THE JOURNEY OF A CREATIVE WRITING GROUP
Rob LaFreniere and Patricia Riker
A man who responds only to the name "Seeker," speaks with the resonant voice of a FM announcer. He is a skilled reader, tone and cadence perfect. He reads the preface to a new poem, an excerpt from the Odyssey:
country since long now, far from my
I suffer hardships."
His poem begins:
"We journey from
the dimmed memories,
We seek a reuniting,
We long to return to our homes."
He is a compact man, face creased and tanned. His eyes are wary, impenetrable. He sits in a tight knot as he reads, leaning forward, scanning the circle of faces gathered around the coffee table in the sun-shot room, early spring illuminating the pastels of the walls. He seldom speaks, but when he does, his comments are concise and articulate. He's a man who "thinks about what he is thinking about."
The group is working on submissions for a VA affiliated literary magazine, Veterans Voices. We are editing the final drafts of poems, stories and short memoirs. The work will be mailed to the editor after our next weekly meeting. "Seeker" finishes, listening to comments and criticisms. He acknowledges in silence, with an occasional nod or brief note on his legal pad. Pausing, as if assimilating the whole of what he's heard, he begins reading a second poem.
It goes in part:
"The old men sat
in a circle learning a new craft to carry them through what had gone before.
They saw in each other the boys they must have been,
the twinkle at the edge of steel hard eyes.
The circle a sacred center: a cup of words made sweeter,
For having been passed around."
Finished, he smiles. A smile that cracked like a thawing pond, bright as the sun streaming through the slider leading to the deck adjoining the room, and it was reflected back from the circle of faces, each waiting their turn to read.
"Mike" is a big, gentle man, well educated, soft spoken. He brought three chapters of a novel-in-progress. Rob, by choice, didn't know the backgrounds of the members. Pat concurred; believing Rob should direct his focus on the writing. One of Rob's first statements to the group was: "This isn't therapy, it's about writing."
Mike was silent during the first group, but when he handed Rob his chapters, he said, "This is a pile of crap."
"Ben" is an older Vet, highly accomplished, aggressive and demanding. He brought poetry, short stories and a completed play. He also wanted to co-teach the group.
"Frag" wrote rhyming patriotic verse, and along with another member, published in a vanity press. "Frag" slept unless his poetry was directly addressed. "Boats" stayed awake, but turned crimson when his work was read aloud. "Lawrence" produced a slim outline for a novel. "Seeker" observed. Few knew each other well or had much in common other than their writing and combat experience.
By the end of the first session ground rules were established: meeting times and duration, submission schedules and rules of order. These rules were established by tenuous consensus. It was a consensus that flexed, shifted or was ignored during the first month, but they all kept coming and most kept writing.
Pat attended each group. She reiterated the rules sometimes, encouraged members to return, and mediated the agenda when it affected the staff and clients of the Vet Center and served as timekeeper. But mostly, she watched and listened. Rob was teaching Grammar 101, form and structure, genre and process in a compressed time slot. The vets may or may not have known it, but Rob was struggling to find a viable tutorial format. His efforts to meet individual needs within the disparate group context were wearing him down. Pat knew it, but laid back, watching a dynamic evolve. Pat was the informing conscience at first, the constant behind an emerging level of trust. It was a thin, tentative, unspoken pact within the group, flimsy but tangible. Some Vets seemed to seek her approval, sharing their work with her before giving it to Rob. Pat gently demurred, holding the line that writing was in the group domain and that was Rob's sphere of influence.
After the Christmas holidays, Rob shifted gears. His academic seminar approach wasn't working. The writing, while abundant, hadn't improved. Editorial advice was misunderstood or ignored. Self-interest or indifference generally characterized group discussions. Constructive criticism was attempted, but it was usually subjective and unsubstantiated and not always cordially received.
Rob took a stand. He began by sharing his combat history with the group. He told them of the memories and unresolved emotions that compelled him to write. He read them his published story about a Marine Recon team in Vietnam. It was a story based on fact. He discussed some of his other publications and shared his hopes and aspirations as a writer. Then, he told the group he was in charge. "You're the team, I'm the team leader. End of story."
There was a shift after that. Rob's strategy was one of frustration, more reactive than deliberate, but he became more comfortable with himself, benefiting from the group process. Later, Pat suggested that by exposing his authentic self and relinquishing his persona of objective "teacher," he established himself as leader and member, placing the group in a familiar, comfortable context. A team, a squad: individuals united by a common goal.
One morning in December, Rob was writing a short essay on the healing power of narrative to give the group. It was based on a chapter of Dr. Johnathan Shay's book, Achilles in Vietnam. Rob was trying to combine a precis of Shay's discussion of "communalizing" war trauma as means of healing with the technical aspects of creative writing designed to appeal to a wide audience. Rob and Pat used Shay's book both as a paradigm to frame war in its universal and historic perspective and as a cognitive tool.
Rob, missing the exact point he wanted to make, said to himself: "Hey man, think about what you're thinking about." Mulling over these words, he later he wrote them on the blackboard and asked the men to interpret the meaning of the phrase in terms of combat trauma and the undoing of character. This became a pivotal discussion; one in which issues of persistence of traumatic remembrance, loss of concentration, and the untrustworthiness of memory and perception were discussed openly and candidly via the creative process. "Think about what you're thinking about," and "communalizing the trauma", as concepts applied to writing became refrains, commonly used by group members.
Several months passed and membership changed. Rob's directive approach realigned group composition and goals. "Lawrence" decided he was unable to write because of personal issues, and "Frag" who continued to submit poor work, would not accept criticism and slept through most meetings, left under a combination of peer pressure and Rob's suggestion. Three new men joined and we began to coalesce.
Of the new men, "Matt", had only one story to tell, but it was a good story, and he was overwhelmed by its power. He could tell it, in small pieces, but could not yet put it on paper. "Bear" had so many stories he tried to write them all at once. "John" was several chapters into a memoir of his Vietnam experience.
The others were finding their way. It was Pat's suggestion to submit as a group to Veterans Voices, and this served as a useful focal point for the individual writers and a common goal. Gradually the Vets were exploring various genres, each finding a comfort zone in different modes of poetry and prose. Editing individual work as a group contributed to a rapidly ascending learning curve: Grammatical and technical styles improved, but critical ability and analysis of the process that informed the writing developed at a greater rate. "Risk," "integrity" and "exposure" became other frequently used terms. With constructive criticism came collective confidence. Group confidence transformed into self-confidence. As self-confidence grew, communication and trust within the group increased by logarithmic proportions. We devoted a session to the idea of "the whole being greater than the sum of its parts." We began to assume the elan of an elite unit.
At first, it was most noticeable by what wasn't apparent. "War stories," were avoided unless in the context of writing, and the writing was not exclusive to war. There was an absence of military insignia and regalia. There was no sign of "grunt chauvinism," no combat hierarchy, no boasting. Where previously the group had difficulty focusing on work other than their own, now, very quietly, they began to challenge each other to dig deeper and write more. Relationships formed and maintained outside the group. Members became constructively assertive. Criticism was well received, sometimes with skepticism, but always with grace. More and more, the group began to set its own agenda.
Incrementally, meeting times were expanded in order to accommodate individual writing along with material that Rob, by request, was introducing. By April we were meeting four hours weekly, and outside reading became an important component of discussions. Rob introduced essays, short stories, or portions of novels to analyze at the beginning of each session. While he maintained emphasis on the elements of grammar and fundamentals of creative writing, he also introduced basic critical theory and a working literary vocabulary that provided a common argot to facilitate discussions.
The work was changing. "Mike," reduced material for his novel to short stories, and later, feeling that he wasn't accessing his deeper emotions with prose, wrote poetry. He was beginning to realize his talent, and devoted himself to writing full-time. "Ben" diminished the scope and ambition of his work. He wrote whimsical short stories and poignant memoirs of his WW II experience. "Seeker" wrote a stylish poetry of ideas. "Bear" produced everything from parody to polemic. Both "Seeker" and "Bear" chose to return to college. "Matt" struggled. He would begin strong pieces, but abandon them. He rarely brought work, but the group supported him uncritically. "Boats," wrote little, but what he wrote was from his gut: Honest, concise, always to a clear moral point. "John" continued his memoir but found it too volatile. He was obsessed with it, writing eighteen hours a day. Sleepless and anxious, the quality of his work suffered badly. Rob and Pat talked with him, and he agreed to shelve it for a while; work with different material.
The submissions to Veterans Voices became a locus: each writer fine-tuning his best work. Towards the end of April, Pat offered a means to further communalize our efforts. A small town in Western Maine was honoring its Vietnam dead with a service in conjunction with a visit by the "Moving Wall": The facsimile of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. Pat saw this to be a meaningful opportunity to share our work with a larger audience. She threw it out to the group. Reactions were mixed.
Some were enthusiastic, others indifferent and two men refused. "Boats" and "Matt" were just reaching the point they could read comfortably to the group, and balked at the prospect of performing to a large audience.
"Mike" felt bringing our work into the public sector would detract from the emphasis on the craft and process of writing. " Seeker" and "Bear" were wary of public response. "Ben" and "John" were eager for recognition.
We discussed our mutual focus and goals. We re-visited Dr. Shay's writing on "Healing and Tragedy." Rob reiterated a quote from the text: "Narrative heals personality changes only if the survivor finds or creates a trustworthy community of listeners for it." We assessed the risk of finding a "trustworthy" audience, and concluded that a memorial service was an appropriate venue. We decided it was an individual choice to read, but if one went we went as a team. "Seeker," the last to concur, finally said, "Tight." Four men submitted material. It was accepted, and Pat worked out the details with the town selectmen. We'd go on June 20th, the first day of summer.
The emphasis on writing for publication and public reading changed its nature. The group had become rigorous editors, emphasizing integrity and authenticity. They were doing the hard work themselves, and Rob was acting as technical editor and advisor rather than teacher. As the quality of the writing became more emotionally revealing, so did the discussions around it. Pat began using text as opportunities to illustrate how PTSD could contribute to the writing process and suggested that the process may be re-constructing individual personalities. These discussions were welcomed by the group, and were signified by an exceptional degree of candor and insight. We were talking about ourselves now, and the dynamics and lexicon of PTSD meshed seamlessly with the language of craft and criticism.
Of the four men selected to read at the memorial ceremony, three had no experience with presentations to a large audience. Each wrote a short piece, writings that in our opinion were powerful and utterly reflective of the reality and emotional impact of war. We spent most of a session rehearsing the readings. By Friday the 20th, confidence was high.
The ceremony was conducted in conjunction with the town's annual fair. It was staged on an athletic field, a carnival midway abutting the bleachers and the Moving Wall isolated on the far side of the field. The group believed that the event would commemorate Veterans from all wars, but the thrust of the event was to remember the town's only resident to die in Vietnam. The mood vacillated between county fair frivolity and sentimental recollection of a single dead soldier, not surprising for a gritty, little mill town buried in rural Maine. The group was surprised by the event's amateurish ambience and the focus of one individual juxtaposed against the magnitude of the thousands of names engraved on the wall. Our men read and read well, but left with a twinge of discomfort and unsynthesized emotions.
Shortly after the 4th of July, "Mike" wrote a poem questioning the language of the American mythology of war. He explored, "heroism," "patriotism," "sacrifice" and the moral rectitude applied to armed conflict.
His poem reflected a discernible, but yet unspoken discomfort, apparent since the memorial ceremony. We explored the language of war, its myths and stereotypes over the next several weeks. It was a difficult period. Some of the group was taking time off for vacations and summer projects, others stopped writing for a while, as if their material dried and withered in the doldrums of July and August.
During the summer, the anger, bitterness and disgust that characterized group discussions surprised Pat. Some of the members spoke privately with Rob - vet to vet- and disclosed their feelings of disassociation at the memorial ceremony, an event they expected to be regenerative; an occasion for pride, a demonstration of public acceptance, a closure. Rob wasn't surprised. He understood their feelings, but did not share the expectation that the ceremony was anything but a small town celebration, designed to pay homage to one young man, killed during his first month in Vietnam. Rob shared these conversations with Pat and they concluded that the group reaction was a step forward, the men were losing their identity of "veterans," searching their raw memories without the palliative of a common identity to ameliorate their war time experiences. They were becoming individuals, reassessing where they fit into the social order. It was a difficult time. By October, absences were still common; the writing was sparse and its quality poor.
The group was in stasis and Rob was losing interest. He told them unless work improved and the members demonstrated a more authentic commitment, he was terminating his involvement. This ultimatum led to several intense discussions about personal issues and called into question individual's intents and goals. These discussions ultimately furthered the deepening of the bond between members, and by consensus, we agreed to expand the scope of the group and integrate the study of literature as a means to improve our writing. Gradually, the nature of the writing changed. Most were looking deeper into themselves, using creative writing as a means to reorient them society. It was a perspective gained over the summer, but now was appearing in the work.
We were published in the annual awards
edition of Veterans Voices. Four of us received
awards for our work. "Seeker" published a poem in a scholarly journal.
After a year, he was invited to join the university's honors program. "Mike"
began submitting his work for mass-market publication. "Bear," once a recluse,
venturing out now, plotting an ambitious writing project. "John" had a
nibble from a publisher for a series of short stories, but on group advice,
chose to refine them before submitting. "Boats" wrote the occasional piece
and "Matt" still struggled, returning after a two-month absence, with a
renewed commitment, but floated out again. A new member who writes novels
joined, and was immediately accepted as a valuable addition.
The creative writing group meets weekly. It's members writing at their own pace, to their own ability. The communal bond is almost tangible, the group "home" for four hours each Tuesday. There are signs that other homes are defined and made habitable: with their families, communities, but most notably, within themselves. Some appear to have ascribed new value to their lives, made some peace, set some goals.
Pat finds it one of the more gratifying clinical experiences of her life. She witnessed a group of combat veterans, unknown to each other, come together with common interest and with unknown abilities. She sees it as a jelling of individuals; some isolated interpersonally and socially, joining together in a meaningful process of healing and self-renewal.
Rob shares her feelings. He has received more than his has given.
As facilitator, writer and combat veteran he has begun reconciling the pieces into a whole, a personal communion extracted from his sense of contributing and belonging to the group.
There are no magical transformations, no best-selling authors, and no overt successes beyond thinking more clearly, taking the leap of faith to disclose our feelings simply and honestly and writing better prose and poetry. The simple co-mingling of emotion and a craft.
Mike writes in poem of a soldier washing blood from his body, unable to distinguish the blood of an enemy from that of a friend:
I wonder which is
as the water
spilling from my canteen
down into the earth.
For that moment, at least, Mike has found home.