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AWP, Part 5
February 14, 2009 - 3:05pm


The AWP is wrapping up today, and we’ll be jumping on a train later tonight, but I wanted to get one more post in before shutting down the IHE Suite. I’ll have some final thoughts on the conference and pictures next week.

Yesterday I went to “Writing From the Ranks: Columbia College Fiction Writing Students Consider Their Military Experiences,” a panel with “Columbia students and veterans from today’s military, Desert Storm, Vietnam, and Korea talk[ing] about creating, catharsis, and the written word.”

Chuck Belanger read a very good piece on Scout helicopter pilots in Vietnam and how braggadocio turns sour. Afterward he spoke of the problem universal to veterans of all sorts: Having dreamt of “normal” life, “it ain’t what you find” when you return from military service, he said, and you wouldn’t take normal life if it were offered. Both you and other people “have moved.” John Schultz, the moderator, described the “unreality” of vets’ experience.

It was a good—and unifying—point for the panel, which included three young, recent vets who had apparently experienced peacetime service during a two-front war. One was in the Marine band in Florida; the second on a ship in the Pacific; and the third was a videographer, I believe, who didn’t mention combat service. The students’ stories were about feeling a misfit in the military, about basic training, and about port call in Hong Kong.

There’s little doubt, as I’ve written before, that military service changes some things, and I believe the change is often permanent. But boot camp is not, after all, war. All of us who’ve done it know it’s a big, intimidating, sadistic, funny mess, and it takes a while to come to terms with what’s happened and to re-gain a sense of scale and proportion. As a result, the student readings were apprentice work, which they acknowledged.

Jeff Brennan, one of the students, said that he chose his piece because people wonder if the military changes people. He didn’t think so but began to wonder. Boot camp, he said, was what it was, but there was no time to reflect, and this piece was a reflection on that.

Obviously wartime service takes longer to reflect on—Chuck Belanger said he crossed a threshold at year two or three but is “still working on it”—and through much of this, I thought of the IHE piece last year by author David Wright about student-veterans using art to come to terms with their own memories. Larry Heinemann, after all, went to Columbia College.

Belanger described the years that it took him to realize that “no one gave a shit” about his military experience. When a friend asked him how long he planned to hold a grudge about that, Belanger told him, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

Schultz said it was helpful to have a group of vets within a larger group of writers in order to integrate that sense of unreality that 80% of other people have not experienced. One or two peer writers is all it takes, he said, and an authority figure who understands, such as a teacher, is helpful too.

During Q&A, a woman in a POW/MIA Freedom Ride shirt said that 17% of the military is women. She wanted to know what the panelists had found with women vets in their workshops. Schultz, professor emeritus of the program, said they “shook down the department” and couldn’t find one. Belanger said that maybe due to women serving in more Military Occupational Specialties, and because it was a volunteer, not a draft, force, women might serve longer and not begin writing about their experiences until later, so that we might be on the verge of seeing some of that now.

When asked by an audience member what their truths offered the American public in such an important time, Belanger said it was to give readers a “visceral sense of combat.”

“What do you want us to do with that?” the woman shot back.

“To understand there’s nothing purely evil or purely good, and that the self is a mix of the two,” Belanger said. Literature as shared experience, he suggested, allows us “to be tender to that in ourselves.”


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