The book is about what it means to be a veteran, what it means to be someone who was raised in the military or whose relative is a veteran. This book is about how the military complex affects the ones who serve, and the ones who stay behind. It’s about life and death, isolation and belonging, hope and despair, war and peace, loss and gain, sadness and joy, gratitude and pretty much everything in between. What makes us human? What makes me different because I served? Why do I look at society differently because I was raised in the military? Did being born in war leave an invisible imprint on my soul? These are some of the questions the writers asked and wrote as they worked on the project.
I have been facilitating a weekly veterans writing workshop at Wellness Works in Glendale, California (a veterans resource center that focuses on holistic methods of healing) since March 2013. I have witnessed the veterans’ commitment to the writing process, with a growing sense of focus and writing ability. I felt it was time to take them to the next level: publication. So I came up with a grant proposal for a series of writing workshops, one for veterans and one for family members, that would culminate in a book and public reading. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission awarded the grant, and that’s the origin of the book.
Being a veteran or a family member; having a commitment to the process; focusing on writing one story over an extended period of time; showing up; having the courage to explore and discover your inner life and your relationship to the military; discussing with others what your think and write.
I am interested in authentic writing and storytelling. So how do I get the veterans and family members to write authentically? How do I create the space for them to trust, to explore and to write the story they want to tell? Many of the veterans that I have worked with said as they walked into the meeting room and sat down at the table: I’m not a writer or I haven’t written since high school but the teacher said I was pretty good or I can’t spell or I don’t know what to write about. I replied: That’s okay, I can’t spell either and sometimes I have no idea what to write about or how to say what I want to say. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar right now. Come on let’s write together. And you know, some of the best writing I have ever heard was written by those veterans.
I have to be very careful not to impose my way of writing or what I know when a veteran writes a story or poem. If I’m too picky or critical or pushy, they may become discouraged and stop writing, because they may not have the skills yet to understand how changing the structure of the sentence might help clarify a confusing point. I need to know whom I am working with and how far I can push, or when I need to step back and let them find their method of writing. And again for them to experience the healing process of writing is more important than perfect grammar, structure and all the elements of style. I also work with veterans and family members who are fledging poets or published writers. Their writing is completely different, probably because they have been writing longer and have a greater understanding of the rules of grammar and syntax and style. The writing styles in the anthology range from stream of consciousness to perfect grammar, syntax and structure, and pretty much everything else in between.
One day, the veterans of the veterans writing group at Wellness Work realized that they had become writers, and decided the group should have a name. A few months prior to this, a Vietnam veteran brought in a literary journal, The Deadly Writers Patrol, and read an essay about music and the Vietnam War. (Incidentally, my short story “Foot Soldier” was first published in The Deadly Writers Patrol journal). An OIF veteran suggested the name: Deadly Writers Platoon. Even though I had some reservations regarding plagiarism, my veterans out voted me. And that’s how we got the name. I like the name now. But the best part is that they are proud to call themselves The Deadly Writers Platoon.
I began writing about the wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq in 2005 because I needed to express what I was seeing and hearing and to try to make some kind of sense out of it all. I have experienced the healing power of writing and I wanted to help these wounded soldiers write in order that they might heal in some way. After many dead-ends of trying for someone to sponsor a writing workshop, I thought that if I volunteered to push wheelchairs at the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Hospital in West Los Angeles I might work my way up to facilitating a writing workshop there. At the grueling orientation to volunteer, I mentioned that I wanted to begin a writing workshop. As soon as I had my credentials, I met with the head Recreational Therapist, and within 10 minutes we decided the time and weekday for the new creative writing workshop for the general population at the Domiciliary. I worked with veterans who were in combat during Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma, Traumatic Brain Injury, and homelessness, receiving medical treatments, and recovering from drugs and alcohol.
That same year, I produced the first annual Returning Soldiers Speak, an event where active duty and veterans tell their stories through prose and poetry to the community. I have facilitated a weekly writing workshop at Wellness Works, Glendale non-profit resource center for active duty, veteran and family members for over 4 years. In 2016, I facilitated the writing workshops for veterans and family members of active duty for the project Joining Forces: Plant to Paper Project, funded by California’s Veteran Imitative in the Arts to Mil-Tree, another non-profit organization that brings art, veterans, and the community together. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission awarded Wellness Works, Glendale, a grant for a series of writing workshops for veterans and family of veterans that culminated in the publishing of a paper book, and on June 11th the participants read their writings before the public. I came up with the idea for the project and spearheaded it. I am senior editor of Returning Soldiers Speak: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by Soldiers and Veterans, published by Bettie Youngs Books. And right now, I’m preparing for the Seventh Annual Returning Soldiers Speak to be held at The American Legion, Post 13 in Pasadena.
They can expect to listen to authentic storytelling and poetry written and read by the ones who have lived through experiences many of us have not. I have learned to not predict how the audience members will respond to the evening. But one thing is for sure, he or she will be different than when he or she entered the space and sat down to listen.
It was actually published in the fall of 2013. The publisher wanted to take advantage of it being published in the new year for marketing reasons. And yes, the anthology came out of my working with the veterans who had read at the annual events.
I have learned to trust the process and to trust my process. Sometimes I need to sit still and gaze out the window and watch the trees swaying in the wind and the birds flying from one tree to another; to listen to the birds chirping and cars driving by and sirens blaring in the distance; to feel the texture of my T-shirt and feel my body ensconced in the chair. And when the transition from one scene to the next that has been evading me for weeks or months flies into my thoughts, I grab a pencil and a piece of paper and I write. Sometimes I jot down just a word, or a phrase or a sentence. Other times I sit for an hour or more and write the scene or the beginning of the next chapter. For example, when I was writing my first novel, I was standing at the kitchen sink washing the dishes when I heard the bad guy say a few words to the heroine. I realized that this little bit of dialogue the bad guy said was what was missing and that is why the scene wasn’t working. I rushed to my desk and wrote the snippet of dialogue that I had heard. And then I wrote the scene that finally worked.
I’ve learned I must also manage the potential of an existential crisis as I face the blank page, otherwise I won’t write and then I’ll slip into sadness because I’m not making meaning through the stories and the worlds and characters I create with language and words. So I write everyday and I’m happy I do, even when I toss the crumpled pages into the trashcan because that’s where the pages belong. But even that has its good side—my aim is awesome.
I was born in an army hospital during the Korean War while my father was deployed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Okinawa. I was in my early teens when my father was honorably discharged from the Navy after serving thirty years. I have understood intellectually that I was born into and raised in the military, but it has been working with active duty, veterans and their families that I have come to understand in my heart what that means. In other words, being raised in military life is much different than being raised in civilian life. My father deployed many times during my childhood. I understand now why I have abandonment issues. I also understand how the military culture affected my mother and father, and my sisters. Because of this journey I have been on since I began working with veterans, my heart has filled with tender love for the little girl who watched her daddy sail away on a big ship, and cried all the way home on the floorboard in the back seat of the car, “They took my daddy away, they took my daddy away….” And my heart is filled with more and more of love and respect for my mother who comforted that little girl, and for my father who came home. So I guess, the most valuable lesson I have learned is to trust and to gain another’s trust and to keep it.
Karl Malantes’ Matterhorn and What It Means To Go To War; all of Tim O’Brien’s books; James Jones The Thin Red Line and Whistle; Hugh Martin’s book of poetry, The Stick Soldiers; The Trojan Women by Aeschylus; Mahmoud Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden; Czeslaw Milsosz’s Selected Poems; and much of Pablo Neruda. There is a book of essays written by women who served in Vietnam, but I can’t remember the name of it right now. I read excerpts from that book in 1985, and the voices and stories affected me greatly, probably more than I know. Matterhorn is one of my favorite books, if not my favorite. Everyone should read this novel about what it means for a man to be in war. I couldn’t put the book down and then as I read the last pages, I cried. And then I wept when I closed the book and held it close. James Jones’ Whistle is an incredible peek into the horrors of the wounded of war. I had never read anything like Whistle. I can’t help it; I really like those kinds of novels.
James Jones From Here to Eternity, which is a thick book and will take me awhile. I just finished Falling Out of Time by David Grossman. It’s an amazing read. The language is mesmerizing. I didn’t understand everything, but that didn’t matter—the story and the form fascinated me. I’m a practicing Nichiren Buddhist so I try to read something everyday about Buddhism. And The New Yorker, the hard copy, of course. And The New York Times, online, of course.
Read as much as you can and read a wide range of topics and genres. When you find an author that you resonate with, read everything by that author. Write everyday, even if it’s only 10 minutes. The blank page or the blinking cursor is probably the scariest thing for a writer. Don’t feel alone if that’s how you feel! However, don’t let that fear or trepidation, or whatever it is, stop you. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t have anything to write.” Or, “What’s the use?” I say, write about what you ate for breakfast. Write about the streaming light cast upon your cat curled up on the windowsill. Write about the irritating barista who never gets your order right. Write about … well, you get the picture. And find other writers who you feel camaraderie with. We writers close the door to our room, and write and write and write. It can get lonely inside there after a while. Never underestimate a good friend who also loves to read and write.