View Full Version : The Pen as Mighty as the Sword

08-05-04, 07:15 AM
the Pen as Mighty as the Sword

JACKSONVILLE, N.C., July 30 — In her tiny voice, Bobbie Ann Mason was comparing herself to the protagonist of her 1985 novel, "In Country": a young girl growing up in Kentucky during the Vietnam War. She was speaking to a couple of dozen people here at Camp Lejeune, a handful of marines and family members of marines. This was a writer's workshop, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and Ms. Mason was reminded of Sam, her character, because they both share a hunger for information about strife in a faraway land.

"I think we all want to know what it's like," Ms. Mason said, as the marines bent forward in their classroom seats to hear her. War, she meant. Iraq, she meant.

"Let's start with the sand," Ms. Mason said. "I've been thinking about the sand. I'm wondering, how do you describe that sand?" Off to the side in the front row, Staff Sgt. Steven Sparks, about to embark on his second tour of duty in Iraq, raised his hand and described a sensation of time travel, the strangeness of crossing a biblical plain in a 21st-century military vehicle.

"It was so ancient, so old," he said.

It was a small, electric moment, as if literature had leapt from the page and danced. And it was precisely the kind of moment that the arts endowment hopes to create again and again with its new writing program, which seeks to address a seeming cultural paradox. War stories, after all, occupy one of literature's longest, weightiest shelves, and American fighting men, from Ulysses S. Grant to Anthony Swofford, have set down their battle-forged memoirs, but these days the military and literary worlds barely overlap.

"These are two parts of society that don't ordinarily talk to each other," said Dana Gioia, the endowment chairman. "And we thought, what would happen if we got them in a conversation?"

The program, called "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," is aimed at preserving stories from the battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan. The endowment expects to hold 20 or so workshops at American military installations between now and next spring (Camp Lejeune was the second stop; the first was Fort Drum in upstate New York in June), with a formidable roster of participating writers selected by an independent panel of editors appointed by the endowment. It includes military thriller heavyweights like Jeff Shaara and Tom Clancy, as well as prominent literary lights like Tobias Wolff and Richard Bausch.

The program, which will cost about $500,000, is being paid for almost entirely by the Boeing Company. And the Defense Department (an unlikely-seeming bedfellow for the endowment, which is also providing $1 million for a program that will take productions of Shakespeare to military bases) is providing logistical services.

"I think the program is stupendous," said Maj. Gen. Douglas V. O'Dell, the commanding general of the Marines' antiterrorist brigade, who addressed one of the workshops here and who said he wrote poetry himself, though he didn't volunteer to recite any. "It's extremely valuable for its cathartic possibilities, and I hope it will give a voice to what's going to be, in my opinion, a greater generation than the one Tom Brokaw wrote about."

At Camp Lejeune, a sprawling base that is home to 40,000 marines, the workshops were taught by Ms. Mason; another novelist, Erin McGraw; and a poet, Andrew Hudgins. They partly conformed to the image of the visiting-writer workshop that traumatizes visiting writers at colleges, Kiwanis Clubs and bookstore talk-backs.

There were the familiar, irrelevant questions: How do you find an agent? How do you decide whether to write a poem or a story? Should I submit my writing simultaneously to more than one publication? And the writers dispensed the tried-and-true advice that has been dispensed to fledgling writers since time immemorial: Be specific. Write every day.

"If you all go home thinking, `Journals and details, journals and details,' we've done our job," Ms. McGraw said.

Still, you couldn't help recognizing that the endowment program, even in fledgling form, did its work, bridging the cultural divide not only by bringing actual writers in contact with actual soldiers, sailors and marines, but also by impressing on the people who are hungry to tell about the war that there are many people who are hungry to hear about it.

Many of the fledgling writers encountered here are despairing and angry, they said, that their stories are being told, inadequately and inaccurately, only by the news media and civilian authors. One is Staff Sgt. José Torres, 27, from Lorain, Ohio, who was dreadfully injured in Nasiriya, Iraq, shortly after the war began and who has written, he said, some 200 pages describing the day that changed his life and its aftermath.

Staff Sergeant Torres is not a literary type; he relates the details of his ordeal evenly and undramatically, without the pace or practice of an accomplished storyteller but with an evident eagerness to make himself heard.

"I suffered a broken femur, shattered pelvis, my left buttock was blown completely off, I had open abdominal wounds," he said in an interview, adding that it took 22 operations to put him back together.

Amazingly, he still appears stocky and solid, though he walks with a limp. And he speaks with a breathtaking authenticity.

At one point, he said, when a septic tank exploded, he had to negotiate a field of excrement. It was a hardship, he said, "not for the smell or having to crawl through it."

"I couldn't care less," he continued. "That's combat. But it's actually worse than mud to walk through. It's almost like quicksand. There's no turning in it."

Another aspiring author is Julia Adams, a freelance journalist and a former marine herself, whose husband, Maj. Jim Adams — his nickname is Rainman — is a fighter pilot in Afghanistan. She's hoping to help him write about his experiences, she said.

"One thing we talk a lot about is the ability to live with killing," she said. "It's something he grapples with, and he's been writing a journal. But there's a lot of stuff he didn't want to share with me while he was there."

"Pilots compartmentalize," she continued. "If a pilot opens up all those compartments, he can't fly. So what I want to know is, `How can they delve into those feelings at a healthy level?' "

Mr. Gioia, the chairman of the endowment, conceived the idea for the program about 18 months ago. The spur was a conversation he had had with Marilyn Nelson, a poet whose father was one of the Tuskegee airmen, as the first black fighter pilots in the United States were known, and who had just finished teaching a semester at West Point.

"A lot of her students were being shipped to Afghanistan," Mr. Gioia said by phone from California, where he was vacationing. "And we began talking about how these kids are going off to be soldiers, and they really needed what literature offered. And we said, `Wouldn't it be great if they had a chance to reflect on their experience?' "

The endowment announced the program in April, including the plan to publish an anthology of war writing from Iraq and Afghanistan. (The book will be published next year.) The response was immediate: faxes from Iraq, phone calls and e-mail messages from military personnel around the globe.

"We got all this mail from veterans of Vietnam who told us how much they needed this," Mr. Gioia said. He added, "The conversation will go wherever it needs to go, and I expect the writers to get as much out of this as the troops."

And he's right, sort of. The visiting writers were all noticeably moved by the stories they heard and the attention they were given. But it's hard not to believe that the troops have more to gain. Consider Staff Sergeant Sparks, a well-spoken 31-year-old signals intelligence analyst from York, Pa., who spent six months in Iraq in 2003 and expects to be there again by the end of August. He's written on and off about his experience in the war, he said, but added that he was worried about expressing the kinds of feelings that he hadn't disclosed to anyone.

"There are a lot of feelings I had that I haven't spoken to my wife about, and I don't want to hurt her," he said. "But they come out when I start to write."

Still, he said, "I feel a responsibility for something larger than myself." Reporters in Iraq, he said, are not telling the story as he sees it, are not telling his story, the story of his fellow marines.

"I'm disappointed there aren't more marines here today," Staff Sergeant Sparks said. "As far as I can tell, most people feel the losses we're sustaining are acceptable losses until something happens to someone they know. Maybe if some of these marines could get out and write their stories, people wouldn't feel that way."


08-05-04, 07:16 AM
Marines with the write stuff
July 30,2004

Adam Collins doesn't have a story to tell. At least not yet.

But as the combat correspondent with 2nd Marine Division's Headquarters Battalion gears up to go to Iraq in September, Collins knows that will change; and he wants to be ready.

Collins joined about 25 others Thursday at a writers' workshop aboard Camp Lejeune to get tips on how to tell his personal story of war. The event was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The workshop is part of the NEA's "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," which is designed to document and preserve the experiences of troops and their families during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom I and II. Select journals, letters, poems, essays and nonfiction writings will be collected in an anthology. All submissions will be archived.

"You don't hear any stories about heroes," said Collins, 18. "We need to get those stories out."

Collins' mission as a combat correspondent is to inform the public about Marine Corps programs, activities and achievements. The Marine Corps has put him through writing courses to do that. However, he said, those classes teach how to get out the facts: the who, what, when, where, why.

But, said Collins, "effectively telling what's happening requires a more personal voice.

"We're not just robots with M-16s."

The workshop, he said, will help him open up and express his sensory experience - to put his readers in the action.

The best tip he walked away with was advice to write immediately, get it all out and then return to flesh out the emotion - advice the workshop leader emphasized throughout the two-hour course.

"Write the story first. Let the feelings come second," suggested Andrew Hudgins, a poet, author and professor. "We write when we're hot, but we put it together when we cool down."

Hudgins, the son of a career airman, recommended keeping a journal to record events soon after they occur. No matter how much later one returns to it, information that otherwise may be forgotten will still be available.

"That's the place to start," said Hudgins.

For those without that initial record, he recommended sitting down with the goal of writing a specific number of words each day. The account doesn't have to flow or be chronological (although, he said, that's one of the easiest ways to start).

Just write, and "Write until you're written out."

Then it's time to polish that draft and add additional sights, sounds and, especially, the smells.

"We forget about smell, which seems to go directly to our brain," said Hudgins, who also emphasized reading and taking writing courses. "Make it come alive. Those details show you know what you're talking about."

And don't worry, he added, about having an original subject. There may already be an account of another Marine's time at Camp Fox, a battle at an Nasiriyah or waiting at home. But it's not yours.

"Your experience is your experience," said Hudgins. "I would write 'this is what happened to me.'"

He would also just write.

"If you want to tell your story, start telling it," said Hudgins. "The first step is start doing the work."

Caroline Edwards is getting ready to take that initial action.

Edwards wants to tell the story of being a child of World War II, a conflict in which her Army dad fought.

"We're the unsung generation," said Edwards, 66. "The children of World War II are kind of the silent kids Â… There has been no focus on the impact of that war on children.

"It framed my life. I was very angry with war and angry with the mentality that creates war. Not World War II, I understand that, but wars that came later."

Edwards was at the workshop to get tips on how to get started

"I think this is really great what they're doing here," said Edwards, a social worker who learned as a college freshman at age 50 the therapeutic value of writing.

She thinks the process could play a part in helping service members cope with the stresses of combat.

"I think," said Edwards, "it's an incredible healing process."

For information about the project, visit www.operationhomecoming.org.

Contact Cyndi Brown at cbrown@jdnews.com or at 353-1171, Ext. 257.



08-05-04, 07:16 AM
Project seeks stories from combat veterans
August 02,2004

Each battle streamer on a flag has hundreds of thousands of stories behind it, according to Jon Peede.

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, is designed to capture as many of those tales as possible.

"You could not possibly tell the story of America without telling the story of military service," said Peede, director of the project.

Select writings submitted to Operation Homecoming will be collected in an anthology. All submissions will be archived. A writer's workshop sponsored by NEA was held aboard Camp Lejeune Thursday to teach service members and their families how to document and preserve their experiences since Sept. 11, 2001. Additional workshops have been or will be held at a total of 20 military installations across the country and abroad to connect prospective writers with more established ones.

"We're trying to do what all teachers do. We're trying to plants seeds that will blossom at the proper time," said Peede.

The authors leading the workshops include novelists, poets, historians and journalists. Andrew Hudgins, Bobbie Ann Mason and Erin McGraw made the stop in Jacksonville. Others teaching across the country include such notables as Tom Clancy and Tobias Wolff.

"What we're finding is this. They have a real interest in learning about how to tell their stories," said Peede. "Some are already writing, others are still in the thinking process."

Peede said the program has already received a couple hundred submissions. He was struck by some of those that have not been from troops, who the program is designed for, but from veterans and civilians.

"We received submissions from veterans of every conflict since World War II - not because they think the project is for them but to show solidarity," said Peede.

One man sent in what Peede called "an honest letter" the man's son wrote from combat. Another woman wrote from the perspective of her daughter. A Washington resident with no military affiliation was moved to write a piece thanking those out on the line.

By the time of the March 31 deadline submission, Peede expects the submissions to be in the thousands.

"We're interested in publishing all these," said Peede. But by virtue of book form, the anthology will be necessarily limited to probably 400 pages of material culled from the writings.

"That's why creating an archive is so important," he said.

Operation Homecoming began as a conversation between two poets - Dana Gioia and Marilyn Nelson - at a conference for state poet laureates. Gioia, the son of a World War II veteran, and Nelson, the daughter of a Tuskeegee Airman and an NEA fellow, talked about their shared love of writing and their love of the military. They brainstormed ways to connect the two cultures and batted around the idea of taking America's most distinguished writers - who also happened to be veterans or who wrote about military subjects - and take them to bases to guide the troops in sharing their wartime experience.

The result, said Peede, is not exactly what would be the expected combat account.

The troops write less about the battles and more about the culture of their experience. The nightly patrol, the tension between being a welcoming force but not knowing exactly what sort of "welcome" is waiting, a dark-skinned population reacting to blue-eyed blonds.

"It's not what anyone else says Â… It's what you see," said Peede of the varying accounts that come in a variety of forms: fiction, verse, letters, essays, memoirs and personal journals.

"We want them to write in whatever genre best suits their story," he added. "We expect this experience to have three levels: to educate, for troops to develop their aesthetic sensibilities and for many troops it is therapeutic."

For submission guidelines and instructions or for more information, visit www.operationhomecoming.org.