Getting At The Truth: Part 7

This is the seventh blog in the weekly 15-part Discovering the Greatness in Smallness: 15 Qualities of Great Short Story Writers series by Susanne Carter.

Quality 7: Great short story writers draw from their own life experiences.


“The proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook makes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard.” – Lorrie Moore


Sherman Alexie is an American Indian who writes about the Native American experience.  Ron Rash is a native of Southern Appalachia whose characters all live in western North and South Carolina.  Tim O’Brien mixes autobiographical experiences with fiction in his award-winning Vietnam War short stories. Jumpha Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, Gish Jin, Chitra Divakaruni and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are all immigrants or children of immigrants who write about the immigrant experience.  These writers are great in part because they have a rich background of experience upon which to draw.  And they fascinate us by inviting us into their worlds—Sherman Alexie, the urban American Indian landscape; Ron Rash, the Appalachian backwoods; Tim O’Brien, the theater of war; and immigrant writers, a strange new land that represents both opportunity and significant challenges.

Brad Watson’s powerful story, “Visitation,” winner of an O. Henry prize in 2010, is the story of a divorced father who spends every third weekend with his son in bleak, rundown motels and fears he may have failed at fatherhood.  As a divorced father himself, Watson says that when his son was young they spent many nights in cheap motels during his “visitation” weekends and that experience provided the impetus for this story.  The story was written later (in longhand) during happier times Watson spent with his son hiking and biking in the mountains of Wyoming. Watson said the “contrast between such good times and such not-so-good times helps a writer to reimagine the hard times in more vivid detail.”

Dorothy Allison draws upon her childhood growing up in poverty in South Carolina for most of her novels and short stories.  She explains what it was like to grow up as “they”:

My people were not remarkable. We were ordinary, but even so we were mythical. We were the they everyone talks about—the un-grateful poor. I grew up trying to run away from the fate that destroyed so many of the people I loved, and having learned the habit of hiding, I found I had also learned to hide from myself. I did not know who I was, only that I did not want to be they, the ones who are destroyed or dismissed to make the “real” people, the important people, feel safer. By the time I understood that I was queer, that habit of hiding was deeply set in me, so deeply that it was not a choice but an instinct. Hide, hide to survive, I thought, knowing that if I told the truth about my life, my family, my sexual desire, my history, I would move over into that unknown territory, the land of they, would never have the chance to name my own life, to understand it or claim it.

Allison’s novels, short stories, and poems, writes Timothy Adams, “evidence a strong and sustained autobiographical impulse.”   In “Steal Away” the college student narrator describes how she channels her anger at being poor into carefully crafted thievery:

I became what had always been expected of me—a thief.  Dangerous, but careful.  Wanting everything, I tamed my anger, smiling wide and innocently.  With the help of that smile I stole toilet paper from the Burger King rest room, magazines from the lower shelves at 7-Eleven, and sardines from the deli—sliding those little cans down my jeans to where I had drawn the cuffs tight with rubber bands.  I lined my pockets with plastic bags for a trip to the local Winn Dixie, where I could collect smoked oysters from the gourmet section and fresh grapes from the open bins of produce.  From the hobby shop in the same shopping center I pocketed metal snaps to replace the rubber bands on my pantleg cuffs and metal guitar picks I could use to pry loose and switch price tags on items too big to carry away.  Anything small enough to fit a palm walked out with me, anything round enough to fit an armpit, anything thin enough to carry between my belly and belt.  The smallest, sharpest, most expensive items rested behind my teeth, behind that smile that remained my ultimate shield.

On the Rainy River” is the only story in Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River” that takes place before O’Brien is sent to Vietnam. It is a powerfully emotional account of a young man’s struggle with his conscience before making what he calls the “cowardly” decision to go to war.

As you read the story, it’s hard to differentiate Tim O’Brien the fiction writer from O’Brien the 21-year-old narrator who receives his draft notice:

I remember opening up the letter, scanning the first few lines feeling the blood go thick behind my eyes. I remember a sound in my head.  It wasn’t thinking, just a silent howl. A million things all at once—I was too good for this war. Too smart too compassionate, too everything.  It couldn’t happen.  I was above it.  I had the world dicked—Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard.  A mistake, maybe—a foul-up in the paperwork. I was no soldier.  I hated Boy Scouts. I hated camping out.  I hated dirt and tents and mosquitoes. The sight of blood made me queasy, and I couldn’t tolerate authority, and I didn’t know a rifle from a slingshot.  I was a liberal, for Christ sake: If they needed fresh bodies, why not draft some back-to-the-stone-age hawk? (pp. 39-40)

Uncertain whether to flee north or head to Vietnam, the narrator spends six days alone on the American-Canadian border, agonizing over his decision.  He comes within 20 yards of the Canadian border and then instantly sweeps readers right into the middle of his emotional quandary (This is Tim O’Brien at his best):

You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River.  You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.

What would you do?

Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind?  Would it hurt?  Would it feel like dying?  Would you cry, as I did? (p. 54)

Even though O’Brien said during an interview that he spent the summer of 1968 working in a pig slaughter factory while he worried about getting drafted and has never been near the Rainy River, “in my own heart,” he says, “I was certainly on that rainy river, trying to decide what to do, whether to go to the war or not go to it, say no or say yes. The story is still true, even though on one level it’s not; it’s made up…  That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

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Have you written about true life experiences?