Talking Publishing Veteran Writers with Jerri Bell

Please welcome Jerri Bell, retired Naval officer, driving force behind the Veterans Writing Project, and co-editor of It’s My Country, Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. I invited her to speak at length regarding a topic of veteran writing close to my heart — getting more veterans to write, and providing them avenues of publication. There are many more things I could say about her impressive efforts and resume, but instead, I will step back and let her take it away…

Q: First, tell me a little about the Veterans Writing Project: Its mission, its growth, and your role in shaping it.

Director Ron Capps established the Veterans Writing Project, a nonprofit organization, after he’d served in five war zones in ten years and had developed PTSD. Traditional therapies weren’t helping him, but he found that he could “write his way home from war.” He used his GI Bill to earn a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, and when he graduated he wanted to give something back. So he created a nonprofit to offer creative writing seminars to veterans and their family members at no cost to them, and to publish their work. We publish quarterly in print, and more frequently on line. Since 2011, we’ve presented seminars in more than 20 states; we offer a two-day intensive seminar, a six- or fourteen-week workshop, and customizable workshops for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or playwriting. Finally, under the guidance of licensed mental health clinicians, we offer weekly expressive writing sessions for the PTSD/TBI program at Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

I joined VWP in 2013, after reading about the organization in The Writer. I e-mailed Ron and said, “I want in.” I’d gone to the same program as Ron at Johns Hopkins, though we never crossed paths (I was in the fiction concentration; he studied nonfiction writing). Ron made me the managing editor of the VWP literary journal, O-Dark-Thirty: I think of this job as smashing buttons and herding cats! I assign submissions to editors, forward their responses to potential contributors, and — with the help of our amazing associate editor and military family member Carmelinda Blagg — copyedit the print journal each quarter.

I’m also an instructor for the seminar program. In addition to teaching our traditional, craft-based workshop, I’ve presented a workshop exclusively on memoir. And when Ron noticed that women veterans weren’t speaking up as much as the men or even the female spouses in our open seminars, I designed a seminar for women veterans only. Since 2014 we’ve offered it twice at the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC, and we plan to do it again in 2018.

Q: You’ve published a number of thematic issues, i.e. the “Identity” issue, and the women’s voices issue. Tell me about how you made the decision to do those topics, the response you received, and what topics you may visit in the future.

Our editorial board meets quarterly to discuss upcoming issues, writers we want to interview, and the “themed” and “special” issues. We’re a tight group and work well together; we all just throw ideas out onto the table and bat them around until we find something that suits all of us.

The call for submissions for the special women’s issue got an overwhelming response: more than eight times the usual number of submissions for a quarterly issue. Only one person got on our Facebook page to ask why women needed a “special” issue, and other readers gave him an explanation that seemed to satisfy him — we didn’t even have to step in! The “Identity” issue also drew more submissions than usual. We plan to keep running a “themed” issue, around a general theme and open to submissions from all veterans and family members, every August. We’ll be working out the 2018 theme at our next editorial board meeting, so I’m not yet sure what final theme we’ll settle on! We’re also working on plans for an exciting “special” issue, open to submissions from a limited demographic, in 2018. Too early to say more about that yet.

Cover of Volume 4, No. 2. Artwork: Twoface, a photograph by Magdalena Green US Marines 2008–2012.

Q: A number of authors I’ve interviewed try to stay away from directly (and sometimes indirectly) incorporating their veteran status into their writing. On the other hand, your publication invites veterans to draw on that experience and share it. Can you offer any insight in regards to the different motivations behind writing one’s experience as a servicemember or veteran, or trying to stay away from using it for popular entertainment?

No writer wants to get labeled and pigeonholed as “just” a military writer. But as writer and former soldier Matt Gallagher told me when I interviewed him for our November 2017 issue, “For better or worse, I spent a formative time of my youth in Iraq with the United States Army. So, whatever I write, even if it’s about gardening, that’s going to show up and be part of the text. at will be imbued in the writing.” Military experiences were formative for most of us, veteran and family member alike.

It’s worth noting that at O-Dark-Thirty, we publish the work of writers who happen to be veterans and family members. We don’t require submissions to be about the military experience; in fact, we’d love to see more submissions that aren’t specifically set in a war, or on a military base, or featuring military protagonists.

When it comes to insight on motivations? In the interview in our most recent issue, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler said it better than I’ve ever heard it said elsewhere. He told our senior editor, Jim Mathews: “If you dig deep enough in serious storytelling, below the surface goals and objectives and strivings and flashpoints for a character, you’re going to find that at the heart of the central character is one fundamental yearning. And that is: I yearn for self; I yearn for an identity; I yearn for a place in the universe. That’s what all great fiction is about.” That’s what great writing is about, regardless of genre.

Q: What are some of the common narratives concerning veterans that you’ve seen in the news/entertainment media? If you could choose to expand the range/variety of veteran stories, what themes/aspects would you choose, and why?

I frequently feel frustrated with the binary approach popular culture — news media, publishing, and film — often takes toward the veteran experience. Veterans are frequently portrayed as either heroes, almost cartoonish because they’re so much larger than life, or as damaged goods, victims of PTSD, physical injury, or sexual trauma. Those narratives reinforce the civilian-military gap, and neither story has much to do with any of the men and women I served with or the veterans I know today.

If I could expand the narrative, I’d want to see more complex stories about what veterans do with their lives after war. I’d want more thoughtful and nuanced stories about military women, veterans of color, and the courageous LGBTQ veterans who have fought so hard for acceptance, equal opportunity to serve, and recognition instead of dishonorable discharge.

Q: What are some common areas of military life you wish you would encounter more in fiction?

Especially in my editorial hat, I’m open to stories about any area of military life! We see a lot of boot camp stories, but no two are the same even if as a reader I feel like I’ve had exactly that experience in accession training myself. I’ll be interested to read stories from children of OEF/OIF veterans now that they’re coming of age, to see how they’re processing their parents’ experiences of service. I love reading stories from veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, many of whom are only now beginning to share their experiences with others. At almost every workshop, I hear at least one participant say, “I’ve never told this story to anyone before.” And those stories are always just gut-wrenching. It breaks my heart that good men and women have kept those experiences and emotions hidden, seething under the surface. I often think that if America did a better job of listening when veterans told their stories, we’d be much less likely to enter into war thoughtlessly and irresponsibly.

Q: What advice would you give to veterans who are interested in writing their own stories?

Butt in chair! Pick up pen! Fire up the laptop!

Start with the anecdotes and memories that won’t leave you alone. They’re sticking with you like Velcro for a reason. Take classes if you’re aiming for publication, and learn everything you can about publishing before you start submitting: publication is an industry with a cold, dollar-bill-green heart. Finally: learn to revise, and revise, and revise again before you let anyone see your work. Nobody writes something brilliant, or even publishable, in a first draft.

Cover of Volume 5, No. 1. ; Artwork: A Carol for the Fallen by former Army Sergeant Peter Damon

Q: Who are some fellow military/veteran writers you might recommend? What makes you recommend them?

I have such a long list, and hate to leave anyone out! My top ten this week might not be my top ten next week. But there are some that I keep returning to for inspiration and for examples of the highest level of craft. Here are a few of them:

David Abrams (Fobbit, Brave Deeds) — David’s humor and compassion are legendary, and they spill over from his Montana-sized heart onto the page. No one loves soldiers more.

Brian Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die, The Long Walk) — All the Ways We Kill and Die reads like a thriller, but it’s a serious meditation on intelligence collection, modern warfare, death, and the human condition. I read through the night because I couldn’t put it down.

Tracy Crow (especially her memoir Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine) — Tracy has written several books, and I asked her to be my co-author for It’s My Country Too because of her ear for story and deep understanding of military women. In her memoir, Tracy spares neither herself nor the Marine Corps. She’s deeply honest and ultimately forgiving.

Mary Lee Settle (All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391) — Settle, an American who fought with the British Women’s Royal Auxiliary Air Force in World War Two, went on to win the National Book Award in 1978 for her novel Blood Tie; she also founded the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short memoir blasts the myth of the “Greatest Generation” and the noble heroism of World War II all to bits.

Brian Turner (Here, Bullet and especially My Life as a Foreign Country) — I don’t know anyone writing, veteran or otherwise, who uses poetic language and manipulates time and memory like Brian Turner. He’s simply a master.

Andria Williams (The Longest Night) — Being an old Cold Warrior, I love a good nuke story. Andria plots tightly without appearing to plot; she doesn’t sacrifice literary art for the sake of narrative tension. I’m still trying to pick apart her novel to figure out how she did that! She’s a military spouse, and curates the excellent blog The Military Spouse Book Review.

Q: Anything to add?

Serious readers of war literature should dig into the anthologies like Fire and Forget, Retire the Colors, the Proud to Be anthology series, and The Road Ahead. I recommend following literary journals like O-Dark-Thirty, As You Were, and War, Literature & the Arts. The best critical work on war literature and film is coming from Peter Molin’s blog Time Now.

Thanks for the chat, and for giving me space to talk about literature that I love!