"The Historian and his Facts", by E. H. Carr, quotes Lytton Strachey as saying, "Ignorance is the first requisite of the historian" (923). According to "Historian", a researcher of history has the task of "discovering the few significant facts" of history saving and recording them for readers of the future, and "discarding the many insignificant facts" (923) that he determines to not be worthy of remembering. In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien understands that, to get at the truth, one "ha[s] to make up a few things" (77) to get at the real truth of a story. He develops real, true stories by "adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth". The purpose of these acts is the same, to grasp the "hard core of interpretation" (Carr 929), the emotional center of an idea, and to communicate it to the rest of the world. This emotional core, then, somehow becomes more important than the solid facts, the 'truths' of science, of logic. Emotion becomes the truth of storytellers and historians. This seeming contradiction leads, of course, to the eternal question: Why?
An answer to this question is that people do not care for facts. As Carr put it, "the fact that you arrived in this building half an hour ago on foot, or on a bicycle, or in a car, is just as much a fact as the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But it will probably be ignored by historians" (Carr 921). People do not care about raw pieces of data; they want something that gives them something to feel, that "makes the stomach believe" (O'Brien 78). People can memorize, recite, process raw data, but an understanding of a situation based on such raw data is shallow, without meaning. What gives meaning to data is the feeling behind it, the emotion that guides us through the maze of facts and to a deeper understanding of the situation.
This deeper understanding of the situation is what historians and storytellers both are trying to convey. But the deeper understanding itself is an interpretation, the interpretation of the person telling the story. But it is rare for anyone to truly understand in full any situation before interpreting it. If you are experiencing a situation, "you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbles; you tend to miss a lot." Writing about history is even worse; much of what little information was recorded about an event is often long lost by the time someone decides to write about it. And inevitably, people only have the time or will to see what they understand, what they believe in, so any interpretation of any fact will be tinged with the beliefs and state of mind of those who observed it. So any deeper understanding of a situation is, in fact, a reflection of the inner workings of the mind that first understood it. And any story, any history, will therefore be as much a reflection of the mindset of its author as of the idea it is intended to convey.
So for an idea to be at all explainable, the receiver of the explanation must be able to understand not merely the facts of the situation, not even just the 'emotional core' of the idea, but also the mindset of the idea's creator. But it is not possible to truly understand someone else's mindset; some believe it impossible for one to even understand one's own. This raises the question of how ideas are ever communicated between people. In part, it would seem, they never entirely are; an idea, when transferred from one mind to another, inevitably takes on some of the form of the other mind. Our attempts to tell our stories, to give our histories, are inevitably distorted by the mere fact of their being understood. So we must be very careful when claiming that we, as people, understand an idea that is presented to us.
This is the point at which the goals of O'Brien and Carr diverge. Carr, as an historian, believes that the accurate representation of facts "is a necessary condition of his work" (920). O'Brien, on the other hand, believes in telling stories for the purpose of conveying emotion, in "making up a few things to get at the real truth" (85). This is the core of the difference between stories and histories; the former is an attempt to get to "the hard and exact truth as it seemed" (O'Brien 71), while the latter is an attempt to record what happened at a certain time, at a certain place. Yet both of these are essential to understanding our past. For while understanding what happened is necessary for understanding the past in general, understanding what people at the time believed is essential for understanding human reactions. People act on their perceptions of reality, under the false assumption that they are perceiving things as they really are; to understand their actions, one must understand their perceptions.
We write down our past, both the facts and the ideas that compose it, to preserve it, so that people in times yet to come can see what it was like today, and maybe use that to understand what it will be like tomorrow. This is the stated goal of history: to understand the past so we can predict the future, and avoid potential catastrophes contained therein. But we also write down our past in order to gain perspective on it, in order to better understand it now. The very process of writing down thoughts, ideas, even facts, forces us to become one step removed from them, to be far enough away for them to come into a more logical focus. As Tim O'Brien put it,
"I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don't. Yet when I received Norman Bowker's letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience." (O'Brien 158)
Through writing his stories, through pouring his memories into writing, O'Brien comes to a greater understanding about himself, and about his experiences and memories. We do the same thing, in writing about our own histories. This is really the power of writing, the power of language, to be able to transcribe thoughts onto a sheet of paper, and through that action, to gain unique insight on them. This is how emotion can become the 'truth' of storytellers.