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.

What I’m Reading Now


Blog is back at least for now and despite more tech hell — disappearing email address book that reappeared on my phone after a looong chat with the web host; disappearing email on Larry’s iPhone, since resolved; iPod refusing to download podcasts, which remains unsolved.

In the meantime, I read an actual dead trees and ink book. This post is another in an occasional series and another example of how when I start feeling sorry for myself, the Universe throws examples of much worse my way.

One of the veterans in the writing group loaned me In-Country and Back: Essays and Reflections by Vietnam Veterans and CCSU Students. Published in 2012, it is a “magazine” produced by an advanced writing class at Central Connecticut State University. The students each interviewed a veteran and then wrote essays, one about their subject and another about their personal connection to the Vietnam War or later conflicts.

Many of the accounts are of course wrenching and painful to read: friends and  medics who come to the rescue dying on the battlefield , dragging wounded comrades out of firefights, never ending survivor’s guilt.

Some accounts, though, offer humor. Douglas Monty describes “Explosions from Within.” At the end of a flight, everyone heard a tremendous “BOOM.” Examination showed they hadn’t taken a hit. Monty had forgotten to remove the tab from his can of Campbell’s. The soup of course deluged an officer and created a tremendous mess.

The humor can arrive with a twist. In one case interviewer Ron Farina had also served “in country.” Because he and his subject shared a bond, he wrote the best essays. “A Keyhole” is sheer brilliance. His interview featured Jerry Winn, a Marine with a number of battle scars, including a maimed hand. Winn said the injury saved him in a way. Farina’s commentary: “Here I am struck by Jerry’s relief. He looked at being wounded as a Godsend that kept him from reporting to Fort Mead, a spit and polish stateside military base.”

Two minor criticisms: The students didn’t always include the branch of service and the tour of duty. Farina managed to weave this information deftly into the narrative. Editor Mary Collins should have challenged her other students to do the same, even where the veteran chose to remain anonymous.

The text also served up some glaring errors of grammar – “lay” for “lie,” “I” for “me,” and changes of verb tense within one paragraph, sometimes within one sentence. These are tiny matters, however. You can read In-Country here.