Founded by a veteran for veterans, a nonprofit (Veterans Writing Project) teaches writing as a way of making sense of the stories soldiers have to tell and coping with the trauma of war. This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Writer's Digest.
A WD contributor and one of my favorite writers, Simon Van Booy, recently tweeted of the heroes of World War II's D-Day: "These men died so that we could live free. They gave up their chance to be fathers and husbands so that we could be fathers and husbands. For God's sake don't forget them; they are the silent architects of our happiness." It prompted me to reflect on what veterans have done, suffered through, and lost for us. People throw around the phrase, "support the troops"—but what does that really mean?
One organization working to support returning veterans and their families is the Veterans Writing Project (VeteransWriting.org), a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit. VWP provides free creative writing and songwriting workshops for veterans, service members, and their adult family members, in addition to publishing a quarterly review of writing by this same community on their sister site, O-Dark-Thirty.org.
The nonprofit was founded by Ron Capps, who also acts as director and curriculum developer of the organization. Capps served 25 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve and is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
I talked with Jerri Bell, an editor and instructor for VWP. Bell retired from the Navy in 2008 and writes both fiction and nonfiction.
Of VWP's founding, she says, "The Veterans Writing Project started after Ron Capps came back from an overseas assignment. Ron was both an Army Reserve officer and a foreign service officer with the state department. He was for a while the state department’s expert on central Africa. ... Between the Army and the state department Ron had deployed to five different war zones in 10 years. He went to Kosovo as a peacekeeper. He was in Congo and Rwanda. ... With the Army, he deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. And he was also in South Sudan. He ended up with a bad case of PTSD.
"He was documenting a lot of genocide. ... He started having hallucinations … he would see the people that he saw dead in Africa and Kosovo sitting beside him. ... So, he went to a psychiatrist who told him to keep a record of how he was feeling. He created a little scale from 'all right' to 'seriously not all right.'
"Eventually, he ended up borrowing a service revolver from a friend and driving out into the African outback with two beers, a .45, and a satellite phone, and was going to kill himself. He drank one beer, and his then-wife called on the satellite phone … by the time he was done talking to her, the urge to kill himself passed. And he went back and said, 'Medevac me out of here. I'm not safe.'
"When he got back to the States he tried conventional talk therapy. He tried medication. He drank. He got a dog named Harry. None of it was getting the PTSD symptoms in the box. He went to a community writing workshop at Walter Reed [medical center], part of Operation Homecoming, and the writing actually helped.
"So he went to Johns Hopkins with his GI bill and got an MA in creative writing, with a double concentration in fiction and nonfiction. He wrote his memoir [Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years (Schaffner Press)] as his thesis. Then he decided that he wanted to give back and create a nonprofit that would offer creative writing skills to veterans and family members, regardless of why they wanted to tell their stories—whether it was for expressive and therapeutic purposes, to leave it in a box for the grandkids, or get something published.
"That's the case with a lot of veterans who end up in veterans' service organizations—they're just not done serving," Bell says.
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She continues, "I thought when I got ready to retire, that I was done with most of this Navy stuff. I was going to write one novel about the Navy. I was also in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins, and my adviser looked at what I was writing and said, 'You really should be writing these stories from the point of view of a woman.' And I got angry; I said, 'Am I not getting the male point of view right?' And he said, 'Oh no, it's not that. It's just that nobody's telling these stories from the point of view of a woman.' And I said, 'There's a reason for that. If you talk about how it really is, it will hurt everybody else still serving.' And that was the attitude of women of my generation: You didn't talk about the stuff that you went through, because it would make it harder for other women.
"I was reading an article about VWP, and I saw that Ron had gone to Johns Hopkins, and I emailed him and said, 'I want in.' We created a class that was just for women veterans, because we noticed they weren't speaking up as much. I realized … that I couldn't ask other women to write about those things if I didn't write about my own experiences. So [that] changed my approach to writing."
The instructors who work with VWP are working writers who hold MA or MFA writing degrees and who are veterans themselves. They do two-day intensive seminars, six or fourteen-week workshops, and customizable workshops for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting. Their creative writing curriculum is Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story. Written by Capps for other veterans, it details the elements of craft involved in writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays.
The latest program VWP is getting off the ground is a songwriting initiative. "We're still in the building stage," Capps says. "We have, so far, run one workshop. I've been revising the curriculum based on what we learned. The program is structured to give participants a foundation in music theory, song structure, harmony, and lyric writing. It is a hands-on workshop, during which participants create new songs. We're setting up the participants to create, record, and perform their own music. ... Our goal is to include a platform for our participants to present their songs to the world for streaming and download."
The work VWP is doing is definitely helping vets. Bell says, "Ron likes to say, 'Either you control the story, or the story controls you.' For many people, writing creatively is a way of accessing deep and difficult emotional material, and getting it out and shaping it into something that has coherence and meaning. For a lot of people who have been to war … the experience is fragmented. You seldom have the big picture. So going back and writing about it is a way of understanding … the bigger picture. And there's scientific work that backs up the healing benefits of writing. We know that writing does have actual physical and mental health benefits."
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you're seeking isn't craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren't good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you.