Writing War: The Veteran Writer Box


“Soldier Antlers” by Lydia Komatsu

Identity has been on my mind the past few months. Some of it has to do with writing a memoir, and the surprising turns this second draft has taken. Some of it has to do with what’s going on politically, and the debate in this country over the efficacy of identity politics. And then some of it has to do with attending AWP, and seeing the writing industry’s approach to identity. I know. That’s a lot of “identity”s for just a few sentences.

As a writer, I have identified myself as a veteran writer. It’s in all my bios — hell, it’s right there on my “About” page on this website.  And there was a time when I thought this was useful, that it might help me stand out in a crowd, keep things cold for my snowball’s chance at publication. But lately, I’ve wondered. On one hand, there appears — and this is purely a non-scientific observation — to be a desire across the reading public for the veterans of The Forever War to represent their experiences. But on the other, the last thing any writer wants is to be pegged as The Writer Who Writes One Thing. Especially if the one thing turns out to be something that doesn’t sell all that well.

During one of my MFA Residencies, a friend said, “You only write about war.” I reacted predictably, which is to say, I was a self-righteous jerk about it. Truth is, if you expand the war category to include general purpose military experience, I’m pretty much in a box of my own making.

Of course, I’m not alone in this. In fact, the company is fine, and as I discussed in my post on AWP, it’s an honor to work alongside all of them. We support each other the best we can, whether through introductions to agents and editors, manuscript reads, and encouragement through whatever means at our disposal. This, of course, is the happy upside. We do not, in my experience, view each other as competition. It’s a strong bond, one of the things that makes us unique.

Smarter folks than me have already weighed in on this subject. Matt Gallagher wrote a great op-ed for The Boston Globe that considered the issue of veteran identity following WWII versus today. And while he doesn’t address veteran writing specifically, his final words seem to imply that he believes it’s best not to make an enduring thing of it. Luckily, the irksome sense of entitlement that has begun to accompany what some call “professional veterans” has not shown up in the writing crowd, to my knowledge anyway. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. To a person, everyone I’ve interacted with has been humble and thankful.

I think so long as we all understand that our writing is what matters, that no label an an author bio can elevate a story that is not well-crafted, we’re going to be just fine. For the time being, many of us are just writing what we know, which is always good foundational advice. If this is the box we find ourself in, I’m pretty sure it’s got great big, airy windows and doors that open both ways.

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.