09 April 2013

Notes from a Veterans Writing Workshop

Dr. Jon Kerstetter of TheSoldierDoctor.com conducts a seminar
on "Writing the Monster"—writing about difficult times and topics.
How was the military writing conference in Iowa City, Iowa last weekend? Maddening and gladdening. Tearful and joy-filled. Inspiring. Intimidating. Full of surprises, promise, and opportunities.

Like any good happening related to the practice of writing, this past weekend's "Writing My Way Back Home" conference on the University of Iowa campus instilled two dichotomous urges. The first, to linger over conversations and concepts, drawing out the last ounces of various seminars and connections. The second, to immediately isolate oneself, to hunker down and find a quiet place to write.

The exercise of memory, after all, is a fickle and random process. Even when it comes to things that just occurred to you.

In writing about military writing, I have begun to suspect that the endeavor is something of a moveable feast. We are fellow travelers, fellow veterans, fellow writers. More than a few of us have met before. There were cast members of "Telling: Iowa City" and "Telling: Des Moines." There were alumni of previous "Writing My Way Back Home" workshops, as well as from the 2012 Military Experience and the Arts Symposium held on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kent.

Army aviators say that "any landing you can walk away from is a good one." Thinking along those lines, any writing conference you can walk away from, along with fresh approaches, new friends, and renewed acquaintances is a good one.

The free event was held over three days, starting on Friday night and ending early Sunday afternoon. Sessions were open to current and past military service members, and family members. Hour-long work classes included those on description, writing about difficult topics, poetry, character description, point-of-view, and more. There was even a seminar on blogging and journaling techniques.

There were approximately 30 to 40 participants and volunteer support staff. A number of attendees were from central and eastern Iowa, as well as Wisconsin. Mil-blogger Amanda Cherry, of the Homefront United Network, traveled the furthest distance. She's currently based out of Portland, Ore. The former Iowa Army National Guard public affairs NCO is now the muse behind "Military Martha," a comedic persona she describes as "the love child of General George Patton and Martha Stewart." Y'all can check her out on YouTube here.

Vietnam War and Desert Storm veteran Lem Genovese brought along his guitar, an amp, and his book of original songs about the military experience. In addition to a couple of compact discs, such as "Righteous Reconnaissance," he's penned a 500-page travelogue that covers times in Vietnam, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and more. During Operation Desert Storm, Genovese served as a combat medic with the Iowa National Guard's 209th Medical Company, then attached to the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (2-1st Inf. Div.). Although he now resides in Wisconsin, he definitely "has guitar, will travel."

In our own workshop session, fellow mil-blogger and journalist Doug Bradley and I were moderately successful in convincing participants that "blogging" is just another name for "online journaling," or even "online journalism." Inspired on Bradley current writing and research, regarding the music of the Vietnam War, we asked those present to name the song or music they most associated with their military experiences.

The Vietnam-era veterans, for example, agreed that The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" ranked pretty high on their lists. So did Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" and The Doors' "The End."

Miyoko Hikiji is a former member of the Iowa Army National Guard's 2168th Transportation Company, and an Iraq War veteran. Her book, "All I Could Be: The Story of a Woman Warrior in Iraq," is due to be released later this month. Because it relates to the National Guard, her book has been on my personal radar since earlier this year.

When I finally had the pleasure of meeting her, however, I garbled her biography somewhat. For some reason, I'd thought she had been a Military Intelligence (M.I.) soldier, rather than a truck driver. "MICO?" I asked, thinking she'd been in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's M.I. company, which is called a "MICO."

"No," she said, patiently. "Miyoko." I didn't catch on the first couple of times. It was a little Abbot and Costello "Who's on First" for a moment or two.

Dr. Jon Kerstetter has also written a book, although he's still shopping it around to publishers. The former Iowa Army National Guard flight surgeon has been recovering from a Traumatic Brain Injury (T.B.I.), and says he's not as not as quick as his prose. Some agents, he says, have expressed concerns about his ability to turn around edits in a timely fashion, citing his brain injury. He no longer practices medicine.

Kerstetter taught a workshop on writing about trauma called "Writing the Monster," which was based a chapter in his manuscript. Written over the course of a few years, his creative and compassionate words are delivered with clinical precision and graphic detail. For a tale of sadness and decorum, check out his chapter titled "Triage." For a more bittersweet tale, in which the behaviors of boys from Iowa and Iraq are compared, check out his chapter "Date Palms":
I tell him [an Iraqi man] about my kids and their chokecherry fights and he laughs loudly. We find ourselves laughing together. We tell each other stories of childhood. He talks about how he used dates to pummel his school friends. He laughs even louder and his eyes water.

The date trees ripen in late summer—just like the chokecherries. The terrible heat of August, he explains, is needed in order to ripen the dates. “If no heat, no ripe,” he says. “No hot—no sweetness.”

Note: This Red Bull Rising blog-post about military writing is sponsored by the Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University. This Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program requires 10-day residencies twice a year, in January and July. The program encourages explorations in all forms of creative non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and literary and genre fiction. The program has been approved for post-9/11 G.I. Bill funding, and Oklahoma City University appears on Victory Media's 2013 list of Military Friendly Schools.


  1. Loved this, brother :) Your writing style is all-at-once poetic, conversational, technical and academic. Which to me, is simply I could read it easily and stay interested. It's not as easy as it looks, I know. Looking forward to collaborating in the future. Pleasure meeting you!

  2. thanks for teaching, randy, and for this awesome post....

  3. Thank you for a great recap. It was a pleasure getting to know about you and your work.


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