Writers at Work

May 2nd, 2009

Writing is an essential nourishment for writers. “I felt so much better doing that,” an Iraq war vet turned poet and playwright said, exhaling as though he’d just pumped oxygen into his muscles by jogging around the block, after jotting down some thoughts during a writers’ workshop the other day. Earlier, one of the participants blurted out, in an agitated tone, that he felt out of sorts because he hadn’t written anything lately.

I’ve been jotting down random thoughts and observations on scraps of paper and in pocket notebooks since I was a soldier in Vietnam. But my writing was undisciplined and often frustrating until I became a working journalist. So I was delighted to be invited to an unusual workshop that’s been traveling around the United States to assist veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to tell pent-up stories.

The Warrior Writers workshop and evening reading at the City University of New York Graduate Center revived memories of the early 1970s, when I worked with a small group of Vietnam vets and supporters to put together a poetry collection titled Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. We published the book ourselves out of my apartment in Brooklyn and then hawked it at readings at colleges in New York and around the country. Asked for my comments during the workshop on Monday, I said that collaboration with other vets to convey our experiences and views through our writing was the best education of my life.

This workshop was equally informative. “People don’t know what women do in war,” said Robynn Murray, a slim young woman wearing an array of nose rings and an Iraq Veterans Against the War T-shirt. “I was a machine gunner for 10 months in Baghdad.” Then she read a journal entry about getting home and suddenly crying while driving with her mother. “I couldn’t tell my mother [why], because I was scared she’d see what a monster I’ve become and not love me any more.”

Whistling outbursts of breath and supportive gestures and comments shot around the conference table at CUNY’s graduate school on 5th Avenue, where about a dozen veterans were huddled with Lovella Calica, director of the Warrior Writers Project. Also at the table was a set of volunteer writing coaches that included Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ, and David Gothard, a director at the Abbey Theatre Dublin, who also works with a writers’ workshop in Derry, Northern Ireland, the Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University in NJ and the Theatre Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Mann, who wrote a play about a Vietnam veteran’s home front problems (Still Life), said she was fascinated by the way Calica uses idea “prompts” to set a mood for the veterans to do productive writing on the spot. The first prompt—“Where are you today?”—set off a flurry of writing in journals, notebooks, or on pieces of handmade paper crafted from sliced up military uniforms. The Warrior Writers Project sparked the Combat Paper Project, which has been a thought-provoking, uniform-shredding sensation at colleges across the US in the past year. The writing workshops have produced a chapbook and an anthology of poetry and artwork (Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense).

The Combat Paper Project was started in 2007 in Vermont by a small group of artists and veterans who have conducted workshops from Cape Cod to California, creating art works that have been purchased by major museums and libraries, bringing both a source of funding and social affirmation. “These workshops serve as a catalyst for insight and discussion, as well as psychological release,” stated the program note for a recent exhibit at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington, Vermont.

“This has saved my life,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, an Army veteran who has participated in a number of the writing and papermaking workshops in various locations. She said she feels isolated in her hometown in Pennsylvania, where there are few other Iraq war veterans to get together with. Some of the other veterans traveled from Vermont, upstate New York and even more distant places to participate in the CUNY workshop in Manhattan. The day of events included an evening reading in the Martin E. Segal Theatre of some of their work and a new play, Returns: A Meditation in Post-Trauma, by a former Abu Ghraib interrogator turned conscientious objector, Joshua Casteel.

Gothard talked about working with Casteel, a theater student at the University of Iowa, to develop what began as email messages into a play. Both he and Mann encouraged the veterans to develop a regular habit of writing, to jot down memories, experiences and ideas in raw form and then work on refinements. “This is his first play,” Gothard said of Casteel’s drama about an Iraq veteran beset by brutal memories of fellow soldiers and an Iraqi man they tortured during interrogation sessions, an experience that drove one of the GIs to suicide. “It’s incredibly courageous. It also is what we look for in theater,” he said of the play’s moral dilemmas. The play was read by student actors from Montclair State and Florida State, with stage directions narrated by a recent Princeton grad with the New Jersey Repertory Company.

“You don’t really come back. Things come back with you,” one of the characters says. “My family didn’t understand,” he says later on, after a scene that recreates sadistically berating a prisoner whom the GIs pinned a medal on while mockingly calling him the President. “We had to be proud,” the speaker continues in a bitter outburst about coming home to a nation that patriotically sent its soldiers to wage relentless war on Iraqis, “so they could feel proud of their yellow ribbons.” Vets from the workshop told the audience of about 70 people that the play conveyed their sentiments “pretty dead-on,” as Jon Michael Turner, a marine veteran, said. “It really hit home.”

“I think my PTSD comes from growing up gay in Alabama,” quipped Jeff Key, a strapping tall ex-marine who looked like a New York magazine model wearing a blazer, crisp white shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. “The war really starts when you come home.” Key, author of a play (The Eyes of Babylon) based on his war journals, read a stream-of-consciousness poem about visiting a “dog tag memorial” to soldiers who died in Iraq, created by an artist in an out-of-the-way place that seldom had visitors. To a question from the audience—“how did you learn to find your voices?”—he said “We’ve learned by doing. We go to workshops with each other.”

Displaying a portfolio of his papermaking art work, Turner said this creative collaboration has been “a tool for veterans to find ourselves, to find our voice.” He noted that he put together a hand-made “journal book with paper from four generations in my family’s uniforms.” A key part of the collaboration, he added, is that the vets support each other in dealing with “mental issues.”

A key part of the workshop and reading was airing troublesome thoughts. “I’m not very good at reading,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, who was visibly nervous as she addressed the close-packed audience surrounding the intimate theater space. “I can barely breathe.” Noting that she was a medic in Iraq, she rose from her stage seat. “I have to stand for this.” Rising to the rigid military stance of “Attention,” she proclaimed:

We are not your heroes,
Heroes come back in body bags and caskets…
We are not your heroes.
We are your burden
Smacking you in the face with our honesty of this needless war.
We fought
So you have the freedom to judge us.

Audience members responded with a round of applause and encouraging comments during a question and answer session: “It is such an act of courage to read on stage something that you wrote yourself,” said a woman. “We need you—we need this kind of work,” said another. A man suggested that the vets’ poems and art work be recorded in a documentary. The reply was that there is a film being made, called Iraq Paper Scissors.

For more information:

Combat Paper Project
Iraq Paper Scissors
Iraq Veterans Against the War 

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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One Response to “Writers at Work”

  1. Tom |

    Nicely done, Jan. It seems that doing something creative among friends and like-minded people is always good for the spirit and the soul. And it sounds like some serious writing is coming out of these folks. Maybe there’s another James Jones or Ernest Hemingway in the crowd….

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