Write what you know, the old exhortation goes.
Shanna Reis will oblige.
“A few weeks after coming back from my first deployment in Afghanistan, I was driving two friends home from some event I can't remember now. I took I-70 East and was getting off on 465 when I had my second freak-out.”
In a firm but tense voice, she continues reading from her essay, entitled Home Again, as a group of women listen around a horseshoe of facing tables.
“I was touched by the whole piece,” says Shari Wagner, the Indiana Poet Laureate and leader of this workshop for female military veterans. She wants to know more about the trauma that has so magnified common occurrences, such as a sharp freeway curve, in Reis’ stateside life.
She was a gunner, Reis explains.
“When a Humvee rolls over,” she says, “it’s pretty much accepted that the gunner’s going to die.”
“Could you work that into the story?” Wagner suggests.
She’ll think about it. Reis says it took years before she even could speak of it.
The Army veteran is taking on a tough volunteer mission, along with nine other uniquely bonded women involved in the latest of a series of memoir projects conducted by the Writers’ Center of Indiana. Funded by the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, the venture will culminate in July in publication of a book.
- Courtesy of the Writers' Center of Indiana
Left to right, rear: Anita Siccardi, Cindy "Loc" Hornung, Robin Hall and Julia Whitehead.Left to right, seated: Leslie Hall, Laura McKee, Elizabeth "Betty" Smith, Shanna Reis, Lisa Wilken and Christylee Sparrow Hawk Vickers.
Reis is joined by a diverse array of sisters whose service dates back to World War II: Leslie Bales, Air Force; Robin Hall, Army National Guard; Cindy “Loc” Hornung, Army; Laura McKee, Air Force; Anita Siccardi, Army; Elizabeth Smith, Marine Corps; Christylee Sparrow Hawk Vickers, Army; Julia Whitehead, Marine Corps, and Lisa Wilken, Air Force.
And then there are Indy writers Patricia Cupp, Barb McLaughlin and Carol Weiss as volunteer coaches. Shaping the prose and poetry of 10 non-professionals into publishable form is an intensive collaborative effort that’s been under way twice monthly since October. But material, one would think, can’t be a problem. Isn’t there an abundance of, well, war stories?
That itself is the problem -- an overwhelming inheritance of real-life drama, not only of courage and camaraderie and laughter, but also of mortal danger, lost comrades, maddening frustration and infuriating injustice. And the bulk of it resides in dark places where the heart and mind don’t want the typing fingers to go.
“I stopped writing my stories,” says Christylee Vickers, like Reis an Army Iraq War veteran. “I stopped at my last prompt. It just hurts too much.”
For Julia Whitehead, who served in the Marine Corps in the 1990s, it wasn’t combat. It was sexual harassment. She had a battle with herself, putting that ordeal on paper. She wants Vickers to fight through as well.
“I hope you get back into it,” she says. “You’ve just had guns blazing in your writing.”
- Courtesy of the Writers' Center of Indian
Elizabeth Smith shares her World War II stories as volunteer coach Patricia Cupp (left) and facilitator Shari Wagner listen.
The prompts to which Vickers refers are a series of questions Wagner has developed, attached to each phase of the military experience, from enlistment to deployment to civilian re-adjustment. They’re accompanied by samples of writing by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Brian Turner, Randall Jarrell and Jane Kenyon, as well as memoirs by ordinary women.
Much of that literature emerged from firsthand wartime duty and other personal struggles, and it doesn’t mute the scream of pain. As the veterans strive to do likewise, they share a balm of mutual support that they deem distinctly feminine.
“Women feel responsible,” says Loc Hornung, “When men write about their experience, it’s ‘This happened to me.’ Women own it. We feel the need to fix it. That’s the message we get.”
Three generations in the workshop have responded.
Anita Siccardi, 76, was teaching at Indiana University School of Nursing when she joined the Army Nurse Corps at age 50, just in time for the Gulf War. Now dean of the Leighton School of Nursing at Marian University, she says she enlisted because she saw a need and “because I could.” She’s nearly in tears as she reads of her time in Saudi Arabia serving as “mother” to anxious young nurses, standing up to overbearing brass and toting an M-16 with full intent to kill.
Elizabeth “Betty” Smith, 94, was a pioneer member of the Marine Corps during World War II.
She grew up with three brothers to whom she never gave any quarter, and when they sailed off to fight in the Pacific, she headed to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
“It was in boot camp that I learned an important lesson I still use every day, even now at age 94” she reads from one of her essays. “I truly can do anything I put my mind to.”
- Courtesy of the Writers' Center of Indian
Field gear and dogtags brought along to help illustrate the coming book.
For Wagner the facilitator, the goal of this six-month exercise was to raise reminiscences to the level of art – and to exploit art for all its benefits.
“I’ve also wanted the workshop to be a supportive and comfortable community in which members feel safe to discuss personal stories,” she says. “Just as the act of writing can bring healing, so can the community in which it is shared.
Over the course of the past six months, the sense of camaraderie that has formed among these women has been amazing to see. Some of the women had very positive experiences in the military and others had extremely painful ones, yet they are able to deeply respect each other’s varying experiences and emphasize what they hold in common.
“Finally, I hope that these veterans will take pride in the story collection that the IWC will publish next spring. From what I’ve read of their pieces so far, I’m confident it will be a powerful book. The stories of women in the military have been largely untold until recently so our book will also be a way to help correct that imbalance.”