Sailing the 4Cs: Veteran Literary Organizations and the Composition Classroom

The Conference on College Composition and Communication is a big deal for English 101 teachers. Imagine 10,000 strong of us—for I am one—descending on a town near you and geeking out to presentations with titles such as “Rhetorics and Ecologies of Scale: Composing Across Environments and Disciplines.” We party, too, believe it or not. A composition textbook giant, Bedford-St. Martin, throws us a big annual to-do, complete with free bars and buffet spreads. This year, in Tampa, the party was held in the Florida Aquarium, so the party went down with manatees and sharks circling in the background.

Brandon Willitts couldn't make it, so the 4Cs got me.

Brandon Willitts, pictured here, couldn’t make it, so the 4Cs got me.

I presented twice at 4Cs this year at panels interested in veterans in the composition classroom. I was proud to be there and gladdened that the composition teacher community takes the issue so seriously. One presentation was titled, “When the Vet in the Classroom is the Teacher.” That was mostly about me, so I’ll spare you the details here. I was supposed to be in the room to support Brandon Willitts, the executive director of Words After War, as he presented to college teachers interested in veterans literary collectives. When Willitts couldn’t make it, I filled in. Below are my remarks, complete with copious quotations from Willitts and Matt Gallagher. The assembled English teachers were interested in Words After War because of its proven success at joining military and civilian writers in common dialogue and the techniques it uses to encourage writing workshop participants to throw themselves into their work.

“Writing After the War: An Inclusive Community-based Approach to Understanding War and Conflict through Literary Programming”

My discussion of Words After War, a New York City literary organization, compliments the essays in Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and Post 9/11 University (2014), “I Have to Speak Out” by Eileen Schell and Ivy Kleinbart. about the Syracuse Veterans Writing Group, and “Closer to Home” by Karen Springsteen, about a national organization called Warrior Writers.

The subject is what Schell and Kleinbart call “a parallel movement of ‘self-sponsored’ community writing groups led by and for military veterans” (119). They are parallel to and complement composition courses on college campuses designed around the needs of veterans. The goal is to create forums outside academia, or partially affiliated with academia, in which veterans write about and process war experience in the company of other vets and sympathetic, interested civilians. The writing is often neither non-academic nor artistic, but aimed at personal expression and explanation.

The specific subject today is Words After War—a New York City literary organization notable for its rapid rise to prominence, built on a sensibility deeply connected to its New York City location and an expanded sense of what a community writing group might do and be. The two names most prominently associated with Words After War are Brandon Willitts and Matt Gallagher. Willitts is a former Navy enlisted sailor who served in Afghanistan and Gallagher is a former Army cavalry officer who served in Iraq. Gallagher’s blog Kaboom was one of the first blogs from the war zone and served the basis of his memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010). His novel Young Bloods will appear later this year.

Willitts provides the vision and organizational drive, while Gallagher’s experience as an author and combat soldier lends Words After War great credibility and supplements his deft touch as primary writing instructor. I am not officially connected to Words After War, but I am friends with Willitts and Gallagher, respect their achievement enormously, and have attended and participated in several Words After War events. But my support of the vet writing scene is more than just supporting Words After War—I have engaged with vets-in-the-classroom issues on several campuses and have participated in or familiarized myself with a variety of vet writing organizations, such as Voices From War, the Veterans Writing Project, and Warrior Writers.

So what is special about Words After War?

Its website describes it as a literary organization, one dedicated to encouraging writing about war, while having conversations about war, primarily as it is represented in literature. Its belief is that literature—art and expression—is an effective tool (or medium) for communication and growth organized around the sharing of stories. The active writing component of Words After War lies in its effort to create a supportive, creative community through workshops, studio retreats, literary mentorships and a writer-in-residence program. Therapy is not the avowed aim; Willitts writes, “we do not aim to be anything more than a literary nonprofit that serves the veteran community (and interested civilians).” “I believe,” reports Willitts, “above all else, our success is based on our inclusive model and our adherence to quality writing. Quite simply, we aim to be good, competent, progressive, thoughtful, and interesting.” A stated goal and reason to applaud Words After War is its demonstrated success at bringing veterans and civilians together in the same writing, reading, and conversational space. A New York City writing workshop takes place weekly at Mellow Pages, a storefront reading room and library in Brooklyn, while out-of-city workshops of longer duration have also taken place at Marlboro College and Canisius College, with another event at Wesleyan College in the works. All have featured roughly equal numbers of civilian and veteran writers.

As to what happens in a Words After War workshop, I’ll quote Gallagher at length:

We’re in our fourth semester of the Brooklyn WAW workshop now, and in every one, it’s been half veteran, half civilian. While that was the design of the idea on a macro level, we’ve never influenced actual enrollment numbers to match that, it’s happened organically (10 to 16 people per semester). What they’re seeking can run the gamut, but the most common refrains I’ve heard from students are 1) an MFA-lite experience 2) a writing community 3) exposure to war and conflict literature they’d otherwise have missed by themselves. Obviously, the experience and literary ambitions can vary wildly, and we have had some students there who are seeking a more “writing-as-therapy” experience. The groups have always been pretty generous, though, so a person like that doesn’t get their piece workshopped the same way our gruff, uber ambitious neo-Hemingways do.

Each semester has 10 workshops. 8 of those 10 are more seminars than anything – I’ve sent out reading materials to discuss ahead of time, so we can talk craft for an hour. Then I use those craft lessons to intro 2 or 3 writing prompts, allowing students 30 to 40 minutes to work from those prompts. The idea being, maybe any material generated from those prompts can be a seed for something students want to take home and really refine, if they choose to. 

2 of the 10 workshops per semester are full, MFA-style writing workshops – 4 students will have submitted up to 10 pages of material ahead of time, and those submissions are the class’s sole focus for the two hours we’re together. The student being workshopped cannot speak or respond until they very end. I set a basic structure of conversation for each piece (i.e. let’s talk about this piece’s structure, character development, tone) and the rest of the students deliberate over those matters, usually starting with what worked, then progressing to what didn’t. Not every student chooses to submit for these workshop sessions; generally speaking, about 70% of participants do, though. 

Memorable moments – I always love having the class read “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter. It’s a good way to energize our civilian students, as thinkers and writers, to prove to them that this giant, awful subject of war is theirs, too, if they want it. And it’s a good way to shut down the neo-Hemingway vets who are convinced the only way to write about something is direct experience. Sets the tone for the WAW vision, I think – good writing is good writing, let’s talk craft, not amount of chest hairs.

A vast majority of our WAW participants are working on short stories, novels and memoirs, with a slight majority skewing non-fiction. (Sign of the publishing world times, is my guess, and a natural entry point for a young writer with a story to tell.) A couple have and do dabble in poetry, and we have a returning cast of Columbia Journalism students, though they tend to come more for creative escapism than as a means to hone their journalism craft, from what I’ve gathered. 

Words After War’s New York City location also makes it unique in several ways. The location allows Words After War to draw on the tremendous pool of veteran writers living in New York, many of whom are not just talented, but already published or very ambitious to make a career in letters. It also connects them to the larger art and creative scenes of New York and Brooklyn. Not only are its weekly writing workshops held at Mellow Pages, a venue that features obscure titles by likes of Slavoj Zizak and Alain Badiou, and Words After War readings that I’ve been to have been staged in venues—bars, performance spaces, and historical sites—that can be described as very cool or very hip, depending on which generation’s vocabulary you employ. New York City also gives Words After War access to the publishing world and MFA program scene, so events often are staged in conjunction with bookstore and publishing media campaigns, or academic writing circles. Words After War also interacts with (and to a certain extent compete with) other war writer groups such as Voices After War. New York City also brings proximity to the city’s pool of non-veteran writers, and many events feature writers who are not veterans reading from works not directly concerned with war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Willitts reports that one of the most surprising developments about WAW is the interest in and participation by civilians. He tells me that one of the first signs that the organization had legs came in fall 2013 when he staged a reading at Brooklyn performance space that over 50 people attended, most of whom were unknown to him. “To get over 50 people to an event in New York City,” Willitts claims, should always be considered a success, given the number of competing cultural events on any night.” New York City also gives Words After War easier availability to New York City press possibilities. The organization has been featured not just on PBS, but in the New York Times and even Vanity Fair. Finally, Words After War’s location presents fundraising opportunities not necessarily available to other vet writing groups. Willitts has put a lot of his own money into standing up Words After War, while also relying on private donations, but promises to initiate a new fund-raising strategy later this summer.

Brandon Willits’ love of literature and his desire to encourage war writers are true and energetic, but he’s also an aggressive social entrepreneur who in a short time has developed a healthy list of contacts in media and publishing. He’s not above leveraging them on behalf of veteran writers, most of whom, I would say, harbor dreams of making it into print. It’s interesting to think about the possibilities and problems of Words After War’s rapid emergence as a big-time player not just on the war lit community, but the national publishing field.

One way to think about it all is that Words After War’s vision and record of achievement is as an inspiring, positive, and an almost inevitable organizing of a vibrant New York City war writing scene and bringing it to the attention of the world. It’s also possible to think of Words After War as an industry leader—one that models a number of possibilities for vet writing groups elsewhere and inspires others to create similar organizations. One goal, in fact, is to create a series of writing workshop programs exportable beyond the New York City area—one day, two-day, and week-long events that are run in conjunction with colleges, community writing groups, and veterans organizations across the nation. Because Willitts and Gallaghers’ ethos is one of inclusiveness and encouragement, I can easily imagine a war writer in some other part of the country hearing about Words After War and growing very excited about the possibility of moving to New York City and plugging into Words After War events and activities in the name of being where the “the action is,” so to speak.

A reason to be more ambivalent would be a suspicion that the Words After War endeavor seems slightly, or greatly, careerist and self-promoting. One might wonder how long it might preserve its grassroots, democratic ethos as members receive literary plaudits and compete for publishing contracts. We might also ask if its very emphasis on notions such as “community” and “support” encourages a groupthink or otherwise limits creative and interpretive possibilities. Words After War, for example, does not seem invested in aligning war writers with political outspokenness, nor (as I have said), in viewing writer as a therapeutic vehicle for dealing with trauma.

A final possible criticism could be that Words After War really hasn’t been as productive as its own ideals and publicity might suggest. The writers-in-residence, studio retreat, and literary mentorship programs currently exist mostly as good ideas on paper, for example. Other vet-writing organizations such as Warrior Writers and the Veterans Writing Project have been around a lot longer than Words After War and might wonder when their work too might be featured on PBS, to say nothing of Vanity Fair.

But I’ll conclude by once more emphasizing positive aspects over the concerns. Words After War has grown so rapidly in its first two years of existence, that its unfair to yet judge it on what it hasn’t yet accomplished at the expense of celebrating its achievements. The talent in New York City’s war writing scene is impressive, with many writers only at the beginning of what I think will be long careers as writers and public intellectuals, and I support all organized efforts to promote their rise in the world of letters. Leaving Willitts with the last words, I’ll quote his response to my question of what he thinks the achievement of Words After War has been:

“For a long time I didn’t know what I had built, probably because I was too close to it to see the total picture. It took a friend of mine to sort of show me that, no matter what happens in the future, I will have built of community of supportive readers and writers who came together during an important time in our nation’s history. I guess I never saw it before, but maybe I did do that. Or, then again, maybe they would have come together on their own. But the evidence does suggest that we had something to do with the current state of affairs, as no one seemed to be talking to one another much before Words After War and a lot more folks know one another now because of Words After War.”

****

If you’ve read this far, I salute you. I have two veterans in the classes I teach this semester. I hope I am making the experience enjoyable and productive for both of you.

So many thanks to Sue Doe and Lisa Langstraat, co-editors of Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and the Post 9/11 University, for organizing the 4Cs’ presentations on student-veterans and for all you do in support of veteran-students at Colorado State University.

On the way to Tampa, I stopped at the house in Orlando, where Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums in 1957.  Brian Turner lived here, too, for a while, and now lives around the corner.

On the way to Tampa, I stopped at the house in Orlando where Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums in 1957. Brian Turner lived here, too, for a while, and now lives around the corner.

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