The Loss of Pedro 66

“Soldier Antlers” by Lydia Komatsu

Last fall, I began drafting a new essay inspired by Dust to Dust, the Benjamin Busch memoir. There was this passage in which Busch recalled the moment of his mother’s death to cancer, only a year after his father Frederick Busch died. Reading that passage will always be for me the moment I knew I could go deeper with my writing. I won’t give anything away or quote the stunning prose – you need to read the entire work for yourself – but Busch does this magic trick in which he slows the moment of her passing. That, I thought, is how I would like to write.

Essay writing is a labor of love, as is any act of creativity. I’ve always taken this to mean “unrequited,” but lately learned it just means you must love what you are writing about. The situation must be near to you, precious enough to drive you to the page, tilting at the quixotic question: What does all this mean to me?

The essay began as a foray into the connection between my running and my wars, but ended up leading me down unexpected paths until when I finished and realized this is less about running than it is about loss and memory. Some of this was just evolution. Nonfiction to me was history books and journalism; but as I read and wrote through my first year of a Master’s Degree in Creative Nonfiction Writing, that word “creative” became more and more important.

In writing, we talk about what happened as “the situation.” It’s the who, what, where, when, why, and how of things. The “story” is how we choose to write about those things in order to bring forth what felt most true. When Pedro 66 went down five years ago on this date, the story was obscured to me for the longest time. I knew what happened to a certain extent, the situation that enveloped it. But I could not find the what it meant, and without that in hand, I couldn’t find a way to write about it beyond the chronology of events that exposed in me a raw grief.

Reading Dust to Dust taught me that the understanding the story isn’t about having the answers; rather, it’s about the pursuit. Seeking truth is the story in some cases, and to write in such a way as to illuminate it like Ben Busch did, well, I’d say that’s a good goal for an essay.  I don’t know why Mike Flores, Joel Gentz, and Ben White had to die on June 9th, 2010, but I do know that their deaths were meaningful to me. What went through their minds in their final moments can never be known, but that won’t stop me from trying to imagine it, even if it’s painful to do so. I will forever be in front of their caskets as long as I’m at the page.

Blue Skies, Brothers

Capt David Wisniewski, Pilot
1Lt Joel Gentz, CRO
TSgt Michael Flores, PJ
SSgt David Smith, FE
SrA Benjamin White, PJ

Reading War: Matt Gallagher’s YOUNGBLOOD

Reading War: Matt Gallagher’s YOUNGBLOOD

Note: I reviewed Youngblood for Foreign Policy last year. If you’re interested in that take, which had to conform to Tom Ricks’ lethal editorial pen, you can view it here.

I had room to cram two books into the survival ruck I jumped onto the Polar Icecap last year. One of them was Matt Gallagher‘s debut novel Youngblood (I’ll get to that other one in another post.) I’d begun the book a few weeks earlier, so it was a bit of a risky move to bring a half-read book knowing I might be stuck on the Beaufort Sea for longer than expected. But I owed a review, and Gallagher is a damn fine writer, so it made sense on a lot of levels. The gamble paid off, big time.

In the space of one claustrophobic and very cold afternoon, I tore through the rest of the book. And cutting right to the chase: it was the Iraq novel I’d been waiting for.

Now, feel free to take all this with a grain of salt. I am, after all, a nonfiction writer, which means the lion’s share of my reading is nonfiction. But story is story. The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)Redeployment (Phil Klay): they all filled a need. Namely, the desire to clear a guilty conscience. Respectively: the individual soldier’s, a nation’s, and the outsider’s. I take nothing away from each of those excellent books. They were necessary. The writing was outstanding. But they were also well, kind of depressing. 

Youngblood, by contrast, is best described as vibrant. It’s a technicolor story, complete with engrossing action and heartstopping literary value. Having met Gallagher now, and read just about everything he’s written, there’s a lot of the guy I had the pleasure of sharing a couple of drinks with in Youngblood. Which is not to say it isn’t a serious book — it is — but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

The basic premise is Iraq sometime during the Surge. Lt Jack Porter stumbles upon information about a troublesome NCO assigned to him, which leads Jack down an ill-advised investigative path that will twist and turn him on a plot line like something out of a hardboiled detective novel. Oh, and there’s that war-thing going on as well. And that’s about all I’m willing to share with you, because I want you to pick up a copy and read it for yourself.

I’d, of course read Kaboom, Gallagher’s memoir. So I was familiar with his wit, ability to turn a pretty phrase, and capacity for laugh-out-loud humor. But with Youngblood, you can sense Gallagher at a blank canvas, creating a world grounded by experience but broadened by creativity. What I took away from the book was a lesson in storytelling on the extended arc that a novel requires. Writing essays, longform, memoir, it took me a few years to come to grips with the idea that a writer must answer the pesky question, “what’s this about?”Not what happens — that much will be evident — but the thing that changes, the question that is answered, and so on. You must be able to answer the question as the author, or the reader will never have snowball’s chance in hell. That essay I’ve written about previous, “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade”: it wasn’t until I’d already begun submitting that I realized I’d written a lot of pretty sentences, compelling scene and assembled an interesting structure. But I couldn’t tell you what it was about. Once I decided that it was about the process of grief and memory, it made things a whole lot easier. I was able to dial things up here, eliminate dead weight there, so that once the reader hit the last sentence, they would be able to answer the question (I hope, anyway.)

One one hand, short stories and essays are disadvantaged by what must be an economical approach. A couple thousand words goes by pretty fast and you have to get to the point. Novels like Youngblood have the luxury of time and length to get the reader there. But the flip side of this is that length is no cure for inefficient and bloated writing. We’ve all been there, laboring through an extraneous chapter, wondering when we’re gonna get to the good stuff. But Youngblood had none of that. Gallagher keeps the story tight, clipping along, to the point that backstory feels less like a side-trip than it does a necessary pause.

So, there you go. Turns out novels can be good for your nonfiction. Especially if the novel you’re looking at for inspiration just so happens to be Youngblood. 



Hugging It Out at #AWP17

Hugging It Out at #AWP17

When Brian Turner, author of My Life as a Foreign Country, Here Bullet, and Phantom Noise, greeted me with a hug, I knew something was up but I figured it was a one-off. Then others whom I only knew through online interaction reacted with similar joy and intimacy when we met. Now, I’m not really one for hugs. But at the 2017 Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), it was actually kind of nice.

AWP was a weird affair. I’d heard it referred to as “a party involving 10,000+ introverts.” And that was certainly true. But there was also the sobering reality that of all of us there, only a few had or would achieve the notoriety we al dream of as writers. Walking through the monstrous book fair in the largest hall in the DC Convention Center – a space that could have supported a small football stadium – I noticed how often folks looked not at my face, but at my name card. By the second day, I was so self-conscious, I took to concealing it within my jacket. Don’t bother – not famous.

As a “veteran writer,” I’m constantly aware of the paradox of that label. On one hand, it is a strong, supportive tribe. The kind of people you can meet for the first time and feel as if you’ve been friends for years. We are in the genuine business of elevating each other. On the other hand, it’s a small tribe, and we’ve all got ambition: we all want to be “writers,” sans modifier. Folks are simply going to start running in ever-widening circles as their reach and network expands.

Personally, I don’t know how they do it at AWP – how they make decisions on who to spend time with, whose panels to attend, etc. I’m nobody, and even my dance card was full. On the veteran and war writer side of things, I felt extremely fortunate to finally meet people who’ve influenced my writing life for the better. Jesse Goolsby, who coached me through an essay for Southeast Review and has invited me aboard the War, Literature and the Arts nonfiction team; Pete Molin of Time Now, chastised me for the length of my hair; Andria Williams (The Longest Night and The Military Spouse Book Review) and I talked parenthood for nearly an hour over some really bad vendor food; Matt Gallagher (Youngblood and Kaboom) can drink; and prizewinning essayist Tenley Lozano and service dog Elu were kind enough to hang out and chat about tiny homes on wheels and hiking the PCT. And all this was minus the panels, readings and events.

I probably should have been out there, scanning name cards for the word, “Agent.” Or maybe hitting up the journal booths, buying editors’ books and pitching story ideas. Probably should have at least made the keynote addresses and events. Instead, I got to spend time with people who matter to me, as of this very moment. And I got to feel bad about people I wish I could have spent more time with. That’s a good problem to have.

Guess maybe I’m more about those hugs than I let on.

Do Work

Oh Well (2) by Lydia Komatsu

“Oh Well (2)” courtesy of Lydia Komatsu

Sometimes, you read a publication and think that’s where I want to be. The first time I read Meter Magazine, I knew I’d found an aesthetic that matched mine. It was writing focused, which is to say that of course all magazines feature writing, but that doesn’t make the writing worth reading. And when it comes to writing about running, the last thing I want to read is another 250 words on how to train for a marathon on 10 miles a week.

The heritage of the running is so rich, so ancient, for crying out loud, that I’ve wondered why writing about it has gotten so damned boring. Anybody remember The Runner’s Literary Companion? My goodness, there was some incredible work in there. Sure, we had to put up with AE Housman (groan) but we also got  some killer writing by Whitman, Sillitoe, and Joyce Carol Oates. And of course, no discussion about running writing is complete without mention John L. Parker, Jr. and my favorite sleeper, Haruki Murakami.

Reading Meter, I knew I’d found a publication that believed running was worth art. Immediately, I started thinking about how to write for the magazine. The magazine is published by Tracksmith, a new running apparel company out of Wellesley, MA. My initial queries to customer service didn’t get too far, nor did I expect them to jump at that chance to publish someone untested when they could get Toni Reavis or Chris Lear on board. Regardless, I started drafting something about a very cold run I took one winter day in Alaska.

When the time was right, I pitched the editor on the piece, which had morphed into something I didn’t foresee when I began. It started as a pretty straightforward exploration of what it takes to run in the Alaskan winter. But as I added context through layers of scene, I realized there was something else about running I wanted to get across. How it has been there for me through a lifetime of war, a common thread even. And how sometimes it has felt like running has gotten me through difficulties along the way.

In other words, it grew legs. Took on a life of its own.

“42 Below” ran on the Studio Tracksmith page a week ago, and I’ve had some very nice feedback since then. Which is nice, but not really the point of this blog post. The point is that when you believe in a project, you find a way to make it happen. Do the work required to make the project come to life. Write and edit and write some more. Go exploring and use social media to establish connections. Exercise patience with the knowledge that time tends to make all writing better.

Hopefully, you’ll see me in the pages of Meter some day soon. But until that day, this little victory is going to keep my hope meter at least half full.