Getting Out of the Way of the Story

For my monthly book club, a collection of well-educated mother’s of 8-year-olds known only to ourselves as the Readers and Breeders, we’re reading Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book, The Things They Carried. I would have never guessed our little group would choose or read a book about Vietnam because we all admit that since we had children we can no longer watch the news, horror movies, or anything that remotely involves harming children or animals. But here we are reading a story that encompasses all three in gentle yet precise detail.

According to the Amazon review, the book was a finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and “is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three.” I’m only half way through, and I have to admit that I’m not just reading it for pleasure or escape as I often do with book club fare, but this one I’m studying, dissecting, to observe what makes a Pulitzer finalist.

This morning I came along this little gem about storytelling buried deep in the heart of the book:

“Whenever he told the story, Rat had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion. It was a bad habit…because all that matters is the raw material, the stuff itself, and you can’t clutter it up with your own half-baked commentary. That just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic. What you have to do…is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself.”

A friend and I recently agreed that most books published today are much too long. I hate wading through a self-help book with rambling prose when I’m really just there for help.

The existing draft of my own memoir is still too long, full of self-analysis and the occasional soap box, so it’s good to be reminded that I don’t need to be afraid to cut away all that isn’t truly relevant, no matter how much I enjoyed writing it or how clever it makes me feel.

Staying out of the way of the story can also be applied to improvisational acting. The heart of a truly memorable improv scene can usually be summed up in a sentence or two, and yet on stage, we can struggle to find the “primal truth” that’s often completely obvious to the audience even after four minutes of dialogue.

So in my writing, and my improv, I’m going to take Mr. O’Brien’s sage advice and try to get the heck out of my own way, let the story show itself, in all its naked glory, unencumbered by fuss and convention. Wish me luck, and to you all I wish the same.

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One response to “Getting Out of the Way of the Story

  1. I used to teach The Things They Carried when I was high school English teacher. I love that line about getting out of the way of the story. Thank you for reminding me of it. So true. There’s also much to learn from O’Brien about voice and storytelling. He’s a master.

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