“Did you kill anyone?” “Were you raped?”
Those are the types of questions veterans are asked. Rachel McNeill of Warrior Writers asked the civilians in a workshop at Bridgewater State University, “What if you answered these questions realistically?” Then, she asked about two-dozen veterans and civilians to spend 10 minutes writing.
We all put pen to paper. Like toddlers parallel playing, we worked individually in a shared space. No one came in with a prepared piece. No one knew what topic we’d be asked to think about or what words would form to create memory, confessions, stories or questions.
We read our words not knowing if anyone else had similar thoughts and feelings. We trembled, blushed and read quickly. We were nervous, eager and devoured the experience of being heard. Sharing uncensored and unedited writing feels so naked and so vulnerable.
The words of others traveled inside of me as quickly as an aroma. After hearing their words and experiences, I felt intimate with the same strangers that I strained to make small talk with when I arrived at the workshop.
I’m not a veteran and can’t know what it feels like to go to college after being in war. But I know so much more about experiences and perspectives I had never considered so deeply because of the honest sharing of truth-telling writing.
I thought I’d learn about veterans rather than feel as though I had any way to relate with the veteran experience. After all, I’ve never served in the military. I thought I’d just listen. What would I have to say?
I didn’t expect to be reminded of the times I was accosted ten years ago by strangers when I returned from China. I was a sleep-deprived from new mothering, jet-lag and getting formula and diapers at the store.
“How much did she cost?” “Why didn’t you adopt from this country?” “Why didn’t her real mother want her?”
We have ears and hearts, I wanted to reply.
I realize adoption and war are not the same, but I remember feeling disoriented and jarred by direct questioning from total strangers who feel entitled to personal information. Now, I can better appreciate one aspect of re-entry that I had not known veterans are subjected to.
That’s what writing and deep sharing can do. It can take the junk food of ordinary fluffy conversation and turn it into something hearty. Sometimes someone writes a line as simple and delicious as a single blueberry. You can’t know the story of another, but you can get a taste of their experience.
I can’t share the war stories of the others because they aren’t mine to tell. But it’s amazing when the oldest man says something rebellious and the young student sounds so profound it feels as if she’s giving a sermon.
Stories can come out whole or as poetic fragments. Sometimes subject matter is poked at from all sides before being turned over.
I wrote about how the war impacted my now homeless alcoholic father. I thought about how people throw around the phrase, “he never really came home” and that the two letters from Vietnam are the only words I have from my father even though they were to my grandmother when he wrote them. I know he was a troubled drinker before he served but his center was pulled apart so completely he couldn’t function, parent or provide when he returned. What did he see? Who might he have been? Would my life have been better or worse with him in it? I wasn’t looking for resolution as much as asking the questions that I know cannot be answered.
In response to my writing, a student said she didn’t think of veterans as damaged, but as people who have seen more truth about life. She said this as she sat next to her veteran father. I may not know completely what she means. But my heart could feel how much she loved him, how she took it upon herself to rebuke any notion of veterans as damaged.
It is not just the writer in me who is moved. It is the human hunger for deeper understanding of myself and others.
My heart reached toward and stretched out to strangers. Because some people showed up and together put to paper their experiences, I got to fall in love with humanity. Although the topics were heavy, the process was joyous.
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Assistant Editor: Sue Adair/Editor: Catherine Monkman