By Diane Salucci
Over a late April weekend, veterans and service members of all stripes step through the doors of The Writers Place -- some with excitement, others with trepidation – searching for ways to express themselves through writing about their individual journeys. In a warm, supportive environment, assisted by professional writers who serve as facilitators, two dozen service men and women gather to write poems, craft dialogue and journal their stories, as they find their own voices and the courage to express their deeply felt emotions.
Former Army Staff Sergeant Pedro Sotelo, a disabled veteran of the Iraq war, arrives with his wife Damaris, who has written poetry of her own. She is here to learn, but also to support Pedro’s growing interest in writing from his own experiences. “Before this workshop, I wasn’t sure how to approach my writing; I kept getting stuck,” Pedro explains. “But this experience has given me the courage to call myself a writer.”
The free Writing My Way Back Home workshop, co-sponsored by The Writers Place and RezVets, a service group of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, was made possible by a grant from the Missouri Humanities Council. The Writers Place partnered with Emma Rainey, who presents Writing My Way Back Home workshops all over the country in an effort to help veterans and service members, as well as their family members, gain the tools and confidence they need to write about their traumatic experiences during and following their military service.
“The mission for Writing My Way Back Home is to conduct writing workshops and projects for United States veterans, providing them space and time to write about their wartime experiences in order to heal, to be heard, and to create meaningful expression,” Emma says. “By using writing exercises to explore wartime experiences–the fear, the boredom, anxieties, thrills, brutality and tears–the vet learns how to write a story and make it compelling.”
Many veterans have found creative outlets to express themselves through online journaling, blogging and writing opinion pieces for the media, for example. Others are in search of such release, and can find writing to be a key ingredient in their healing journeys.
Missouri Poet Laureate William Trowbridge leads off the workshop Friday night by reading original poems, then changing the words to allow participants to experience how the meaning and flow of the poems change with the language. The vets then try their hand at writing pieces of their own and share from these first efforts.
During a Saturday session on telling the story through drama, playwright Frank Higgins encourages participants to ask themselves, “What are the things I can write that I don’t know how I feel about?” He explains that the process of writing the play (or other work) “becomes a process of discovery of your own feelings.”
In another session, poet Andrés Rodriguez engages veterans in a discussion of war poems written by veterans from different generations. After reading a poem by World War I veteran Wilfred Owen, which is filled with gruesome imagery of battle, one participating vet identifies with the feelings engendered by the reading: “While everyone else in my life was going to school and getting on with their lives here, I was overseas trying to develop a mindset that would allow me to kill someone,” she says. “I had no one I could talk to about what effect that was having on me.”
Another participant expresses his frustration at not being able to reach his daughter, an Iraq War vet who has tried to commit suicide twice and has cut herself off from family, unable to express her anger and grief.
“You can use the language of poetry to help you cope with what you have been through and to help others understand what has happened to you,” Rodriguez explains.
Throughout the day, the workshop intersperses other sessions on such topics as character development, point of view and description with opportunities for one-on-one interactions with the professional writers.
By the end of the workshop, participants express appreciation for the opportunity to share long-held feelings with others who can understand their stories. They feel validated and supported, and many want to continue the process. H.C. Palmer, a Vietnam vet who helped plan the workshop, is spearheading the effort to bring these vets back to The Writers Place for future sessions so they can support one another in their efforts to keep writing. “The workshop went spectacularly well,” H.C. says, “and I don’t want to lose the momentum we’ve started here.”
“I learned a great deal about the various ways a story can be told, be it poetry, fiction, non-fiction or playwriting,” says Cynthia Hardeman, who served as an Air Force sergeant in Germany, Japan and Texas, retiring in 1992. “Another vet (Ted) and I were talking and we said there were definitely moments of deja vu. Like you felt you knew someone, or that someone reminded you of someone. Overall, I think it's a great start to help me tell my patriotic story of service --when the time is right and however painful it may be.”
Cynthia also has praise for The Writers Place: “The venue is warm and inviting,” she says. “I feel comfortable here. The Writers Place has a very professional and kind staff who are doing an awesome job!”
Those sentiments are echoed by the other vets, who say they feel supported within the atmosphere created at The Writers Place. And they say they have added tools to help them on their journey of healing, to help them finally come home.
Facilitators for the workshop were local writers William Trowbridge, Matthew Eck, José Faus, Al Ortolani, Trish Reeves, Frank Higgins and Andres Rodriguez.
Financial support for Writing My Way Back Home comes from RezVets, a service group of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and the Missouri Humanities Council.