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December 17, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea # 18: The Things We Carry

A list can be a kind of form. A list can be a way at getting at something that might be hard to get at in another way. Consider this list from Tim O’Brien’s story about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried,” from his incomparable collection by the same name. Perhaps you are already familiar with the story.

Here’s the second paragraph. Page 4. A list of the tangible things that the men carried:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending on a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney.

Here’s a paragraph from later in the story. Page 20.

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

You can make a list of the things you carry or that you have carried. You can write about the balance and posture required to carry them.

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