By Ted Sexauer
How did we get into this? For the four-plus years that we of the Veteran Writers' Workshop have been meeting, our mentor, the noted writer Maxine Hong Kingston, has gently insisted that she has not only been instructing us in writing, and in listening, but also, ultimately, in how to lead such a workshop ourselves. "No, no, no, Maxine," we said, "we are veterans. We have learned too well that we must never volunteer."
But this past September, necessity finally forced our hands. Because the retreat at Santa Barbara took place during the first week of classes at DC Berkeley, where she teaches, Maxine would be able to attend only the last day of the retreat. Feeling the need to continue the program that has been so important to us, two brave souls stepped forward: my friend Dan Thompson of the East Coast group, and myself, of the West. We were assisted by Fred Allendorf from the Montana Sangha, a veteran who hadn't previously been part of a writers' group. (It's a well-kept secret, but this always happens in the military, too. Someone always volunteers, or at least is volunteered.)
Our first task was to define ourselves. Because there had been little advance publicity, we didn't start with an established group of participants. We wanted to be inclusive; we opened the group not only to war veterans, but essentially to anyone who wanted to participate-anyone who felt that they had been affected by war or by military experience. As a result, we wound up with the most wonderfully diverse blend of voices: Vietnam combat veterans; protestors against the war, male and female; a World War II veteran; veterans of non-combat service; wives and widows who had lost their husbands in combat, lost them to Agent Orange-induced disease long after the war, lost them to divorce.
Also because of the lack of advance notice, only a few of us had come prepared to write. And only a small number had prior training in writing. Writing our stories has been a central focus of the veterans' group practice because we have seen that it is the formal telling of our stories-writing them down and reading them, not just oral recitation-that brings about catharsis and change. Writing one's personal experience and reading it to a mindful, accepting audience retrieves the story from the nebulous nature of memory and validates it, validates the writer/reader. Makes it real.
Authenticates it. Prepares one to move on. So we pressed the group to write. We gave instruction on basic memoir writing; my contribution was to relate how I had taught myself to feel by writing poems about each incident in the war when I could remember going a little more numb. We guided the group in the spiritual practice of compassionate listening, which is fully half the work we do.
The results were remarkable. The writing that was produced on such short notice was striking in its power, depth, individuality, and honesty. These were not rote exercises. Because of the spiritual quality and intention of the gathering, members of the group were able to go to the heart of some of their deepest experience.
On Friday afternoon, the next-to-last day of the retreat, we graduated. We were given a five-hundred-seat lecture theater, which was filled to capacity with retreatants. Maxine Hong Kingston graciously moderated, and for two hours we read our stories to the most wonderfully attentive audience imaginable.
At the beginning of the retreat, I was very much afraid of failing in this undertaking. I was afraid of the organizational difficulties we had to face-the leaders of this unprecedentedly large I,200-person retreat had their hands full; they could not give us much attention. I was afraid that in our inexperience as teachers, Dan and I wouldn't be able to hold our diverse group together; that some would want more spiritual training than we had to offer, that others would find the writing instruction inadequate; that they would rise up in mutiny, or defect in large numbers. I found that the combination of old military discipline enhanced by the spiritUal ability to remain emotionally present, together with the soundness of Maxine's approach to writing instruction, carried us through. Not only carried us through, but made it a great success. I think we made a difference, not only to the twenty-two of us in our group, but to the entire Sangha.
The success of the group was also secured by the mindfulness of the participants, and by the practices we followed together. We sat in meditation together at each session, and observed the guidance of the bell in remembering to be present. With the help of an able tea master discovered within our ranks, Roger Voight, we enjoyed a lovely, grounding tea ceremony. And we were charmed and refreshed by a visit from the Children's Sangha, who persuaded us to sing wonderful songs with them, and who made us laugh.
(On September 29,1997, Maxine Hong Kingston received the National Medal for the Humanities from President Clinton for her contribution to the nation's culture.)
Ted Sexauer lives in Sonoma, California, and practices with the Community of Mindful Living. He is a member of the Veteran Writers' Workshop, West Coast Group, which meets quarterly at Sebastopol, California.