Writing War: The Veteran Writer Box

SoldierAntlers

“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.

Hot Link: Teresa Fazio’s Award-Winning Story “Float”

Oh Well (2) by Lydia Komatsu

“Oh Well (2)” courtesy of Lydia Komatsu

Last week, I linked to Teresa Fazio’s op-ed on Marines United and mentioned what a fan of her short stories I am. I was tickled yesterday to see that her story “Float” went live on the Consequence Magazine website. It’s a great magazine with both nicely presented online content and a print issue, all devoted to myriad investigations of war.

Jesse Goolsby selected it as the 2016 fiction contest winner. I strongly recommend you check it out, especially if you’re interested in seeing how women veteran writers are crafting narratives regarding their time in the service:  Float

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.