Writing, Editing, Healing: The Veterans’ Play Project

We are our experiences, and sometimes we find something that can help us to a different shore. Earlier this year, I went to a panel discussion given by poets. Two poets were of interest to me –in part because of their work, but also because of their backgrounds.


Operation Homecoming

Both have well developed and prestigious careers. Dana Gioia’s career included a term as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. During his term, he oversaw the effort known as Operation Homecoming: Writing the War Experience. Operation Homecoming took place at over 25 bases both CONUS and OCONUS. Writers and volunteers came to take families and troops through writers workshops. It was a huge project that culminated with an anthology, a documentary, and a website that still stands on the PBS. The workshops resulted in works that encompassed poetry, fiction, memoirs, letters, journals and essays. It is one of the best coordinated artistic efforts that involved big government, volunteers, and many others who made the machinery run. What did the troops and families get?  A chance to find their voice and be heard. I can’t help but think that Dana Gioia had a personal reason for doing this: his sister is a soldier in the Army


Henri Cole

The other poet grew up in the Navy, moving from base to base. I don’t want to make any assumptions how growing up military shaped his life, but his career has covered a lot of territory. He was the Director of the American Academy of American Poets, is a professor at a university, publishes books of poetry, and even writes for publications like The Atlantic.  Anyway, Henri Cole is the reason I’m writing this. What he said during the talk was that “Writing isn’t healing.”

Over the years, I’ve heard, “Writing is therapeutic, it’s healing,” used to the point of senselessness. As if your PTSD will disappear, or your migraines are will stop.  I asked him about it after. If writing is healing, why do so many people keep at it past the point when they’ve gotten their original story out?  Healing isn’t a simple thing.

At every writing workshop at UCLA,  there were people who were exorcising some part of their life onto the page. The childhood actor, the lawyer who wished she weren’t a lawyer, the bubbly writer with the funny family, the guy for whom alienation is his security. We tried to rectify something in our past, even if we were writing fiction. Writing is an obsession, a compulsive act. Some want to tell stories. Others want to make art. The good ones do both. Thus, the elusive peck for the perfect sentence, the perfect page, the perfect chapter, the perfect book. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

Writing as healing might be a pretty high claim. It’s not magic. Crafting prose is takes every ounce or patience and humility you can find. It can be frustrating, and there’s always the inner and real-life critics to face. However, where I’ve found the most satisfaction (and where the discoveries lie) is in the process of editing.

Writing is like this: Stuff on the page, lots of it, and in no particular order. Editing is re-examining what you’ve written, and putting it in an order that makes sense to you (and hopefully to the reader too). You take things out, you put things in. You kick yourself, and sometimes you can’t see. But you dive into it again, because deep down, your story has to get out. So you chop sentences up, combine others, find new words altogether. But it’s less a fixation on one event, as it is taking it apart, rebuilding a scene, and finding a more logical way to make it work, make it understandable.  Often you build a bit of distance between what happened, and where you are now.

What happened will still be painful. The violence and tragedy will not have gone away. The loss will still be felt. But by culling over the words, you begin to see things in a way that gives you a little distance. And sometimes, it’s that little glimmer that might give you the ability to cope a little differently. This is the part that makes you more self-assured.  Maybe this in itself is healing.

Which brings me to the Veterans Play Project.  I’m not sure we should get too hung up about whether this was healing or therapeutic. Rather, we should be very pleased these veterans are reaching out to an audience through art.

If you’re anywhere near Ft. Snelling MN, catch this production, and be proud of the men and women who went through the process of writing, rewriting, going through a critique, writing it again, and are now willing to share it with others. We shouldn’t just be proud, we should be enthusiastic about their drive, and for facing not only their memories, but that blank white screen to get their story just right. There’s courage in this, too.

Get your tickets. Go. And then come back here and tell us about it.

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 7.15.40 PM(Formerly called 4 Score Toward the Sun)

Presented by Mixed Blood, in partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center 

Created by Footprints Collective in Collaboration with Minnesota Veterans of Military Service
November 15-24, 2013 (Preview November 14)
Performed at the Base Camp
(201 Bloomington Rd, Fort Snelling, MN- get directions)

Inspired by stories gathered from over a hundred Minnesota military veterans, this new play tells the story of veterans and civilians living in the fictional small Midwest town of Smedley. The stories of new recruits, veterans, and advocates from all conflicts and on all sides weave together as the residents of Smedley face the dilemma of how to honor the memory of those who have served in their community.
The Veterans Play Project is performed by a talented cast of 20 actors and musicians, including 13 veterans and active military personnel.
Guarantee Admission online or by calling the
Box Office: 612.338.6131 

footprint logo        logo 2013

Comparisons of a Photo: Tim Hetherington Bit by Bit


Tim was on my mind the other day, after I received an email from Father Patrick Deen of the Milton Margai School For The Blind in Freetown. This was the school that Tim loved and helped. He wanted to let me know that they have a Facebook page devoted to their new Scouting program.  Later, I flipped through one of Tim’s books, and couldn’t help but make a comparison in composition. Here’s a photograph that Tim took in  “Long Story Bit By Bit, Liberia Retold.” (Yes, that’s my hand. I was holding it up against the microwave).

Jump forward to this one, taken during his last days in Libya.

Tim Hetherington, Benghazi, Libya. April 2011. Photo courtesy of Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Tim Hetherington, Benghazi, Libya. April 2011. Photo courtesy of Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

Two people involved with the events, and people around them. There’s more depth, but for now, just the observation, and a reminder to keep going. (Follow us on Facebook).

“You are far from the end of your journey, The way is not in the sky, The way is in the heart, See how you love.” –The Buddha

Transitioning from a retreat to real life

download-1Honoring the Path of the Warrior holds several outdoor-based retreats for veterans every year. Sometimes they go white river rafting, other times, it’s a retreat at zen monastery. Developed by veterans for veterans, each retreat offers the unique chance to reconnect with other vets, and regain the camaraderie while finding peace in natural surroundings. After days of being in nature, getting back into everyday life can be a challenge. How do you keep that feeling of security and calm with you?

Moving from community and retreat space and into our individual lives and concerns provides an opportunity to practice the tools and skills that we learned together.

Remember to be patient and kind with yourself – it’s called ‘practice’ because we’re always learning and growing. Mistakes are part of how we learn if we pay attention and reflect on what happened.

Read more here at Honoring The Path of the Warrior: Transitioning From Retreat To Into Everyday Life


Grateful for big, loud, things


Film Still from “Restrepo”  Photo by Tim Hetherington

“The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you,but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time.The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.” 

― Sebastian JungerWar

Yeah, I know. You’re circling the yoga studio in your car, not sure if you really want to go in. Everyone walking in seems so… bouncy, and they’re smiling, and what the heck are they happy about? Plus,  you’ve seen the “7-Days of Gratitude” started on FB, and a few of your friends have even posted things they’re grateful for.

What a bunch of goody-two-shoes.

After all, you’re intense. You’ve seen the most extreme part of life. War, poverty, suffering, pain. Violence, tragedy and danger.  You’re fierce in your beliefs, and so is everyone else you know. You walk on the earth.  But those people who go around saying they’re grateful?  You’re not so sure. Reality check?

You gun the engine, race ahead, trying to find a parking spot on the crowded street. Who the heck put this studio here, anyway?  What fool thought to put it next to a Starbucks and a hot dog stand? You shake your head. Honestly, you like your intensity. And you don’t feel like “letting go.” Besides, what is that? Letting go. Do they think there’s a window in your brain to open, and your intensity will just go away?  BIG LOUD AWFUL THINGS have shaped who you are now. And while there’s stuff you could do without –like the lack of sleep, or the reel that plays back and forth in your head …there were good things too. Like feeling you had a sense of direction, fighting for the person next to you, and knowing they’d do the same for you. Things were so certain ….and now? The only thing certain is everyone is talking about gratitude, and it kind of annoys you.

So now, you’re circling the block again, and you’re wondering…. yeah, you comprehend the meaning of gratitude. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness means more than it did before you went to war. Some of your friends lost the chance at all three in a gritty battle or alone, at home, when hope had run out. Will they understand war ushered in the best friends of your life?  That the brother and sisterhood is unquestioned? Yeah, sure, there was trauma, but there were funny things that still make you laugh. Will they get it? It was the best and worst time of your life, and you’d do it again (only this time you wouldn’t lose your best friend). Do they understand it was the intensity that kept you alive? Do they know how much it pisses you off to be tossed off as an ‘adrenaline junkie?’ It seemed that way, but you weren’t though it’d be a lie to say that war wasn’t exciting. You were fighting for the guy on your left and your right.

Finally, you find a spot. It’s three blocks away from the yoga studio, but it will do. You park, gather your stuff –the yoga mat with the wrapper still on it, and a towel. You follow the others with yoga mats strapped to their backs. Some look rushed and harried. One even walks into you and doesn’t say, “sorry.” So maybe some of these yoga people are assholes, which makes sense: in any given group, there’s always going to be one.

You reach the door,  no time to hesitate, there are people behind you. But you remember one thing someone wrote here on WarRetreat:

We know you miss your war. It’s fine. We’re not asking you to become anyone else. If you’re already grateful, maybe you’ll find more. But no sane person is going to insist.  And maybe you won’t like yoga. Maybe your thing is to climb a mountain, ride a bike, or write a poem.

You check in, find a spot. The music starts. You sit, and breathe. And then you do it again.


Find Joy When You Can

ZachSobiechCloudsSometimes we get so wrapped in war and the aftermath, we forget that our purpose in life is to be the best person we are, and to find the joy in it whenever we can. Sometimes, someone comes along unexpectedly to remind us.

A young man died on May 20. He wasn’t a veteran, he’d never been to war. He was a young man who had spent the last four years battling Osteo Sarcoma. Zach Sobiech  touched millions with an incredible song he wrote about his own eminent journey into the clouds.  But his journey is one for all of us to remember… “You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.”  You can also find a moving account produced by Soul Pancake (a project by Rainn Wilson) in a mini-documentary on My Last Days.

To Zach. We at WarRetreat will always be grateful to you. We are so glad that music and creativity filled your days. A great song from a generous heart.

Breath: Coping in a Cynical World

There is an unmistakable bond created between people who go through war. Veterans can pick out other veterans in street clothes, “just by the way we move,” said one to me not long ago. It’s a well know fact that the bond may be the deepest relationship they will ever form. It surpasses that of girlfriends, and wives (but maybe not their mothers). In an institution where one life relies upon the other without question, crossing over into the outside world can be particularly vexing. Mainly because we live in a nation increasingly rooted in cynicism. The problem is cynicism -even when laced with humor, can quickly turn into a negative view of the world that colors one’s  outlook, and their ability to get things done.


But cynicism will isolate and kill us. In the long run, chronic cynics are tiresome. Negativity as a way of life is a destroyer,  erodes values, and attracts habits (and people) toxic to us.  But we can learn to identify and refuse to let them drag us down. We’re not talking about feet off the ground kind of happiness: the type of person who overlooks and ignores the unpleasantries or challenges of life. I hasten to say, those people might be less reliable than cynics.  But there’s a way to get through the thick bog of cynicism,  emerge with our feet on the ground. Let go of the cynicism by holding onto the values taught: Honor, Courage, Commitment. Living those is a far better navigational compass that leads to better coping. For these things are inclusive, they uphold values, and deflect the negative. It takes a lot of will, and breath will help you get there.