How to Build Your Own Veteran Writers Group
Edited by Maxine Hong Kingston
the last several years, the members of the original veteran writers
group have been plantingseeds
of new groups. Pauline Laurent has met with war widows. Keith Mather
met with deserters in Canada. Louise Steinman, Paul Ocampo, Jimmy
Elijah Imlay started a group at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Therese Fitzgerald hasbeen
meeting with a group in Hawai‘i. Elijah also started one in
Ventura. Lovella Calica started one with IVAW in New York. Mike Wong
and Doug Zachary began a group sponsored by VFP in Austin, Texas. Ted
Sexauer is organizing a group in Sonoma County.
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weekend we convened for the first session of “Cline’s Corner,”
a Veterans Writing Workshop sponsored by VFP Ch66 and held in Austin,
Texas, at the home of venerable VFP member Alan Pogue
(hwww.documentaryphotographs.com) and fierce warrior/lawyer D’Ann
Johnson. The writers sangha is conducted in a Zen Buddhist form
inherited from Thich Nhat Hahn, a world renown Buddhist monk from
Hue, Viet Nam, who has been working, for forty years, among United
States Veterans to heal the wounds of the American War through
meditation and self-expression via poetry and prose. For fifteen
years Maxine Hong Kingston
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxine_Hong_Kingston) has brought this
sangha form to military veterans and has led us, through Deep
Listening and the development of compassionate and awakened hearts,
to heal ourselves and each other and to publish an astonishing
collection of our stories (www.vowvop.org/).
active duty soldiers from Fort Hood joined us, along with a member of
Military Families Speak Out whose husband is on his third tour In
Iraq. During the check-in period the soldiers each spoke of
childhoods weighted with class inequities, loneliness, and violence,
of the propaganda that led them to join the military, and of their
personal Awakenings. The MFSO wife told us about her husband’s
Purple Heart and of how it felt to have her husband redeployed for
his third tour, even when his wounds prevented him form wearing
protective gear. One soldier announced that, although he had been
applying for Warrant Officer status and a lifetime in the military
when we met six weeks ago, he was now submitting his application for
Conscientious Objector status. Laura Beth wrote a truly amazing piece
in which she told her personal story, about a childhood with (hah,
actually without) a father who had been destroyed psychologically and
spiritually in Viet Nam.
participants included Alan, combat medic in Viet Nam who set the
stage by speaking from deep within his heart about the suffering he
witnessed in Viet Nam and which he had felt powerless to stop. David
Hamilton told us (too briefly, for my taste) about the day that he
and David Cline were attacked by shotgun-toting KKK members on a
country road in Central Texas.
of the soldiers told about an incident in Iraq where he almost killed
a seven year old girl, only to have the incident end looking deep
within her sweet and innocent eyes and how in that moment, he had
begun to know himself. Two other soldiers, not yet sent to Iraq, told
us of their spiritual struggles with the meaning of responsible
citizenry and the ever-diminishing role of military authority in
their lives. Another veteran of 23 years in the military told us
about the over 1,300 days that he had spent in the Mideast and how he
had come to realize that the United States was NOT deployed in the
region to promote World Peace. Another participant spoke of her 25
year marriage to an F-111 pilot and how she had seen through the
macho image of fighter pilot which the mainstream consciousness had
offered him as identity and how she had known him for the sweet
transcendent poet hidden within. I will soon publish a feature
article in the Texas
Observer within which you will be able to hear the other stories we shared and
witnessed. The sangha, at the end of an emotionally charged and
spiritually transcendent day together, elected to meet monthly rather
than quarterly. We are launched; We are Blessed.
night, we reconvened at Jovita’s for a fundraiser for Texans For
Peace (www.texansforpeace.org). Charlie Jackson and Alyssa Burgin had
organized an event that turned out to be THE precise tonic needed by
our soldier allies. Brady Coleman, an attorney for the Oleo Strut,
led off the night with his band, the Melancholy Rambler. They played
their usual collection of Labor/Love/Peace songs and the soldiers
from Fort Hood were moved by the Love shown them by members of the
audience. Bill Johns played a song he had written after meeting an
infantry soldier on an airplane in the Mideast. Finally, Shelley
King, the Texas Musician of the Year, took the stage with her
rockin-ass blend of R&B, Southern Rock, Texas Swing, and
Psychelia and rocked our souls. Laura Beth, the founder of Daughters
of Viet Nam Veterans took to the dance floor with all the Fort Hood
soldiers and brought the place alive with her beauty, charm, and
grace. The soldiers were recognized by name and Progressive Austin
poured our love into their hearts. At the end of the night, an Iraq
veteran took the stage and read the note he had submitted to his Top
Sgt three days ago announcing his spiritual Awakening. He then ripped
of his dog tags and announced, “I am a soldier no more!” OMG! We
spoke with the managing editor of the Texas
Observer and were offered an opportunity to submit an article for publishing
next day, yesterday, the Fort Hood soldiers came to the monthly
meeting of our recently resurrected chapter of Veterans For Peace and
spoke gratefully about the Engagement Project. The pleaded with us to
continue this work and promised to get us into the barracks for
audiences with growing numbers of disgruntled, wounded soldiers. The
chapter moved the bulk of our undesignated funds into the Engagement
Project account. I pleaded with our membership to deepen their
involvement with the project and to join us in Killeen; several
agreed to do so. Cathy Doggett, the daughter of Lloyd Doggett, our
Congressman, offered to help us to reach the Center-Left, the Center,
and the Center-Right with our message of Love and responsible
citizenry. Joyce Pohlman spoke to us about the growing numbers of
veterans on the streets of Austin whose lives have been destroyed by
the current regime and who have been tossed aside and promised to
help to connect us with them.
Neil Bischoff chapter of Veterans For Peace became the Neil
Bischoff-Utah Phillips chapter. I have seen Lazarus arise from a
near-death and a huge piece of my work here is not done, but well on
the way. The chapter is revived, we are engaged in the lives of
active duty soldiers, and we are connected to each other in a new and
deeper way on our prophetic journeys. Tomorrow we will return to the
barricades near Fort Hood, with Mike Wong ("Sir, No Sir"
and VOW VOP), fifty copies of The
Ground Truth, and 1,000 new flyers.
am sending this to the Engagement Committee as a reminder of what is
possible through the Engagement Project and to Maxine as a gift of
gratitude. Maxine, you have transformed many lives and through us,
you will reach many others with your Quan Yin power. Commitee members
... ¡Adalante! David Cline ... ¡PRESENTE!
exhausted by the work that has gone into reviving our chapter of VFP
and the long, long days and accompanying stress of organizing
“Cline's Corner.” I am hoping for a Rip Van Winkle week, before I
return to VFP work. As Maxine says, “Tell The Truth” ... and
Peace will prevail.
beyond my wildest dreams ...
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The First Veterans Writing Workshop in Texas
Doug Zachary and I led the first Veterans Writing Group to form based
on our model. We are here in Austin, Texas, and we have a group of
people as diverse as our group in Sebastopol. Active duty soldiers
from Fort Hood are here. A military wife is here. A daughter of a
Viet Nam veteran is here. Viet Nam veterans are here. Peace activists
are here, as are practitioners from a local Sangha. Military
resisters are here, and some are also combat vets.
are in the house of a Viet Nam combat veteran, one who made it, but
who still lives with the war. People’s stories are intense,
traumatic, and heartfelt, so much like our stories when we first
began. But there is something else, too. Something I can’t define.
They are somewhat ahead of where we started in some unspoken way, as
if somehow they have already benefited from our experience, as if
they are proceeding on a cleaner road, rather than hacking half-blind
through the bush as we did.
is amazing to see the young soldiers and veterans sitting down,
laying down, writing—as we have so many times. Peace is built one
step, one word, at a time.
It is such a privilege to be here at this moment.
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Hosting a Veterans Writing Group
group of veterans and like-minded persons is attempting to start an
ongoing writing group in your area. You have been asked if you would
host such a group on a regular basis—weekly, monthly, or quarterly.
Your home is a bit small but possibly adequate. You are somewhat
concerned about the time commitment. You wonder about your ability to
provide food and/or refreshments. But you do have the desire to
further your writing capabilities plus a strong interest in
“Yes!!!” Set up a planning meeting with the interested persons.
Give each one (and yourself) the opportunity to express what his or
her expectations and hopes are for this fledgling group. The
ground-rule options for writing and meeting design are discussed
below. The logistical requirements can be really quite minor. How
often does everyone want to meet? Does that fit in with your
schedules and needs? Do you need to establish a maximum number of
participants based on the size of your meeting space? Do you need to
establish a set-up and clean-up crew to avoid loading you with too
much work? If the group decides on an all-day meeting, how do you
want to handle the meal(s)--order-in, each person bring his own,
pot-luck??? As host you may wish to provide the water, tea and
coffee--not a very big undertaking.
Design and Writing
design of your meetings is entirely up to you and the group. One very
successful group in Northern California meets quarterly with the
am---Arrival & Greetings
start & Meditation
to Members to Read Their Writings
Meditation in Adjacent Woods
Critique of Writings
Comments & Meditation
volunteer to lead each meeting and will suggest one or more topics
for the group to consider. Members are free to read or not to read
their writing as they see fit.
Meeting with veterans and like-minded individuals is a unique and
fulfilling experience. You will quickly make new and vital
friendships and come to share in one another’s lives like a family.
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Of Age and Sitting
In June of 2008, I led the first meeting of a new Veterans Writing Group in Austin, Texas. Doug Zachary, a native of Texas, member of the original Veterans Writing Group in California, and leader of the Austin Veterans for Peace chapter, had organized the event and co-facilitated with me. The new group was very diverse, consisting of Viet Nam vets, several active-duty soldiers, Iraq and Afghanistan vets (some active duty, some out of the military), the wife of a soldier currently serving his third tour in Iraq, the daughter of a Viet Nam vet, war resisters, and a local Zen practitioner. The Zen practitioner, a Viet Nam vet who is also an Aikido black belt, and Doug and I had practiced meditation before, but to our knowledge none of the others had.
Several of the active-duty soldiers arrived late after having driven together from Fort Hood, about 80 miles away. As they piled out of the car, I saw a group of young, energetic men with tans and Army crew-cuts. Looking at them was like looking into a mirror of myself and my generation when we were young and in the Army. They were fit and strong, macho yet also young, idealistic, wonderful … and oddly enough, also innocent in a way hard to define. This was still their first war of disillusionment. I felt remorse that our generation had not handed them a world better than we found it, that they would have to endure all the suffering our generation had, that we had failed to save them from it.
After everyone had met and settled down a bit, we sat in chairs in a circle and began. There were 16 of us. I gave a short talk introducing the day of writing and meditating, outlining the schedule of activities: check-ins (introductions by each member), sitting meditation, writing in silence, potluck lunch, reading our writing, silent walking meditation, feedback on our writing, and a sitting meditation to end the day. Everyone looked interested and eager.
We began check-ins, in which we went around the circle and each person introduced themselves and told a little about who they are and where they are at this moment. As we went around the circle, the stories came out. Viet Nam veterans who went through hell and then returned to a lifetime of struggling with the aftermath of war, who continue the search and struggle for peace both in themselves and in the world. The military resisters like myself who stood up and refused orders, faced the consequences, and are still working and struggling for peace all these years afterward. The military wife whose husband was so badly wounded in his second tour in Iraq that he cannot wear heavy body armor, but who is now back in Iraq for a third tour anyway. The Iraq veterans who are still in the Army and may be ordered back for future tours of combat, struggling with what is right and what is wrong, and what they should do if ordered to return to a war they no longer believe in. The young soldiers who have not been deployed yet, who hear the stories of their comrades and wonder that horrors lie ahead, and what they should do when their turn comes. As the stories go on, no one can stop telling their pain. By the time half of our group has spoken, almost 45 minutes has passed. Check-ins are supposed to be brief, but no one present is able to be brief when they are telling so much pain for the first time. As we approach the one-hour mark, I notice the young soldiers and young recent vets begin to fidget, to squirm around in their chairs. Feet begin to vibrate, they shift positions back and forth in their seats, they look around anxiously. They continue to be very interested in all that’s said, and locked into the intensity of it, but their bodies can’t sit still, they almost begin to vibrate with restless energy.
I realize this can’t go on forever, they can’t remain in their seats for much longer. I urge folks to speed up check-ins a bit, and they do. Finally, after about an hour and twenty minutes, the last person finishes their check-in.
Normally, I would have given writing instructions then, followed by the group breaking up to do individual writing in silence. But looking at the young soldier/vets, I realize that they could not sit still or be silent for so long. So in the spur of the moment, I say, “Let’s have a five minute bathroom break.” Instantly the room explodes in relief and action. The young men stand up immediately and start talking fast to each other, their energy rushing out in a torrent, like someone who has been holding back in silence forever. The looks of relief on their faces are priceless, like, “Oh, thank god, the teacher finally said we can talk now.” There is a rush of activity; people going to the bathroom, going outside to smoke, talking madly to each other, etc. The older folks seemed fairly calm and relaxed, but the younger active-duty soldiers seemed almost frantic in their talking energy, like they’d been cooped up for days.
After a few minutes, things began to calm down a bit. The younger soldiers finally began talking at a normal speed. The frantic energy seemed to dissipate a bit. When the energy level reached a manageable point, I called people back together. When everyone was seated, I gave writing instructions and sent them off to individually write in silence.
In that time, I made a decision to change the usual pattern of writing workshops that we — now old — Vietnam era veterans had followed in our writing group for 15 years. We practiced periods of meditating, sitting, and listening for up to two hours at a time. We had thought nothing of it, it seemed perfectly normal. But I realized that young, active-duty soldiers — particularly infantry — were used to running around in the field all day, marching long distances with heavy gear, charging over obstacles, firing their weapons, practicing small unit tactics, etc. They weren’t used to sitting in silence meditating or listening “mindfully” to other’s stories and feelings. This was a whole new discipline that had to be first taught and practiced in small doses before they could practice them in large ones. So I decided to break up the schedule with a change in activity (that involved physically getting up or making some other movement) or a “bathroom break” every hour at least.
As I instituted this change during the day, we did not have a repeat of the feeling of tension and frantic release when the young soldiers got to finally move. The day went fairly smoothly and the feedback at the end of the day was positive. People expressed interest in continuing the Veterans/Soldiers Writing Workshops.
A simple change, but an effective one that proved critical to success with younger new writers. I recommend it to all who wish to run writers workshops for younger people — particularly young active-duty soldiers.
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