Talking Writing Workshops with Jeffery Hess

Jeffery Hess contacted me through my online author interview request form, and I was immediately intrigued. Both the fact that his new book, Tushhog, reads like a grittier Elmore Leonard and the fact that he runs a writing workshop for veterans. I’ll be posting a bit about Tushhog later on my other blog, but I wanted to bring him here to talk a bit about how his workshop project got started, and how he uses it to help veterans write their stories.

Q: Talk to me about the impetus behind starting the DD-214 Writers Workshop? Did you have any misgivings? Did you have any challenges? What was your original vision for the project, and how does the current group fit that vision?

The workshop grew out of my obsession with writing and my respect for the military. As I was nearing the completion of my graduate program back in 2005, I knew I wanted to teach, but I wasn’t interested in doing so in a formal academic environment, where I’d spent more than six years learning it myself. I figured a private writing workshop would be a solid way to share what I’d learned in school, and from experience, with a group of people who might not otherwise pursue the craft.

The biggest challenge in starting up was finding a venue. There was no budget to rent a space each week, but since I was already renting a small office, I brought in a conference table there and it has worked out well. To get started, I sent a press release to the Tampa Tribune and a reporter called to interview me. When the article ran, my phone rang off the hook.

My original set up for the program was six-week increments, where each participant would be able to workshop a submission — a story, novel excerpt, batch of poems, or essay — and benefit from reading and workshopping five other classmates’ submissions. I planned a week off between each six-week rotation with the participants’ option of rotating out or continuing, but unanimously, everyone wanted to keep going without a week off. So we run continuously except for holidays or if I have to go out of town. We regularly have forty to forty-eight workshops per year.

Q: The veterans who come to the group — are they typically brand-new writers, or have they had some experience in the craft? What are some of their typical goals in the group? How does the group help them meet those goals?

Most participants are new writers. Some have had creative writing classes in college, but that’s been rare. All are avid readers.

Everyone begins with the goal of writing better. Some are eager to publish. Some have gone on to apply and begin MFA programs themselves. Many have published since being in the workshop. I help them any way I can and the results have been gratifying. In addition to some excellent writing, there have been numerous publications in literary journals, industry magazines, and newspapers (foreign and domestic). But the biggest benefit has been the sense of community where writers gather amongst not only other writers, but veterans (or their dependents) who have a shared sense of connection.

Q: What are some of the challenges of working with veterans?

I don’t know if working with veterans has posed challenges than would any other adults. Most participants are working age with demanding jobs and families, sometimes graduate school, and outside interests and all the distractions that we all face these days. But, if I had to guess, I’d say there are more benefits to working with veterans in that they all have a shared past, but also a shared sense of responsibility. Absences are rare and well notified in advance. Preparation, while subject to the distractions mentioned above, is consistent and helpful. And since there is no requirement to write about actual events, but rather the freedom to choose all subject matter, there is no pressure to detail certain events or adhere to certain genres. With that said, many participants do write about their military experiences — from Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Each has a unique story to tell and no matter the topics or themes, they spend time that they choose to write what they want to write. This has produced a wealth of stories, poems, essays, articles, and novel manuscripts, some of it published, some of it simply put down on paper for the first time. All in an environment of instruction, encouragement, and assessment, as stated in our mission statement.

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

In the media, including social media, I’ve seen the extremes of hero worship to fear and vilification and of course the issues of suicide, homelessness, and transitioning to civilian life — often in college — and everything in between. In the workshop, I’ve seen mostly the in-between. New writers are often reluctant to brag or embellish, though that is frequently an area for discussion. With the freedom presented to them to write whatever they want to write, there’s no restriction on subject matter, theme, or ideology. There is variety in that, even though the majority of participants has been male. Which brings me back to the modesty angle alluded to earlier, where writers often downplay actions and the intensity of their feelings. I don’t think that’s exclusively a veteran predilection, but common across many backgrounds. No matter the subject or theme of a piece, our focus is on helping the writer improve the piece and write it they way they intended, which usually involves thinking more specifically about actions, thoughts, and feelings.

The variety has been everything from memoir about childhood, poems about divorce, dating, war, cancer, as well as stories of combat, love affairs, romance, serial killers, even swords and sorcery. I’m happy to read it all and help them develop their creativity and their writing.

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

If a veteran or dependent wants to write memoir or autobiography or even fiction or poetry about their military experiences, I highly recommend reading Tracy Crow’s book “On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story” and doing everything it says. The main thing is to get busy writing, which involves finding a comfortable spot where you can focus and want to return to day after day. I also recommend reading the great literary journals and sites that feature the best in military fiction, poetry, and personal essays. O-Dark-Thirty, Wrath Bearing Tree, War, Literature and the Arts, etc. are great places to start. Read and write. Read and write. And seek out a class, or a workshop, or a seminar, of a conference to attend, even if not military-related. Read other craft books and learn the craft of storytelling. All this happens concurrently. Each helps the other. Read and write. Read and write. And as you develop the writing muscles, challenge yourself to be as honest as you can on the page. Readers want the unvarnished truth, or at least the emotional truth, which is what spurs many to take up writing in the first place. By all means, edit yourself, but do not censor yourself. Say what needs to be said. Don’t worry what others will think. Be dedicated, but not in a hurry. Read and write. Get it down and improve it as your knowledge of the craft grows.

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

I referenced one of Tracy Crow’s books earlier, but in addition to having been a Marine, she is also a tremendous memoirist, novelist, and teacher.

Tim O’Brien, especially his book, The Things They Carried is a touchstone for me for combat narratives and pure storytelling.

David Abrams writes great stories and novels that explore the humor and tenderness of war.

Brian Turner has written some of the best poetry I’ve read.

Also in poetry, I like Colin Halloran.

And another one to be on the look out for is Brooke King. I’ve read some of her early fiction, essays, and poetry and she is a force.

Q: Anything to add?

One thing that I often recommend is finding others who share your interests. That can be a weekly workshop, like I have or it can be one-on-one via email or phone calls. For people who want the face-to-face workshop experience yet are unable to find a group to join, I recommend starting a group of their own. Put the word out on social media, in the newspapers — local, independent, weekly, whatever — and in places like MeetUp.com or at your local bookstores or libraries. Post on Facebook, hang fliers, Tweet that you’re looking for veterans who are passionate about creative writing and get together, read each other’s work. Offer feedback to the best of your abilities. Read and discuss the writing of other veterans and learn, grow, and always, read and write.

Jeffery Hess’ new release, Tushhog, is now available for purchase. He can be found online at his website, or you can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.