Leilani Squire has facilitated creative writing workshops for veterans and their families throughout Southern California and is a CCA Certified Creativity Coach. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in various periodicals. She has completed her first novel, Fancy House, about sex trafficking, and is beginning her second. Her work challenges us to consider the depth of the creative process and her writings reflect that depth, that process, and her writer’s truth.
A creativity coach is like a sports coach, a life coach, except we help people with creative issues and creative people with the creative challenges they face or even perhaps, deny.
Often times the role is simply listening or offering encouragement or giving permission. But mostly, at least for me, it’s asking powerful questions so my client can discover the answer instead of me telling them what the underlying issue may be or what to do. I mean I’m dealing with creative people! My role is to help and guide her to discover the “why” she may not be writing. The “what” she wants to really write. The “how” to get to the page. The “where” she will write. The “when” she will write. It’s as simple as that. And as difficult as that.
Returning Soldiers Speak is an evening where veterans tell their story through prose and poetry to the community. I had been facilitating writing workshops for veterans and producing Returning Soldiers Speak for a while when a publisher approached me about assembling the veterans writing into a book. Some of the pieces in the anthology were written in my writing workshops or written specifically to be read or had been previously read at Returning Soldiers Speak. A couple of my writing friends are veterans, so I asked them if they wanted to contribute an excerpt of their novel. I guess you can say I threw out a wide net over a period of time and gathered the prose and poetry together that became the anthology.
The Veterans Writing Group on bookscover2cover is a place where we post our writing and comment on others writing. We are a small group but supportive of one another. I taught at the Domiciliary at the VA in West Los Angeles and some of my students were discharged after completing their program. They moved to other cities. They are talented writers and I wanted them to continue to write. bookscover2cover was just beginning so I approached Sandy and pitched an idea for a writing group for veterans on the website. We discussed the format, the rules of engagement, etc. and the group began. Recently the group has opened up to the family of veterans because I feel the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the sisters and brothers and the children of active duty and veterans need to tell their stories as well.
Good question. I always tell my students to write their truth. To go to those deep, dark, maybe even painful places and write their story. If I tell them this, how can I not do the same? They have taught me how to write with courage, to write from the jugular and how to write without BS, without ego. One of the members (who was one of my students at the Domiciliary) of Veterans Writing Group has posted every week (except maybe once or twice) since the writing group began. He has taught me how to be accountable in my writing life. To date, I have worked with probably a hundred-plus veterans, even if only once. Every one of them is my teacher.
I’ve never thought of writing as an “invitation” as you so beautifully put it. So I can’t answer the question, “Is this something you witness repeatedly (the invitation as the first step)?” It’s more like I jump, I fall, I go. I like how you present the idea of invitation. I will ponder this.
As to the second question: “Do you think the subject of your piece was expecting you?” – I don’t think David was “expecting” me. I know he was waiting for me. There was no doubt in my mind then and there is still no doubt. In a way, meeting David changed the trajectory of my life because he let me see into the reality of war and the effects war has on the young men we send to war. And consequently, the effect of war has on those who meet these young, wounded men.
Timed-writing is an exercise to develop the writing muscle; to outrun the editor; to go for the jugular; to develop the practice of writing deeply; to develop courage to tell your truth with language and story. A writing prompt is chosen, I set the timer for a certain amount of time (usually between 15-25 minutes), and we write without stopping. If you say to a group of Marines or OIF combat veterans, “Let’s write,” most likely they will grumble or run out the door. If we talk about the last time they saw their daughter or wife and I say, “Let’s write about that for 5 minutes,” they might stay and write. Some of the best writing I’ve ever heard is from the timed-writing exercises written by veterans in my writing workshops because they write their truth, they write about what they have experienced. I always write with the veterans in the workshops and some of that leads to a short story. I’ve been doing the timed-writing principles for so long that when I’m stuck in the novel I’m writing, I say, Okay, let’s write about such and such and let’s write fast. Usually that’s all I need to keep writing or to find the missing link of the story or character element. A little story: During the first writing workshop at a veteran’s resource center, I said, “Let’s write for 5 minutes.” Boy, did they grumble! “5 minutes! I can’t write for 5 minutes!” I ignored them, set the timer for 8 minutes and we wrote. We have been meeting weekly for almost 3 years. Now, when the timer goes off after 20 minutes, they are still writing and oftentimes ask for more time.
Sometimes a day, sometimes years, sometimes never. Not everything is worth refining. Sometimes I get lucky and the writing satisfies me the way it is; in other words, the writing served its purpose and maybe a word or two needs to be changed. Sometimes I file the writing away, knowing I will return to it when I’m ready to tackle that novel or tell the story about a part of my life that is too shameful to let anyone know about.
I don’t use the word inspiration because it seems that that means I’m to wait around for something nebulous to appear and then I’ll sit and write. I don’t wait, I encounter. I search. I dig. I feel my way through the story and language and try to put that on the page. It’s hard work. There’s nothing inspiring about it. Not in the way the word is commonly used. I encounter with all my being, all my senses on overdrive while I search for the meaning of existence and what I see in this world.
I was born in an Army hospital in Honolulu during the Korean War. What did I sense as I lay in my crib? What was happening on the other floors? How many wounded were there in the hospital at the same time? How many soldiers died? I guess I realize that even a newborn can feel the effects of war and that war can affect a newborn. It’s taken me all my life to come to this insight and I still don’t fully understand what it all means. I want to go back to Hawaii and find out what was going on at Tripler Army Hospital in March 1951. This return to the island of my birth and discover what has affected me so deeply will be my spiritual journey. I don’t think I’ve answered your question. I can only present this: there are unseen and unknown connections that can affect us, leading us down one path or another. And if the connection is born in war or the wounds of war, then the effects will forever remain.
I’ve presented something that I’m not sure I can answer other than being born during wartime has far reaching affects. Also, there are connections between the unseen and the unknown.
When I wrote My Psyche Cracked Open, I was writing because I was compelled to write about this young man and how we discard those we send to war. I had to write to make sense of it, to yell at the top of my lungs, to wake people up. He didn’t have a voice anymore—he never really did. Also, I had heard through the poetry community grapevine that another poet had said, “How dare she write about the war when she never experienced it.” So two things: my psyche did crack open and I saw the horror of it all and I was angry that someone criticized me for writing about a veteran who committed suicide. Who was telling the stories about the wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq in 2009? Were they? No. They didn’t have a voice and I needed to give them one. I don’t know why. Perhaps it would have been easier to remain silent, but I don’t believe that would have been my truth as a poet. The structure of the piece, the content of the piece came from the depths of my being. There was method here. No manipulation. I was compelled to tell his story and then tell mine of what I saw happening in our society while at war. In a way, this is connected to, and a deepening of, I heard a whisper of a promise the other day. Or the other way around.
Either someone has something important to say I think other people should know (Eric Maisel’s revolutionary ideas about mental health issues), or someone is not widely known and deserves a spotlight shined on them (Hugh Martin’s poetry), or I read a compelling story and I want to share my excitement and discovery with others (Stieg Larsson’s storytelling). I’m sure you can guess by now I’m more intuitive and go by my gut rather than being objective and calculating.
Find a place you feel comfortable and safe, like a corner in your bedroom or closet. Make it your own. Close the door and write. Then write some more. Dig deep. Tell your truth; no matter what it might be. Don’t show your writing too soon and choose your reader/s carefully. Showing too early can derail you and the wrong person can hurt you. Also, read a lot. Then close the door and write some more… go deeper in your writing… read some more… be brave and face your truth… write… read… write… You get the picture.