How to Build Your Own Veteran Writers Group
Edited by Maxine Hong Kingston
to Build Your Own Veteran Writers Group
and refugees are coming home right now in the middle of yet more
wars. How to receive them? In response to calls for help, members of
our veteran writers workshop have traveled afar to organize groups.
But seeing the greatness of the need and the impossibility of being
everywhere we’re invited to go, we are assembling this online,
eager young vets have started up writers workshops just by having
read about them. A group of IVAW write-in-community by emulating Veterans of
War, Veterans of Peace and The
Fifth Book of Peace, particularly the chapter “Earth.” These books can give you
historic background and inspiration.
online handbook will give practical advice, directions, and
Please know that the events in our past - the way we perceive them - are mental formations. When we relive them, and shine the light of present consciousness on the past, and write about them, we change the past. Writing is the making of a new mental formation, a more orderly, artistic meaningful one. And it's not only the past that changes but WE, the writer and the listener, change. The breathing, the activities of the body and the mind, as we write, transforms us. I am a different person when I reach the end of the story.
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Anatomy of the Magic of the Vets Writing Days
schedule (with variations)
facilitator tweaks this schedule to fit their style and wishes, but
all of us keep these components, as they together create the magic of
this group. We mark transitions with a bell that the facilitator
– 9:30 Schmoozing
– 9:45 Meditation
– 11:00 Opening Circle
– 11:15 Writing Instructions
– 12:45 Writing in Community (in silence)
– 1:45 Lunch (first half in silence)
– 3:00 Reading
– 3:30 Walking Meditation
– 4:30 More reading and/or feedback
– 4:45 Announcements
– 5:00 Meditation
gather some time before the day begins, and share some morning food.
This is the least structured part of the day. As the years continue
with our group, it seems this part grows in importance, weaving
together the intangible web of community, of love, of care for each
other’s joys and pains, or accompanying each other on our life
journeys, and of having light conversation and laughter.
start the official part of the day with a period of silent
meditation, varying between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on the
facilitator’s personal preference. Sometimes the facilitator gives
a little instruction about meditation, especially if many people are
new. Often we skip this part. I love how we start with centering
inward, connecting with the breath, or the life force in us, with
what’s most important, with what helps us remember our core
humanity as we prepare for the rest of the day.
continue with a circle of introductions. This is the most challenging
part of the day in terms of facilitation, because so many people have
so much to share, and if the group is large, as it sometimes is, we
end up taking more time than is scheduled, and are then rushed for
the rest of the day. My personal preference, and that of some others
who have facilitated, is to focus the introductions on a particular
question rather than just open ended sharing.
find this part of the day deeply meaningful. Many of us take
emotional risks in revealing experiences that we don’t commonly
share with others. It’s the time when I am most aware of how much
we trust each other, how much we are willing to be ourselves with
each other, dropping some of the masks we wear outside.
are some examples of questions that could be used for this part: What
has been the focus of your writing since we last met? What have you
thought about in terms of how you want to move forward in your life
in the new year? What have you learned about yourself since we last
the introductions the facilitator introduces the writing focus for
the day. Usually we send these instructions to the group ahead of
time. They may include a theme, or some poetry to reflect on and
write about, or anything else that the facilitator for the day thinks
about that can help focus and sharpen the writing. The writing
instructions are an invitation, not an obligation. Anyone is free to
write about whatever they want, though most choose the topic.
is the heart of our day. We spread around the house and outside, each
person picking a spot that is inspiring, quiet, beautiful,
comfortable – whatever will support the creative process we engage
in. We do this period in silence. While each of us writes on our own,
without explicit communication with others, I am always aware of the
mystery of interconnection when we write. I feel myself part of a
larger whole that supports me when we write. The history and the
dedication to healing and community through the creative process is a
large part of what makes this part work.
food is probably about as ancient as humans are… We all bring food
to share, almost all of it is vegetarian to accommodate as many
different people are possible. Again, the magic of interconnection is
palpable. Without planning anything, the food elements tend to
complement each other to create a feast of colors, flavors, and
the first half of the lunch time, we eat in silence. This allows us
to focus with greater clarity on the gift of nourishment that food
and community bring to us. Then, about half way through the lunch
break, we start speaking with each other, following the facilitator’s
bell invitation. We then enter again into the unstructured community
and friendship building aspect of this day.
many people as possible, depending on group size, read out loud from
their writing. Most people read what they wrote during the day, and
some read material they bring from home. For myself, I find that the
more people write on the topic, and the more of them read what they
wrote during the day, the most I experience the magic of interweaving
the tapestry of our shared humanity.
of us who are part of the group have had traumatic experiences of war
or otherwise. I am invariably in awe of the strength of our capacity
to invite and make room for all that people have experienced and feel
able to bring to others. It is not uncommon for people to cry while
they read, or while hearing other people’s writing. We have come to
believe, collectively, that sharing our pain and trauma with each
other strengthens us both as humans and as writers.
the group is large, we invite newcomers or people who have not read
for a while to be the first to share, and after a while open it up to
everyone. We want to hear all voices, without ever putting pressure
on anyone to share before they are ready. Sometimes people come
several times before they are ready to share.
people participate in walking outdoors. We have been blessed with
hosts who have a little eucalyptus grove on their property. Walking
is done in silence, being mindful and paying close attention to the
connection between our steps and the nature surrounding us. We walk
more slowly than the usual pace, so that our awareness and focus can
be heightened. Some people stay inside and rest or do walking
meditation indoors, which is even slower-paced. This period is a time
to integrate and compost internally all that we heard during the
we still have more people who want to share what they wrote, and we
give this priority. As the group has grown, this part of the day has
suffered the most. When we get to share feedback, we focus mostly on
how the writing has affected us rather than on critique or
suggestions on the writing. Despite the lack of formal instruction
and feedback on the writing, my own experience of participating in
this group for over fourteen years is that the quality of all of our
writing has improved over the years. I attribute this result to the
quality of love, to the healing, and to the learning that happens
simply when we know how much our writing can move others.
is a time for people to share about events and happenings that may be
of interest to others in the group. This ranges from personal
celebrations (e.g. having one’s story published) to invitations to
participate in projects and other events. There is no particular
structure, and the only role of the facilitator here is to ensure
that we move forward without getting too deeply into discussion about
any of the topics raised during this time.
end the day with one more period of sitting meditation. This is an
opportunity to come back inside, to take in and connect with all that
has happened and bring it back to the simple focus on the breath or
any other internal focus each of us has. This is an opportunity to
come back to ourselves before going back home to live our lives until
we come together again.
the meditation some people leave and some people linger and schmooze.
We love each other, and often find it difficult to leave.
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Everything Is Optional
is what we do: Four times a year, roughly around the beginning of
each season, we meet for most of a day in a beautiful house atop a
hill overlooking a peaceful little green valley with horses running
around [this is optional, we just happen to be lucky]. We start by
“milling around” [a military term for hanging out].We greet each
other and welcome newcomers. We eat. We settle into seats. Then we
meditate and check in.
we have a short discussion about the topic [optional] of the meeting
which has been set by the person brave and/or foolish enough to
volunteer to facilitate. With everyone clear on the theme [optional],
we meditate before we go write for about 1.5 hours. After that we
meditate before we eat an always awesome vegetarian pot luck meal
[again optional, again lucky].
we reassemble, we take turns reading our writings if we are so
inclined and then we do a walking meditation, after which, with the
remaining time we offer/receive feedback on our writings. In closing
we take a few minutes for announcements and business then we
meditate. There is more milling around as we reluctantly leave.
I mention we meditate?
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would have appreciated the existence of a manual before my first
meeting in 1998. I had no idea what to expect from that meeting, nor
the group. Years later, it seems to me that everyone in the group has
either been there from the beginning or entered through a multitude
of connections and interconnections. To the best of my knowledge, I
am one of a very small faction that brought themselves to this group.
spring of 1998, I read an article in the Berkeley
Monthly. The author had interviewed
Maxine, Ann Marks, and Charlie Motz, who I did not get to meet before
he died. The article detailed a gathering and process that felt
hopeful. I had been helped by all the Veterans Administration and
Veterans Assistance Center programs and rap groups I could stand, not
to mention civilian talk therapies, hypnotism, Feldenkrais,
meditation, Rolfing, consciousness groups and psychedelics. I still
felt the need to be heard by someone who understood.
called the Berkeley Monthly and asked them to forward a letter to the author, in which I asked
the author to forward an enclosed letter to Maxine asking her if I
could join the group. I had no idea what that meant: to join the
group. I thought they, whoever they were, might say no.
I put samples of my writing and a self-addressed stamped envelope
into a large manila envelope and sent them to the Berkeley
Monthly. Then for my sanity, I promptly
forgot about the whole thing.
august, I got a letter with one of my address stickers from a total
stranger named Bob Golling, Jr., from Loomis, California, and I
thought, Who the hell is this Bob
Golling, Jr., from Loomis, California, and how did he get one of my
stickers? When I read the letter, I was
both elated and anxious.
September, I followed the directions to Marge’s and Bill’s house.
I almost missed Sanders Road. I double checked the map at the
junction of Sanders, Kennedy, and Barnett Valley. I hesitated at the
mailboxes, again at their driveway, and then at the door, but I
knocked, waited, and then walked into a room full of complete and
utter strangers. A manual would have been highly valued at that
is what happened: After a short while, a couple of people introduced
themselves. Eventually I was introduced to more people; then the
meeting started. That very first group, amongst these strangers, I
wrote about coming home. When I read, I started to cry and Marge put
her hand on my shoulder. I don’t remember much else about that day,
other than thinking; this is what I have been longing for.
task of the manual has made me realize I can’t codify the depth of
feelings that brought me to this group, nor that have unfolded over
the last ten years. So, this is the counsel I have for anyone seeking
a gathering similar to this one: Listen to your pain. Let it lead you
to those who share it, that you may help each other heal.
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workshop is this?
bees and flowers
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the house is the same,
little bit older (like us).
it doesn't show.
garden has no idea.
their slow takeover.
raptors have a memory
the insects don't.
family of the pen
one more time.
far we're fairly intact,
only a few casualties.
live in the moment.
have an olive. here,
some of this bread.
the coffee? good.
you like the roses?
from a neighbor.
words on paper.
floated into the air. words
our swords, our shields.
know one life, and that's
life of words.
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|meditation: i sit up straight
pay attention to my breathing
notice everyone else
sitting up straight and breathing
my eyes shift to outside
where june pours its gold on the trees
and the crows are making noise
and hawks are riding thermals
i think about the house
how it's a container
squatting on the hillside
with no say over its contents
or maybe it's a ship
and we are its lucky passengers
the wind moves us along
to where we are going
which happens to be 5 o'clock
an airplane passes overhead
my ears like the ears of a dog
perk up and follow it
or someone flushes a toilet
or a phone rings and i'm there
invisible as whitman
i think about the shared oxygen
and carbon dioxide
my eyes glance at the trees
the plants with their purple flowers
and all the green grasses
i notice i have slumped
and straighten up a little
and when the padded wooden stick
hits the bronze bowl
resting on the flat of a hand
to signal meditation's end
i get up from my seat
and put on my thoughts one by one
that i took off
when i sat down
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