Words After War brought together a stellar cast Saturday at Wesleyan University to discuss “Storytelling for Life, Business, and Politics” for the extended community of veterans and others.
There were panels on interviewing; craft; writing memoir and creative non-fiction; use of social media; and a final one that I missed on journalism, politics, and national security.
Many thanks to Wes Vice President Antonio Farias, who extended an invitation to the veterans in “We Were There,” the writing workshop at Russell Library. It is their loss that no one else could attend.
Here are some highlights.
Antonio opened the gathering by saying that the Posse Veterans Program in two years has increased the enrollment of veterans on campus from two to twenty-two. That’s his doing and a remarkable achievement. One Iraq war veteran said when he was attending Norwalk Community College he never dreamed that he might be able to enroll at a place like Wesleyan.
Words After War co-founder and executive director Brandon Willitts introduced the program. He served in Afghanistan and has used his skills as a computer programmer, web designer, etc. to build a fabulous site. The Russell veterans’ workshop will explore it.
From the “craft” panel, I learned two disturbing things: 1) much of the reading public in 2011 still didn’t know what an IED was; and 2) many Americans think Croatia is in Asia. The first insight came from Matt Gallagher, author of the Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, a memoir about Iraq. The second was from Girl at War author Sara Nović who grew up during the civil war in Yugoslavia. “Rage was the fuel” for the novel, she said, because of our abysmal ignorance of the events that transpired in a decade of brutality.
My own ignorance showed, too. I was unaware that Harper’s Magazine had published a critique trashing fiction that has come out of the recent wars and attacking MFA programs. A short-story collection that Matt edited was among the targets, as was Phil Klay’s Redeployment, winner of the 2014 National Book Award. Can’t wait to read Matt’s takedown, which will run next month.
Author, journalist, and Yale lecturer Adrian Bonenberger, who served with the 10th Mountain Division and the 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan, joined Matt and Sara to say what I’ve been telling the veterans: Setting is crucial in writing memoir. In the first draft, include as many details as you can. As you revise and refine, you will decide what to leave in and what to omit. Bonenberger also made the crucial observation that saying “I like this” or “I don’t like this” has no value. Specifics are crucial in the realm of critique, as well.
A great analogy: Think of writing as a tool kit. Sometimes you’ll need a hammer; at others, a scalpel is appropriate.
A valuable resource, also courtesy of Sara: A Visual Dictionary of Architecture. Francis D.K. Ching has created a masterpiece of more than “5,000 terms relating to architectural design, history, and technology. It is the only dictionary that provides concise, accurate definitions illustrated with finely detailed, hand-rendered drawings.” It has a magical look and feel.
The lightest moment: Moderator William Pinch asked Kristen Rouse what it was like to interview Godzilla. Rouse served in the Army, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve with three tours in Afghanistan. She advocates for veterans through NYC Veterans Alliance.
“True Boots” features the interviews with Godzilla. I recommend “Sleeping Through the #Blizzardof2015” for its good common sense and great humor.
Overall, I was impressed by the depth and breadth of the knowledge of these mostly thirtysomething men and women – and (based on overheard snippets) of the drive and determination the Posse vets.
The sessions demonstrated Wesleyan’s strength, as well. In true liberal arts fashion, the school hosted a disparate group that exchanged ideas and shared inspiration.
The workshop offered so much, we’ll be mining the resources for weeks. It will be a glorious journey.