, I’m skeptical that our current college-age “millenial” generation is up to the task of preserving and recording and filtering down our narratives in the direction they need to go. Will they create great things? Sure. Will they cure diseases and figure out ways to grow healthy vegetables in concrete parking lots? Possibly. Will they usher in a new dawn of caring and equality for those who’ve been shat on in the past? Definitely. The generation of college students I teach now have the advantages of a peculiar ADD that will lead them into discoveries we fogies cannot even dream. These youngsters are supplied with a humor and a heart to assure everyone will have the right to be celebrated and ignored equally, with the same amount of legal pressure and oversight, as anyone else. BUT I do not see in them a generation of story tellers on par with what we’ve known or what we need to press forward particular chunks of our confused, unsettled, desperate-for-narratives-to-calm-us -like-psychological-drugs spirit. I am skeptical of this.
Then again, I do live in Texas. We’re very concrete here.
O’Brien did say something yesterday during the Q&A that blew my mind. And it was something that I needed to hear and that I hoped my students heard. He said that reading is not essential for creating and telling and transferring good stories. He said that a person can read all the books and all the stories in the world and still have no stories worth telling. He said being a storyteller is contingent solely on the life you live. He said get in a war or fall in love or have cancer or know someone with cancer or watch someone die or even share coffee with a friend you hope you never are forced to tell goodbye, do those things, O’Brien said, and you’ll find stories worth telling. You’ll have things inside you that must be told. He said no soldier can forget war, just like no survivor can forget their breast cancer, no spouse can fully deny their marriage, no friend can ignore the joy and pain of solid friendship. He said stories are all around us, everywhere and everyday, and we simply need to learn how to read the air we breathe.