In the opening of Tim O’Brien’s heart-wrenching novel The Things They Carried, a fictional account of the author’s experiences in Vietnam, he lists items soldiers in Alpha Company carried into battle:
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha… They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending…”
Henry Dobbins carried extra rations. He was especially fond of canned peaches. Dave Jensen carried a toothbrush and dental floss; Mitchell Sanders carried condoms; Rat Kiley, comic books. Kiowa carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet.
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
What starts in the first couplet as a description of a personal experience, becomes at the poem’s conclusion, an evocation of loss that holds hands with a marvel at life’s swift passing. The poem bridges the symbolic and the real, the personal and universal, and points to the very human experience of transience and uncertainty.
To believe in the things we carry is to believe we are not powerless to influence our fate. One way of getting to know ourselves better is to be curious about the objects we select to surround ourselves, our own private curated collections. The exercise I’m about to suggest is not about fixing ourselves but about trying to know ourselves in a new way.
Look around your home. What objects stand out for you? Which do you return to? Do they have a value other than utilitarian? In what way might they define your inner life? Do any of these objects transport you to another time or place? What feelings are evoked there? Working with our psyche from the inside out proposes an alternative or complement to the insurance-driven therapeutic models currently in vogue.
Here’s an example of how this exercise might go: you notice a big conch shell on a shelf. You pick it up and remember the gift store in Florida where you bought it—a nice memory. You hold the shell to your ear. The sound of a distant sea carries you back to another memory, the first time your father held a shell to your ear and you felt his love and wonder pour into you. You then remember that he became sick shortly after that experience and died months later. Now you are standing in your living room with the conch to your ear and realizing it is on your shelf for a reason that you haven’t acknowledged. It is a symbolic bridge to your dear father and to a time when you felt his love.
If you are inclined, keep a journal of the “things you carry” and the feelings, images, memories, insights they inspire. If this makes you feel vulnerable, remember that feeling vulnerable is a sign that you’ve uncovered an important self-truth. Acknowledging vulnerability is an act of courage and connects you with the human tribe.
Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, and that’s a good damn question. As far as I can tell, memory, imagination, dreams, bits of history, overheard conversations, observations, and popular culture combine in unpredictable ways to fuel a story. The past is always awake telling us where we’ve been and what we’ve known. The future alights in reverie or dreams, at the blurred edges of our vision, offering glimpses of what might be possible. Imagination bundles up rag-tags of this and that and pushes them into consciousness where a whole new thing takes form. None of this is analyzed by the writer, certainly not this writer: when the muse arrives with a full suitcase, I welcome her like a queen.
But here’s my latest answer to that perennial question of where a writer’s ideas come from — they come from the brilliant minds of others! On that note, when recently asked by a friend what writers I’d invite to a dinner party, the following list popped into my head. And what a list! Can you imagine what a vibrant, eclectic, and profound conversation might ensue?