October 28, 2013
Name: Matt Gallagher
Returned from: Iraq
“I’ve done a lot of horrible things in my life,” the author Thomas McGuane once said, “but I never taught creative writing.”
Words to consider, for writing students and teachers alike. Love them or hate them, writing workshops are entrenched in the culture of contemporary writing, be it formally in the halls of academia or informally in living rooms across the country. With increasing frequency, the workshop model has penetrated the veterans community, where a still-rising number of young men and women are returning home with stories to tell and meaning to seek.
But not all writing workshops for veterans are created equal.
Since returning from Iraq in 2009, I’ve attended (and taught) a variety of veteran-centric writing workshops. Some focused on the veteran-as-artist transition. Others were more interested in the cathartic benefits of writing. Some had the institutional support of wealthy donors and involved administrators, while others, well, didn’t. Widely seen as the pre-eminent new writing workshop for veterans, the New York University Veterans Writing Workshop was where I personally found a group and an environment worth coming back to, week after week, to hone my craft with like-minded souls.
There was one common refrain at all these workshops, though: civilians couldn’t attend. To gain entrance as a student, one had to present his veteran credentials at the door.
While perhaps not intentional, this admittance policy reinforced an ugly undercurrent of thought in military writing – that one shouldn’t write about war unless one participated in it as a combatant or otherwise survived its destruction. Constructive criticism offered by civilian instructors was all too often met with a “Well, that’s the way it happened” reply, as if that made up for the lack of character development or cohesive narrative in submitted pieces. Even nonfiction pieces more journalistic in nature than creative require strong writing and heavy reworking – “That’s the way it happened” is best saved for the version told at bars.
For veteran writing workshops to flourish, I found, they needed to stress the writing part over the veteran part, and they needed to focus on improving students’ work over making students feel good about themselves. Like anyone else, battle-hardened Iraq and Afghanistan veterans appreciate positive reinforcement, but in a society with a civilian-military divide as wide as ours, blanket positivity can often come across as condescending. Further, even vets at workshops predominantly for healing purposes sought to improve their work. Sometimes that required a suggestion to pick up classics like Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Other times it required a quick lesson on the importance of active verbs. And still other times it required a frank discussion about rising above tired military tropes and clichés, or not including confusing details in order to “stay true to life,” as if writing itself wasn’t already artifice.
Such lessons happened in a dynamic atmosphere with multiple perspectives and worldviews represented – perspectives and worldviews not just veteran, but civilian, too. But unless these veteran workshops came packaged with a confident and vocal instructor, engaged civilian voices weren’t represented. We were lucky to have that at the New York University workshop when I attended it. Such didn’t always happen elsewhere.
Concurrently, I returned to graduate school for a degree in creative writing. During my two years in M.F.A.-Land, I was exposed to civilian voices and views I hadn’t encountered much since my pre-service days. These voices and views proved critical in improving my creative work, even when I ultimately disagreed with their feedback, because they made me consider why I was doing so in a way that transcended the reflexive “They weren’t there, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” It was my duty as a writer to make sure they knew what they were talking about, and if they weren’t getting there after reading a submission about Iraq or about military life, it was because I’d failed them, not the other way around.
I workshopped with Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn and with hipsters from Turkey, while studying under Pulitzer Prize winners and sharp-eyed magazine editors. I learned from all of them, and hope they learned from me too, because of our differences in background, perspectives and approaches to craft, not in spite of them. While some of my experiences at veteran-only workshops were similarly meaningful in these ways, some had not been. What to do then, to more accurately replicate the grad school feel in veteran writing workshops?
Though my experiences are anecdotal, there is wider evidence to suggest veteran-only classrooms are often well-intended missteps. According to “An Ethical Obligation: Promising Practices for Student Veterans in College Writing Classrooms,” a 2013 study of post-9/11 veterans returning to college, written by D. Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson, there are a variety of drawbacks to “veteran-designated classes,” from isolating vet-students from the larger campus culture to the veterans themselves subcategorizing between branches and combat experience. While Hart and Thompson caution that investigating these classes wasn’t the primary focus of their study, their findings do point toward assimilation being a far more useful goal for both the administrators and students.
I finished my M.F.A. coursework in May, spending my summer in coffee shops furiously finishing a war novel that doubled as my thesis. Between bouts with lattes and trite writerly angst, an old friend, Brandon Willitts, approached me about serving as a writing instructor for his new nonprofit, Words After War. I hemmed and hawed until Brandon said he didn’t just want to talk about bridging the civilian-military divide, he wanted to actually do it by bringing interested, smart civilians into the classroom with vet-writers. And why not? If these wars truly are all of society’s and not a separate warrior caste’s, why should veterans be the only ones turning to literature about war and conflict in classrooms and workshops?
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, especially veteran-writers of Iraq and Afghanistan, love to pontificate about the civilian-military divide – myself included. It is real and it is immense and unfortunately, nothing short of conscription seems likely to eliminate it. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to bridge it, of course, but it’ll take both sides reaching out to do so. If we’re serious about these wars and their aftermaths belonging to the entire American citizenry, it’s our responsibility as vets not to harangue anyone who didn’t go abroad with us. We need to let them speak, too, and let them speak about what the wars looked like from a distance. Their perspective matters just as much as ours does, something the veteran community would be wise to remember if we’re going to be able to effectively affect the future for the better.
That’s what we’re putting in place at Words After War. One didn’t need to have to carry a gun in a foreign land to study and contemplate war and conflict literature. Take Katherine Anne Porter, for example. She never served in combat. But a few paragraphs of her work will show any reasonable mind she understands the terrible depths of conflict and loss.
Here’s the haunting last paragraph of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: “No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”
For readers of more contemporary literature, consider Ben Fountain. He wrote the finest Iraq war novel to date, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, without having served in the military. Yet the dissociation his characters experience upon returning to American soil is pitch-perfect, and remarkably so – only accomplished because Fountain researched, wrote and rewrote for it to be that way.
We’ll be studying Porter’s stories and Fountain’s novel in our workshop, among many other works, written by vets and civilians alike.
Just as there’s no panacea for bad writing, there’s no panacea for veteran writing workshops. I have no doubt other veteran writing workshops across the country have their own lessons learned, and are establishing their own best practices accordingly. That said, the history of the arts tends to be one of fighting for inclusion, especially to involve talented, driven people. We at Words After War look forward to being a small part of that tradition. I hope some of you can join us.
Matt Gallagher grew up in Nevada and was educated at Wake Forest and Columbia. A former Army captain, he is the author of the Iraq war memoir “Kaboom” and a co-editor of and contributor to “Fire and Forget: Short Stories From the Long War,” both published by Da Capo Press.
This essay original appeared on the New York Times blog At War.