Tim O’Brien: Story Truth and Happening Truth

My AP Lit students read Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” from the novel/collection The Things They Carried for today. I used the ideas O’Brien expresses in his story “Good Form”—that there is “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth”—as the center of my class’s discussion of the story we read.

I began class by showing students Eddie Adams’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo Saigon Execution.

Saigon Execution, Eddie Adams, AP Photo

I asked them what they thought the story of this photo was. I gave them a few minutes to think (and write, if they wished). Then we had a class discussion. The students generally came to the same conclusions that many people do when they see this photo: that it depicts the execution of a civilian, that it represents the brutality of war.

The true story behind the photo is more complex. Really, read the article I linked. It’s quite an incredible story.

I used this introduction to set up O’Brien’s ideas regarding “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” and then we discussed O’Brien’s story, starting with the students’ own selections for lines they found particularly powerful. They had many lines to share, and we took the conversation where they wanted to go for a while. I shared a few of the notes I took at Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick’s session at NCTE last November, mainly his ideas regarding the obscenity of sending young men to war and condemning them for their use of language when a student noted a line that really stood out to him was Rat Kiley’s description of Curt Lemon’s sister as a “dumb cooze.” Why does that word work so much better than “bitch” or “woman,” which O’Brien says Rat Kiley did not say? I asked them. Because it’s truer, they said.

They totally got it. Tim O’Brien would have been proud.

We talked about Rat Kiley torturing the baby VC water buffalo. They argued it was somehow important that it was a baby. That it was VC. That it never made a sound. Somehow, if it made a sound, the story becomes something else. I read them “Good Form,” and we discussed the ideas he presented in that story.

I showed them this interview with O’Brien:

We came full circle at the end of class with the image Saigon Execution. So this image’s “happening-truth” is that the man holding the gun was a South Vietnamese general named Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. He executed the young man because he was a VC terrorist or guerrilla fighter, for lack of a better word, named Nguyễn Văn Lém who had participated in killing 34 people that day.

But the “story-truth” is that the man is a civilian caught up in the brutality of war.

And in a way, that story is also true. Maybe, because it’s the narrative that won the day, it’s “truer than happening-truth.”

As they were packing up, students expressed how much they enjoyed the story. “I liked it so much I read it to my parents,” one student said. Another said, “I could talk about this story for a week.”

4 thoughts on “Tim O’Brien: Story Truth and Happening Truth”

  1. I love Tim O’Brien’s work, and I love days when the stars align for a perfect lesson, especially on a Friday. I’m thinking about closing out the year w/ a protest lit unit.

  2. This sounds like a powerful lesson. Wow. I am continually impressed with the quality of your work (and that of your students)! Thank you so much for sharing insights into your classroom and your process.

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