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The Things They Carried

Why is it that short stories tend to be darker, harsher, more gut-punching than pretty much any other writing style? The best short story writers, like Flannery O'Connor and Edgar Allan Poe, write poignant, descriptive, deep, haunting stories that often leave you with a lingering feeling of discomfort – even horror.

I love short stories (although I do have to be in the right mood…) because the writers are forced to be purposeful about every word they include. They have to communicate who a person is, what a place is like, capture an entire experience in much less time than a novelist or even an essayist. Short stories distill everything down into its purest form.

I first read Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, in high school and then again a few years later. I’m motivated to read it again as I write this. Although I don’t remember all of the details of the stories, the feelings that O’Brien evoked are still with me.

The stories chronicle his experience in the Vietnam War and that of his fellow soldiers. Although each one stands on its own, the same characters weave in and out and sometimes the same events are told multiple times, each from a different perspective.

One of the most memorable takeaways from this collection is the way he illustrates the difference between facts and truth. Facts are important, but truth is much more expansive and complex. Different characters in the stories experience the exact same events in totally different ways. Although the facts remain the same, the truth of the story is different depending on how it is being told and from what perspective.

Storytelling is important because it takes us from just learning about things with our minds (cognitively understanding and acknowledging facts and figures) and helps us more deeply understand, empathize, and dig into the reality of someone else’s world. I had learned a bit about the Vietnam War in school, but O’Brien’s short stories took that education from a distanced knowledge and helped me get a little bit closer to experiencing what he and his fellow soldiers experienced. This is one of the most effective examples of excellent storytelling that I can think of.

I obviously can’t claim to understand the depth of impact the Vietnam War had on the soldiers who fought in it, but O’Brien gives us the chance to get a step closer to his reality. This book is dark and often pretty disturbing (war, after all), so be warned. But if you can stomach it, it’s definitely worth your time.

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