Reading War: Andria Williams’ THE LONGEST NIGHT

51dcpi-si6L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_It’s easy to forget that the Cold War was this nation’s longest war. Punctuated by two “hot wars”–Korea and Vietnam–in addition to a host of nasty brushfire affairs across the globe, the Cold War shaped the country for half a century. I may have been a child at its end, but I remember its influences well: the “Fallout Shelter” sign with radioactive symbol that adorned the neighborhood middle school, Twilight Zone episodes concerned with nuclear apocalypse, movies like Red Dawn and Russkies, the song “Wind of Change” (The Scorpions) that celebrated glasnost. Two superpowers locked in a nuclear struggle for global domination. Ah. The good old days.

Andria Williams‘ debut novel is a fictionalized account of a little-known 1961 nuclear reactor disaster outside of Idaho Falls, ID, in the early middle of the Cold War. Before reading the book, I had no concept of the SL-1 meltdown or the scale of military attempts to develop scalable nuclear power, so Williams hit one of my marks for good historical fiction: I learned something.

Which isn’t to say the book only delivers one half of the Delight/Inform Contract–It is a superbly-written story of prototypical suburbia at its nadir, complicated by the expectations of a military family. This last bit is what sets The Longest Night apart, which benefits by superlative comparison to Updike’s Rabbit series: Williams smiles as she burns the facade to the ground. And where Updike lays claim to an experience I’m not sure he’s all the qualified to possess, Williams nails the minefield that is the Military Family as monolith, and using the 1960s to do so is just a stroke of pure genius.

What writing lessons did I draw from the book? First, I need to read more women authors. Turns out that in the past couple years, while I’ve found essays by women to be those most formative to me as a new writer, most of the books I’ve read have been written by men. The most immediate issue this presents craft-wise (to say nothing of publishing trends) is the lack of experience in which to ground the writing of women characters. Williams’ protagonist, Nat, is a complex woman worth study in terms of a what Alice LaPlante might refer to as a “round character.”

Second–and this one is more on the Values side–but The Longest Night reminded me of a craft talk that Jan DeBlieu gave at my last Residency regarding the responsibilities of writers. One of them, Jan said, is to give voice to the voiceless. The experience of the military spouse has been damn near non-existent in the canon of military literature; Brava to Williams for introducing Nat to the canon in such fine fashion. It got me thinking about what I should be writing about on the nonfiction side, what stories are out there right in front of my nose but haven’t been told.

The Longest Night is a great novel, and I encourage you to read it for yourself so that you can draw lessons from it for yourself. You can buy the new softcover version on Amazon.





Reading War: Bruce Weigl’s SONG OF NAPALM

41AVQN9F4ZL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m comfortable telling you that I’ve never quite gotten into poetry.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t crave it like some do. I envy the type – you know who I’m talking about – clutching a slim collection of poetry like it’s a brick of gold, nose buried in the folds, and the look of bliss. They’re always pausing to put the book down, and stare, glassy-eyes, off into the distance, at some fleeting memory of the Elysium they’ve just witnessed in a handful of pretty words.

As a writer, I’m not supposed to say things like this. In fact, I should be able to serve up flaming hot lines of poetry a propos to any situation. The more obscure, the better.

Unfortunately, I am the troglodytic writer who ums and ahs his way through interviews and is thoroughly unprepared to dish literary, let alone poetical, references at a moment’s notice. Only just now have I realized that it is National Poetry Month.

I know, I know…I’m hopeless.

By way of apology, however, I will recommend Bruce Weigl’s terrifyingly-named poetry collection, Song of Napalm, which could be considered a kind of memoir in verse. I’ve written about other Vietnam veteran memoirs, to include Tim O’Brien’s and Tobias Wolff’s (which reminds me that I still need to cover Phil Caputo.) And of course, there’s always Michael Herr to consider. But this was the first bit of Vietnam poetry I’d read in quite some time, maybe even since the Academy.

I had this epiphany during one of my MFA Residencies when I attended a poetry workshop, when I realized how much of what poetry exhibits translates to prose. Linguistic economy. Visual form and structure. Tight narrative. It was like someone smacked me upside the head, which is embarrassing to admit. For crying out loud, it took someone pointing out to me that my short essay “When We Played” was a prose poem under the right light.

Like I said, I’m not that bright.

Song of Napalm had much to teach me about writing short pieces, which is where I think there is a direct craft lesson for prose writers looking for poetic inspiration. To wit: if you want to write flash nonfiction, you’d be smart to spend some time reading narrative poetry. Count the number of words, if you really want to be impressed. Hell, even if you’re not inspired to bash your head against Brevity‘s 750-word limit, you would do well to study poetry’s refusal to let a single word go to waste. Aspire to a collection of linked essays? How about a collection of linked poems?

Weigl’s collection is devastating. It’s all there: the strange country we find ourselves inhabiting, the violence, and the difficult return. The wounds, unseen, that never heal. The knowledge that we have been forever changed. Song of Napalm nails it all, and it’s the type of collection that will rip your heart out. Repeatedly. And it’s that last bit that makes me think about emotion in memoir, or at least the way a memoirist chooses to convey their narrator. Weigl talks about some things in his poetry that are uncomfortable — things that polite society chooses to relegate to second-class narrative. I don’t know if it’s the fact that you get so little in the way of word count, but receive so much in the way of emotional impact, but Song of Napalm seemed the most personal and visceral piece of Vietnam writing – fiction or nonfiction – I encountered to date. So, perhaps the last thing the poetry collection has to say to memoir is, have the courage to write the uncomfortable things.


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.