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Veterans Writing War

Dispatches from Blog Editor Claire Harlan Orsi

As the troop drawdown in Afghanistan continues (albeit amid internecine conflict, an uncertain Afghan government and security force and a recently and ignominiously-departed CIA director), it’s worth reflecting on a fascinating offshoot of our country’s 10-year involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan: the growth of creative writing programs specifically catering to veterans.

I first heard of the phenomenon from this article, which describes something called the Wounded Warriors Writers’ Program, in which veteran-writer participants shape their war experiences into staged monologues. In the past decade several other, more traditional writing workshop environments geared to veterans have sprung up in different regions of the country: New York, Maryland and Iowa, among others. Additionally, a small but still significant number of veterans are returning to participate in iconic workshop settings like the Michener Center and Iowa Writer’s Workshop; in a compelling 2010 Virginia Quarterly Review essay, Michael David Lukas interviews several of them.

As a writing student and frequent workshop participant myself, I am curious about what happens in these programs. “‘It’s like a form of personal therapy, to learn how to tell your story on paper,’” says one Wounded Warrior participant quoted in the NYT article. Another participant, a former corporal who was blinded by shrapnel in 2004, gives insight into the writing program’s pedagogy: “‘[My] monologue is going to have more detail and be more to the point,’” he says. “‘We’re cutting the fat, so to speak.’”

These quotes highlight a central tension that has always been present in discussions of creative writing’s purpose. In the 1970s, expressionist educators such as Peter Elbow championed the power of writing to provide individual catharsis and foster internal growth. That model has long gone out of fashion, however; in the writing workshops at my program in Nebraska, the end goal is always to produce “good” writing. Whether the participant is able to express their emotions in a therapeutically productive way is ancillary, if not totally irrelevant, to this central goal.

To me, the interesting thing about the veteran’s workshops is the way they seem to combine both models: on the one hand resuscitating the cathartic power of individual creative expression, while on the other emphasizing the currently popular rhetoric of “craft” (adding detail and cutting the fat are staples of craft discussions in today’s workshops). Express yourself, these programs seem to be saying, but learn to do it well.

These goals shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, in theory, but often they are. Expressionism remains the stuff of grade school art classes, but once we get to high school we are told to concentrate on the form and quality of our writing. Writing’s psychological benefits become less and less valued as we mature. But why can’t cathartic writing also be good writing? Perhaps writing becomes more (instead of less) cathartic the better crafted it is. I’m not sure, but the way the veteran’s workshops negotiate this tension is worthwhile to watch.

I am curious if there is a precedent for these workshops in previous wars. Did creative outlets for veterans spring up after Vietnam? Korea? The World Wars? If not, what does this say about the way writing and trauma are conceived today? If so, what are the differences and similarities between today’s models and those of the past?

In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry argues that pain destroys language. The object of war, she says, is to destroy the enemy’s powers of expression. This holds true for many PTSD sufferers, who are often unable to speak of their experiences. If, as Scarry argues, creation is the opposite of pain, then veterans’ writing workshops are anti-war workshops as well.