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Writing out the War

By Therese Fitzgerald

The UC Berkeley campus hosted an event for war veterans entirely different from the days of dualistic rallies. Thirty men and women, mostly Vietnam veterans, gathered in a spacious, woodsy room of the Faculty Club on a Saturday in June to spend a day with Maxine Hong Kingston nourishing their writing process.

Maxine referred to the story of Odysseus as the story of war and its effects on the psyche, how it takes twenty years or more to process the war experience. "Art," Maxine explained, "is the transformation of feelings and experience into meaning. Writing is a tool for accessing events and memories and giving them meaning. For twenty years, you have lived with the war in your hearts. Now we can put them through the process of art. Now is time for the healing and the coming home."

In response to Maxine's skillful and caring questions about whether or not the participants had been using writing as a way of expressing themselves, many veterans described "coming of age" as a writer by writing letters home from Vietnam. In many cases, loved ones had saved the letters and the veterans were able to learn about themselves by studying those letters—albeit a very painful process. One veteran said, jokingly, he had "gone to Vietnam to have something to write about." Writing, for some, has been the main way to make sense of an otherwise very disconnected life. "I am writing myself back to health," said one man, who for years could write only poetry about monks and sacred flames.

Maxine paused and then began to make the link between daily writing practice and meditation. “‘Where am I going to get my inspiration?' is a question about creativity, but it is also about 'breathing in.' Expression can be thought of as 'breathing out.'" Maxine explained how meditation is good for bringing the intellectual mind and the body together. "Jetlag is a splitting of the mind and body that requires some time to repair. How much more a split it can be for the psyche, the spirit, to endure an explosion, a war! When we experience an explosion, it can be said that our soul has been driven out of our body, and it takes time to come back."

The bell of mindfulness was introduced as one of many reminders throughout the day to wake up to the present moment. "When someone reads their piece of writing, they will be saying 'Wake up and listen to this!'" Maxine said with great energy. Maxine presented a breathing verse developed by Thich Nhat Hanh and showed how much it relates to writing as well as breathing. "When we practice breathing in and out, deeply and with ease, we can also practice writing easily and deeply."

Silence was practiced for the most of the day, along with the practice of writing down the thoughts, feelings, and images that came to mind. "Silence can interrupt habitual energy and activities. New people can come in. New ideas can formulate."

Maxine offered a writing exercise: write a scene, an event, that happened at a particular time, in a particular place. How were those moments different and special? Use all your senses. Envision and imagine that place and time. What do you remember being said? What kind of energy and feeling were you aware of? Resist the temptation to leave the scene. Don't run away to another place or another time."

The gorgeous blue sky, the bright sun, the cool air, the refreshing shade of old live oaks and fragrant redwoods, and the rich bells of the campanile provided many places of refuge for quiet writing practice. Before lunch, we had a lovely walking meditation around a very green part of the campus along a stream. A delicious Mediterranean vegetarian meal was appreciated in silence, and then people had some time to get to know one another.

The afternoon session concentrated on listening to each piece written during the morning. Without exception, the writings were deep and compelling. Unforgettable images emerged—a sea of innocent faces at a Bob Hope show, a young Vietnamese running after an American truck to receive candy bars thrown "at" them; the glimpse of heaven of a World War II veteran in a faltering airplane approaching Morocco in the "fantastic dawn"; "suspicious palm trees" floating in the river, "It took a long time for me to trust trees"; mutilation of the enemy after being pinned down in a peanut field; "stuffing red-black 'snakes' back into the wound."

After a long silence, Maxine spoke about "the authoritative voice that comes from looking deeply at a scene." This was the first time some of the veterans had shared their deeply painful scenes of war.

It was especially heartening to end the day with Maxine's encouragement to continue with monthly meetings with her through October—and three whole years together.

In August, we met for a weekend. Maxine began with a description of the three basic processes we would be working with: (1.) writing, the bringing the mental self to bear in studying feelings and powerful events, working with our memories, changing hose events and changing ourselves, transmuting our experience, taking our history, our lives, through the process of art; defining ourselves and history; working out our values that give strength to our life

(2.) meditation, sitting and hearing our minds, focusing, and concentrating; bringing body and soul together; sitting silently to let that soul come back; using mental faculties to notice subtle, physical activities

(3.) community, harnessing the energy of the uniquely "warm, happy, and light" atmosphere of the particular group, and listening to each other's writings The group consisted of 30 men and women, half of whom had attended the previous gathering. A sampling of the introductions follow:

"I started writing right after I returned from Vietnam. I would have just burst otherwise. It was crucial for me to tell what I had seen."

"I have a real difficulty sitting long enough to write, but words are beginning to come. While a medic in Vietnam, I felt I left my body once when I hit the ground during a bombing. Right then I decided I could choose to be in the sky, and I turned over on my back...It's taken me years to find my soul. Part of my recovery has been honoring the spirit I contacted in Vietnam, especially among the Taoists."

One professional writer, a non-veteran, told how he started to write to escape the violence at home and get through the difficulties. Several veterans described how the Gulf War brought up tremendous rage and pushed them to seek out veteran communities to stay sane. One veteran, a combat engineer who blew up tunnels, said he managed to "forget" he was a veteran until the pressure got to be too great and he realized he wasn't "one of the lucky ones, but one of the walking wounded." Another veteran who had "buried the war experience" said he dreaded "having to go back into that horror again."

Two female partners of veterans spoke of their pain as children of alcoholics and their hesitation to "go to the heart of the pain," and that "Big Pain that connects everyone and that scares me so deeply." Another woman spoke of the need to go beyond being a support to her husband in his journey to give voice to the violence of war and "to get to the heart of my experience of violence in society." A common theme among veterans and non-veterans was survival guilt.

Maxine spoke personally about her own writing process, saying how for her "immortality is to pass on the method of writing as finding a way to become whole and reach clarity." Two of Maxine's brothers, both veterans, always distance themselves from their war experience. One "continues to fight the war on the streets" as a police dispatcher. "Perhaps one day they will join us in this work," Maxine said somewhat wistfully, "but now you are my brothers."

Larry Heinemann, author of Paco's Story and Close Quarters, and his wife Edie co-inspired the workshop with Maxine. Larry spoke about the "peculiar blessing of the war" that opened up his life and "turned on" his writing. He described with great gusto his understanding of writing as "a performance—getting the whole, extemporaneous, physical reality onto the page; conveying a "story moment" as vivid as a vivid dream so that the listener "hears" the vividness.

Larry emphasized how important it is for the writer to realize that he is writing to someone, "putting the idea in the mind of an absent person. It is the ability to conjure up the person you can trust to tell anything that allows the writing to come."

"At some point," Larry said, "I realized I felt a tremendous reluctance and fear to expose myself as a terrible person in writing nonfiction, so I wrote a novel." And he hared with the veterans the intensely liberating breakthrough he had when he saw that the writer, when writing honestly about things he feels strongly about, exposes the story, not himself. "Whatever reservations you may have about the material, whatever feelings come up, set them all aside and let the story tell itself. Put all the politics, all considerations about the language and all considerations to spare other peoples' feelings aside. Pass the story on in the writing," he encouraged, "Let the reader become responsible."

In referring to his contact with peace activists in the late sixties, Larry said that "there comes a point when people aren't sure they want to become responsible." He would say to the peace activists, "You're right not to go to Vietnam, and let me tell you why! Let me count you the ways."

It was a powerful transmission of Larry's nondualistic wisdom when he said, "The vets did the best they could. The non-vets did the best they could." In the afternoon, Maxine gave instructions for a writing exercise: "Pay attention. Tell the truth. Put all the family secrets out there. The resolution of difficulties comes through hanging in there with them. Your talent develops, and understanding occurs."

Larry suggested that we pick out someone in the room to tell the story to. "Hold the image of that person in your mind. This generates seeing."

We went home Saturday night encouraged by Maxine to "take extra special care," as we were all quite open. "Pay particular attention to your dreams," Maxine instructed.

On Sunday, Maxine picked up on a comment about "being fixated on the Vietnam experience and getting stuck in the past." "There's this other place that's not the war, where health, wholeness, and joy are. Breathe, and the flicker of joy is fed. How do we get to the joy? How do we get out of the fixation with the pains of the past? The Vietnamese are healing themselves and their country. The war is inside us. It takes practice being in the present. Explosions take us away. Consciousness itself takes us away. We've been practicing being away from the here and now. We need to practice appreciating our body, our breathing, our eating, our walking in mindfulness. (We've learned many kinds of walking—men walks, women walks—unconsciously.) We practice in order to be aware of the way we go about in the world. We need to practice letting that joy in. We've had so much practice at being calloused.

After a longer meditation period, we went our separate ways to write or have conversations until lunch time outside on the beautiful patio.

Maxine introduced the afternoon listening session by saying, "As you listen, breathe the words into you. Let the stories come into your body, your heart. Carry the stories." And stories there were 'a plenty to carry: There was Richard who "wanted to say it all at once. I keep wanting to flash forward and backward, because I don't know how to make sense of it...That crew was divided right down the middle...I'll get to that." And get to his first confrontation with death, so "damn final and certain," he did.

And Fred's letter to Willie, resolving feelings he's been carrying for more than fifty years. And Martin who keeps the Vietnamese medic's scissors in his back drawer—"Holding them now in 1993,1 can at least ponder, 'What was he like?'" And Charlie's "crocagator" of the Mekong River—"a voracious, two-headed beast, bloated." And Matt's cobra that almost made it out of Vietnam on a helicopter. And Bob's vignette of everyday violence in Elmer's pool hall, and then his essay on who fights wars; where they're really fought; how long they last. And the young Panama vet's vision of Petrov and himself flinging their weapons down the mountain. And that of Bill, the deserter, of "wimps" drowning during training. And Lisa's portrayal of stealing a kiss from her drunken father in the midst of unbearable violence and dread—"Someone always had to lose."

And Keith's fear of coming unglued, so afraid of panic and rage that he can't make decisions for fear that the cost will be too great. "I feared failing at my job as a medic more than my own death." And Peter's description of hitting the ground at the sound of planes overhead at his welcome home picnic, much to his friends' dismay, and the chasm of misunderstanding the war opened up between him and all he knew before the war. And Tim's "boogey man" who gathers more force the harder we try to ignore him, and the gorgeous Vietnamese landscape, and the irony of a reconnaissance mission being referred to as "a walk in the park." And Michael's story of Jesse's trip home alongside the coffins full of dead soldiers, and his poem about hearing his voice at last. And Maxine's conjuring of the "human pact" made on "open, sacred ground" of protest of the war, and questions about whether being able to take violence "immunizes" one from violence, "or does it just bruise you, soften you, and debilitate you?" And Francesca, whose father was shot in the backyard during the Spanish Civil War, who "learned hope, and dreaming, and quality from her mother at the helm of the black telephone in the middle of the house." And Robert's vision of basking in the gaze of unconditional love.

A silent walking meditation outdoors in the clear day amidst another wedding allowed us to take in each other's words with spaciousness. At the end, Larry commented on the organizing principle of irony throughout the pieces, "irony that makes you laugh and cry." And he noted the specificity of work that situated many of the writings. "You have to stay with the story, and the story has to land on its feet," Larry cautioned.

A final meditation brought us each back in touch with our innermost self before saying good-bye and going our separate ways, newly nourished by two days together in community and writing practice. A follow-up meeting for the end of August, facilitated by published author, Richard Sterling, was announced, and everyone was also encouraged to join Maxine with Thich Nhat Hanh at the retreats at Omega and Malibu.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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