Reading War: David Abrams’ FOBBIT

FinalCover-330After I published my first piece and realized that this writing thing was something I needed to do, I grabbed every piece of war literature I could find. It was 2013, and I was coming late to the game. Figured I needed to catch up with how other folks were writing about my wars. And not just any folks, but veterans turned authors. Fobbit was one of the first books I picked up, mostly, I think, because of the title.

A “fobbit” is military slang for someone whose deployed job never took them outside the wire and exposed them to what we’d traditionally view as “combat.” Which, among the incredible number of those who have deployed in the past sixteen years, is precious few. Constructed from the acronym FOB (forward operating base) and “hobbit,” well, I suppose you can do the math. It’s a term of derision.

The book is a comic look at Iraq as viewed through the eyes of Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, “the most fobbity of all fobbits.” But to call the book strictly comic, or satire, would be to cage it inappropriately. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny –I had a brief fobbit deployment to Iraq in 2010, so the palace scenes are familiar to me — but Abrams, an Army veteran, understands that the prime mover in all of this is war itself. And as such, you can never really get away from tragedy: the original gangster of the war literature taxonogy game.

It’s odd now, to look back at Fobbit, which I read long before I called myself a nonfiction writer, essayist, memoirist. It’s odd because I wonder if shouldn’t have been reading more novels during my MFA. See, there’s this thing called “story,” and it turns out novelists had the thing licked a couple hundred years before nonfiction was considered an art form. It’s what Tom Wolfe talks about explicitly in The New Journalism: the idea that one could write a nonfiction story like a novel, and wouldn’t that be so much better to both read and to write?

This isn’t a ding on MFA programs — there’s plenty of useless diatribe out there should you want to invest time (I don’t) or ducats (certainly not) in the rhetoric — but in retrospect, I probably should have read in a few more works of fiction over the past few years. In building my reading lists, I was too focused: predominantly war memoir with a few grudging allowances for “regular” memoir, a few poetry books (war poetry only), and a handful of fiction books.

Normally, I draw a craft lesson from the books I talk about on this blog. But in this case, it’s a bit more personal and on the nose, which speaks to the quality of what David Abrams wrote: read more fiction, dummy. It can only help.

Buy the book on Amazon.


A Brief Defense of Short Shorts

shortshortsIn light of the hilarious Gizmodo article published a while back on the tiny black $9 shorts I’ve worn for years (known affectionately as “Ranger Panties”), and maybe because I’m starting to dream about running in something less than two layers of clothing, I have take it upon myself to offer this defense of absurdly short running shorts. Briefly. (See what I did there?)

Complaint: Short running shorts are exhibitionist.

Answer: It’s function of fashion. If you like running ten miles with shorts that hang past your knees and look like those things we called “Jams” back in the 80s, then more power to you. Me, I want to forget I’m wearing shorts in the first place, so I can focus on what’s important. Like finishing this horrible jog.

Complaint: Short running shorts are feminine.

Answer: So’s your mom…wait. That made no sense. OK, so, yes, the nearest approximation in aesthetic might be found stretched across a waitress’s tushie at Hooter’s. But maybe they’re on to something. Hard-working, blue collar, the shorts go the distance. Silken undies might also be classified as “feminine,” but I’d wear those bad boys without complaint. Hell, I’d run in a skirt if it took ten seconds off my 5k PR.

Complaint: Short running shorts are offensive, especially when worn while stretching.

Answer: This one’s a little hard to get around. No one wants to be eye level with Random Dude’s twig and berries during a post-run stretch. All I can say is that Web MD advises stretching after you run. There is no mention, however, of recommended attire. As my friend says, “‘Rung whatcha’ brung!”

Complaint: Short shorts result in male objectification.

Answer: Liar.

Complaint: Short shorts are outdated.

Answer: Some things never go out of style. Like plain white tees, blue jeans, Chuck T’s, high heels, the Little Black Dress, and a well-worn ball cap. I suppose I could chase current fitness fashion and run in shorts whose inseams never look north of 5″. Maybe some of those lycra booty shorts that pop up in ads for men’s yoga attire. But fellas have been running in shorties since the day some smart human realized that running naked is for the birds. You can’t argue with history.



Reading War: Colby Buzzell’s MY WAR: KILLING TIME IN IRAQ

51WQ7SS1S9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The other night, I had the chance to sit at a bar in Anchorage with Brian Castner and discuss a few things I’d mentioned in my blog post on All the Ways We Kill and Die. One of the things we talked about was the idea of the veteran writer who works both in journalism and the literary world; and how short the list really is. But one of the guys who we agreed could write great essays in addition to reportage was Colby Buzzell.

I’d have to check in with Pete Molin over at Time Now (he shared his far-more-intelligent-thoughts on My War here) but I believe that Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq was one of the first, if not THE first, literary memoir to emerge from Iraq. First published in October of 2005, the flash-to-bang  on the memoir’s production was incredibly tight: Buzzell deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the Army, and came home in 2004. Which means what I’d estimate to have been less than a year to write and finish the book. Coincidentally, Buzzell deployed at roughly the same time as Brian Turner (My Life as a Foreign Country), who was also stationed at Ft Lewis, WA. Two remarkable writers in the same neighborhood: I have to wonder if their paths crossed at some point.

It’s hard to remember now, but blogging was kind of a new thing back then. Blogs were springing up all across the web, and being heralded as a kind of democratic approach to journalism. And those deployed to Iraq were taking advantage of the medium for a variety of purposes as well. I can recall coming across one while I was in Iraq, established by a guy I knew deployed at the same time as me, as a way of keeping his family updated. Colby Buzzell, on the other hand, was by all accounts looking for a way to pass the time. So he established an anonymous blog that ended up going viral. He’s still got the original blog posts up at Blogspot if you want to check them out.

I probably read the book within a year of its release and its raw prose blew me away. Unlike the repetitive autobiographies of trigger-pullers and generals, it was clear that Buzzell was grappling with the larger story of what it all meant. That last sentence is important to me in terms of taxonomy: for the most part, I don’t read non-literary war memoirs. If all you’ve got in your story is a bunch of things that happened to you, Godspeed. Those stories are important, and I’m glad they’re available. They are, or can be, art. A literary memoir, however, is at least trying to be Art, and does so by chasing the meaning of an experience.

That right there is the lesson of My War for war memoirists (and maybe even any author in general.) You need to be able to answer the question, “what’s this all about?” And my gut feeling is that answer can’t be, “it’s about me going to war,” unless you’ve got one hell of an exciting or unique perspective. There needs to be some kind of through-line. Slaughterhouse Five is certainly a war novel. But above that, it is about the moral complicity and guilt Vonnegut felt as a result of what he experienced during WWII.

My War answers the question adequately enough — and it didn’t hurt that Buzzell’s voice was fresh and unique. But most importantly, there’s enough connective tissue in there to take it beyond a disparate collection of things that happened and into literary territory.

Buy the book on Amazon.



Reading War: Brian Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

Reading War: Brian Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

Note: I published a lengthy review of the book on The Millions, which you can find here.

Early on in the MFA program, I decided my goal was to write a war memoir. It was actually  was less evident to than you might guess — my original plan was an essay collection, but evidently those are difficult to get published as a first time author — but it also made a lot of sense. Technically, the very first thing I ever published was, after all, technically memoir. And by “memoir,” I mean it was an examination of something from my personal history.

The next logical step was to read as much war memoir as possible, which was how I became familiar with Brian Castner. An Air Force EOD veteran of Iraq, he wrote a memoir called The Long Walk (which has since been adapted as an opera) that stuck with me because of its fragmentary nature. It was willfully disorienting, the fragmentation a clear representation of a mind at search for a thread while weaving in and out of traumatic experiences. It reminded me, and quite a few others, of Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Castner’s second book, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer, is much different. Brian is also a freelance journalist with a fistful of longform/narrative nonfiction pieces, and the book is much more in the vein of reportage. By design, he’s told me, although I argued in my review that he as narrator is central enough to earn a “memoir” as a label as well.

In an MFA program like mine, you read a lot of nonfiction that weaves reportage and essay. Leslie Jameson, Eula Biss, John McPhee: these are just a tiny few who build narratives from both in-depth research and thoughtful reflection. In fact, modern creative nonfiction owes much to The New Journalism that erupted in the 60s from writers like Didion, Wolfe, and Gay. But once you narrow the lens to something like the idea of reading things written by veterans, well the list gets short. Really short. So while Castner’s second book was certainly beautifully written, it was also helpful and inspiring to see a fellow vet out there working the creative side and the journalism side.

Memoir, of course, requires a certain amount of research, even if it only consists of reaching into the depths of our memories to recall the who and where. But there’s something to the idea of dipping in and out, as the narrator in All the Ways does. One minute, we’re in his head, at his friend’s funeral. The next, we’re inside the head of a drone pilot. It taught me the value of the reporter’s skill of information gathering – of noticing in that particular habit of picking up stones to see what lies underneath. It’s a skill   foreign to me that, thankfully, Castner nails in the book.

Note: If you’re reading this in Anchorage or Juneau, you have the opportunity to interact with Brian Castner at one of several events next week. On Friday, 10 Mar at the Juneau Public Library, he will give a talk before leading a writing workshop the next day, again in Juneau. On Sunday, 12 Mar, I will moderate a discussion between Brian and and Alaska author Don Rearden at 49th State Brewery at 7pm. I hope to see you there. 




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

Hot Link: Elliot Ackerman Returns to Fallujah for Esquire

Oh Well (2) by Lydia Komatsu

“Oh Well (2)” courtesy of Lydia Komatsu

Marine Corps veteran and author Elliot Ackerman (Green on BlueDark at the Crossing) has a wonderful bit of elegiac longform up at Esquire. It’s about returning to Fallujah in 2016, to the site where he lost a friend during the nastiness of 2004. If you recall, we brought Elliot up for last year’s   DANGER CLOSE ALASKA, so I’m always excited to see instructor alum putting their work out there into the world. Check the piece out here, but maybe brace yourself a bit: Goodbye, My Brother

Hot Link: Eric Chandler on O-Dark-Thirty

Oh Well (2) by Lydia Komatsu

“Oh Well (2)” courtesy of Lydia Komatsu

It’s strange when two vets from the same town, who participated in the same war, shake hands for the first time. Even more strange when it turns out they’re both writing about their time on the dusty fringes of the empire. And it gets super weird when both are endurance junkies.

That would be Eric Chandler and I, both from Duluth (I was born there while he retired from the MN ANG’s 148th Fighter Wing.) We met for the first time at AWP, after having conversed a few times over email and the Twitterverse. He’s got a great story that tracks the career of a fighter pilot, which just recently published with the Veteran Writing Project’s journal, O-Dark-Thirty, and I think you should check it out: The Dirty Dozen | O-Dark-Thirty