It just so happens that many of war’s worst memories are the same ones that are the most vivid—the same ones that compel veterans to write and work through what happened to them. Society says, “Those who’ve been in combat don’t like to talk about it.” But gatherings where friends (and usually a few drinks) are around tell a much different story. Veterans talk about it. But they do so where they feel comfortable—usually around their fellow veterans—or after gaining the skills needed to relate chaotic experiences in meaningful, coherent, and socially appropriate ways. This workshop will provide some insights into how memories are formed during combat and some skills to use when writing about it.
Learning Goals: This course will help veterans “map out” combat chronologically, expand upon those facts with physical detail, overlay emotional processes that may or may not have been previously considered, and use these memories in the creation of a complete combat sequence that can be expanded into a story.
NOTE: Some participants may feel as if combat memories are too difficult to work through. Remember, no one is forcing you to do anything you don’t want to do. While writing may seem harmless enough, some individuals require time or the help of trained mental health professionals in order to write about these sorts of things. Editors are not therapists. Writing, though therapeutic, is not therapy. Whereas we likely won’t break anything that isn’t already broken, it is important for each individual to judge his or her readiness to talk or write about war.
Chronology in the Face of Trauma
Exposure to war can have negative side effects. While this may sound like a cheesy line best suited for an anti-smoking ad, it accurately explains why so many veterans, even those who are mentally and physically fit after their wars are over, have trouble writing about what was experienced.
These obstacles to memory also result in veterans being natural storytellers.
All writers get writer’s block and have trouble getting things onto paper from time-to-time. But for those who want to write about combat, there are additional impediments that can get in the way. In the audio lecture below, the instructor talks about some of the things he found researching trauma and its effect on memory. Think critically about how the brain stores memory once the adrenaline of combat kicks in. Are things as ordered and logical as memories from day-to-day life? Probably not. But also think about how vivid those memories are and how vivid memories make for great stories.
Physical Sensations and Emotional Overlay
Veterans often reflect on combat as if they remember every little detail, from the sounds of bullets whizzing by, to the hum of an engine before an IED blast, to a tiny rash on their hand the size of a quarter that they first noticed when returning fire. However, when these veterans attempt to record events “as they happened” any number of psychological or physiological processes emerge, confusing the author and impeding the writing process. Things may appear out of order when recalled through memory. Nuanced versions of events may result in a story that lacks credibility. The amount of attention given to certain details may confound the reader. These occurrences are all natural parts of surviving a traumatic event.
Memory is suspect, not the survivor, and it is suspect because it is suited to the mind and experiences of the rememberer.
We’ve already talked about the importance of chronological order. But it’s the details that establish your credibility as an author and the emotional aspects of your story that help your reader relate to you. Let’s take a look at a combat sequence from Colby Buzzell’s book My War. This video is available through YouTube and was originally produced as a part of the Operation Homecoming documentary by PBS.
In this scene Buzzell writes about an ambush that took place in Mosul, Iraq. Note some of the details provided by the author:
“I observed a man dressed in all black with a terrorist beard”
“I heard and felt the bullets whiz literally inches from my head, hitting all around my hatch and making a ping-ping-ping sound”
Buzzell is careful to relate the basic senses—sight, hearing, touch—in expanding just a few minutes of combat from one, limited perspective into a narrative style that could be described almost as omniscient. His story seems simple enough, but anyone who has ever tried to write about combat realizes the work involved with pulling together a million tiny details into something coherent
How does the author’s brain comprehend a man shooting directly at him, “IED’s being ignited on both sides of the street,” numerous other insurgents “dressed in all black,” and RPG’s coming at him all at once? The answer: It probably took some work.
There are three things going on this scene that are important for writers to pay attention to: 1) The author takes any number of traumatic fragments of memory and merges them into a coherent timeline; 2) he keeps the story from sounding scripted and unnatural by remaining grounded in the things he physically felt while in the actual event; and he 3) revisits the emotions he should have felt once the action has subsided and once he has a chance to put them into a shoebox.
It’s the synthesis of these three things: chronological order, physical sensations, and emotional overlay that help Buzzell tell a riveting story. Let’s see if we can mimic that synthesis with our own stories.
Directions: Complete your combat sequence in the four stages listed below. Save your work and email it to the instructor once complete in order to receive feedback and advice about revision or expansion. Ultimately, we’d like to see the work done here become part of a larger piece that will later be submitted to one of MEA’s publications.
Step One: Chronological Order
The first step is pretty straightforward. Using numbers or bullet points, outline the major events that happen in your combat sequence as you remember them. If there are gaps, make a note to yourself to come back to that part later and proceed onto the next event. Once the events comprising your combat sequence are listed, add sub-points that spell out in detail how it all went down. Once your outline is as detailed and complete as you can make it, move onto the next step.
Step Two: Physical Sensations
Copy and paste your outline onto another page, leaving yourself with a chronological outline to come back to later if new memories pop up in the remaining stages (they will!). Read each event in the sequence to yourself and try to remember sensations: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and feeling. In a sentence or two, describe each sensation alongside or underneath each point in your outline, bringing in as much detail about what you physically experienced as you can.
Step Three: Emotional Overlay
Copy and paste the outline with physical sensations into another blank page. In the same manner that you recorded your physical sensations, try to remember how you felt. Were you scared? Were you angry? Were you completely numb and responding according to how you had been trained? How you were supposed to feel might be a good question to ask if you can’t remember. The answers may or may not surprise you, but the result will be that you better understand the perspective you had during the event. Once you understand that perspective, you will understand yourself and how perception in the past differs from your perception in the present.
Step Four: Produce a Draft
Now, copy and paste the outline with both physical sensations and emotional overlay into completely new document. Save the other document containing your outlines for your records or to come back to later as you work on future combat sequences. In the new document, turn your outline into prose using complete sentences and the words that best suit the vividness of what you remember. Show; don’t tell the reader what and how you felt during the events that took place in your combat sequence. Choose a particular tense—past or present—and stick with it throughout. Avoid “college words” unless they were a part of your regular vocabulary during the event; you don’t want the story to sound contrived. Create the most coherent, vivid, emotionally insightful story you can in 1-3 pages.
Military Experience & the Arts works with veteran authors of fiction and nonfiction year round. You can submit work to them and expect to work one-on-one with a team of readers and eventually editors who will help you elevate the quality of your prose to where it needs to be for publication. Information about submitting work to MEA can be found here.
Travis L. Martin, PhD, is founding director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He has established several nationally recognized programs to support returning veterans in higher education and the non-profit sector. A scholar of American literature, psychoanalytic trauma theory, and social theory, Dr. Martin presents frequently at conferences and universities. He has published dozens of research articles and creative short works on veterans’ issues. A former sergeant in the U.S. Army, he served during two deployments in the Iraq War (2003-04 & 2005). His book War and Homecoming: Veteran Identity and the Post-9/11 Generation is slated for publication with the University Press of Kentucky in 2022. He resides in Richmond, KY.