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.
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
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.
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.
(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