One of the best dates I’ve ever been on began with a trip to Barnes and Noble.
I still remember the rising excitement I felt as I saw the storefront and he pulled his truck into the parking garage behind it—where were we going? What were we going to do there? I was absolutely giddy.
Sidebar: The meet-cute of my dreams has always been running into a handsome stranger in the history section who would then offer to buy me the copy of Tom Hollard’s Rubicon or the Annotated Pride and Prejudice or the newest Robert Gaibraith I’d been carrying around while I browsed. Do that, then buy me a cup of tea, and I’ll probably be yours forever.
Once we got inside, he told me his plan: we would split up, go around the store and find five books that helped shape us into who were were that day, and then meet back up to share them.
Like, seriously? This is such stuff as dreams are made on. Gentlemen, take note.
I took off for the fiction section, my mind a whirlwind as I tried to figure out what I would choose. There were so many stories I loved, so many authors whose words and ideas had influenced me. It was a struggle to pick only five, but I managed. About fifteen minutes later, my date and I met up to share with one another the books that built us.
As I sit here today typing in the cafe of that very same Barnes and Noble, I confess my memory of that night is hazy. But I do remember one book in particular I chose that had a huge impact on me and my views on stories.
“But this too is true: stories can save us.”
I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien for the first time in my senior AP Lit class. Then, just as now, I was a bit of a procrastinator, and I had put off beginning the book until the night before it was due. I remember stretching across the bed in the middle bedroom at my house and falling into O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War. I read until the wee hours without stopping, utterly engrossed. I read until I reached the final page, and then I shut the book and was quiet for awhile.
In his book, O’Brien blends and blurs what he calls “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” so that as a reader, you begin to reconsider what it means for something to be true. If a story is fictional, does that diminish the truth the story reveals? Can we find truth, real truth, in a story in which we might not find in a faithful, factual transcription of an event?
Why do we even tell stories in the first place?
A high school senior, I was a budding creative writer with dreams of one day becoming a novelist, and O’Brien’s book gripped me on so many levels. The story itself was unlike any other war novel I’d ever read—it was raw and unrelenting in its graphic descriptions of violence. The soldiers talked like how I would expect real soldiers to talk. They swore, they were crass, and they were heartbreakingly human. But O’Brien’s writing was also beautiful, certain passages taking on a rhythmic, lyrical quality which begged to be read aloud. But more than its central subject matter and the quality of the writing, what impressed me most was that there, in my hands, was a story about the importance of stories.
“The thing about a story is you dream as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”
I’d loved stories my whole life. And I knew there was something special about certain ones. Books that, when I felt homesick or alone, welcomed me into a world that was both fantastic and familiar. I knew that sometimes, the very act of writing down a story, whether it be more story-truth than factual-truth or born entirely from the kaleidoscope of what-would-happen-ifs inside my own head, gave space and form to those thoughts and turned them into something solid that could be reasoned through. There was a reason I kept journals throughout the prickly and emotion-fraught years of middle and high school.
In The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien is telling the story of character Tim O’Brien. He’s also telling the story of Ted Lavender, and Curt Lemon, and Linda, his childhood love. In telling their stories, he gives them life, and they live again in his imagination. He saves them. And in telling his story, he saves himself.
“I’m skimming across the surface of my own history…and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”
Stories can save us. In the telling and in the hearing, stories teach us truths about life and about ourselves. In stories, we can feel less small and insignificant and alone as we travel along roads with characters in whom we see facets of ourselves. In stories, the dead can live again.