Writing With Veterans

My friend Chris invited me to visit her at work. She’s a nurse practitioner at a VA clinic in San Francisco, and she and her colleague Erin had begun a writing group for homeless vets. I’d helped them set up the guidelines for the group, using what I’d picked up from my time as a student and an occasional writing-group-member. While they needed to tailor the group for their population, I could predict a few things — after a brave soul or two went first, everyone would want to read, and it would be helpful to have parameters for responses when people read, to encourage the writing process rather than shutting it down. The group had been running for a few weeks, and Chris wanted me to see how it was going, and give some feedback.

As I walked down 3rd Street toward the clinic, I thought about my own writing. Lately, I’d been pretty uninspired. I’d finished a book I’d been working on for years, and wasn’t sure what was next. I felt sort of unmoored — too easily buoyed up if an essay I wrote got accepted somewhere, too easily dejected if it got turned down. Though I knew, somewhere in me, I loved writing, I’d lost touch with the internal compass that compelled me to do it. I found myself wondering, as I walked, whether writing could really offer these veterans anything either. Was it fluff, compared to what they needed — homes, and food, and work? Was it just a luxury for all of us?

I opened the door to the clinic, and felt time slow down. The waiting room was full of men lounging in chairs, some in their late twenties, many in their sixties or so, all worn beyond their years. I felt a little intimidated — I didn’t know any of these men, and why would they want to hear from me? What writing exercise could I possibly suggest that would interest them or touch on their lives?

I found Chris and Erin setting up for the group in a large, sunlit staff kitchen. Erin had brought cookies, which she arranged on a plate at the center of the table. Four men came in carrying notebooks and pens, greeting each other and Chris and Erin. We all sat down around the table, and introduced ourselves. None of the men touched the cookies — they wanted to get down to business. They’d left the last meeting with homework —they were to write about what it means to be a veteran. They cleared their throats and took turns reading.

One told the story of his time in boot camp, being eighteen in Georgia, out in the swampland, where they were shown pictures of bodies with their limbs chewed off by alligators, to ward off any attempts of escape. Another wrote a poem about the way military service had chiseled him into a diamond with sharp edges. We all gave feedback for each reader, and I was struck by the absence of ego in the feedback. This was no MFA workshop, with pointed criticism intended to impress. The veterans complimented each other, and asked questions that encouraged new material. They respected the fact that their group members were made vulnerable by reading, and by writing. There was a palpable trust in the room.

Next, it was my turn to read. Chris had asked me to bring my book, a memoir about my marriage, in my twenties, to my first husband who had cystic fibrosis. I thumbed through the book, feeling embarrassed and almost silly, wondering what passage would make sense in this room. Often at readings I was careful to read something funny, since listeners could be put off by what sounded like dark subject matter. It was the opposite here. My story seemed light and luxurious; I’d been a child in my twenties, compared to these men. But I went ahead anyway. I read a little about the night my husband was called for a double-lung transplant, driving through San Francisco at one in the morning, headed for the hospital. When I finished, the vets gave me the same kind of feedback they’d given each other. “I was right there with you in the car,” one of them said.

It was time for a writing exercise. Everyone at the table — the vets, the nurse practitioners, the social worker, and myself — all pulled out our notebooks. And in that moment we were joined, first and foremost, as writers. We each wrote about learning something new as a kid. For the first time in months, I got lost in a writing exercise. We were given ten minutes and I sunk into them. We all did. For ten minutes, we all got a break — the social worker wasn’t a social worker, she was a writer, or she was back to being six, learning how to ride a bike. One vet wrote about being a champion diver, and we asked him all about the kinds of dives he’d done. One wrote about learning to say the alphabet backwards and made us all try it. Chris wrote about going to school, and learning that not everyone spoke Korean. After each person read, we lapsed into conversation, running the range from what it felt like to be a child to how to best capture that in writing.

I realized as I looked around the table how much they all looked forward to being here and doing this every week. If I’d been able to, I would have joined the vets’ writing group, too. I also realized what writing was offering them. There’s so much talk about the power of developing your voice it can sound cliché. But seeing these men fill their notebooks, I’d never felt the truth of the phrase more deeply. They have no voice in the society that sent them to war — they live on the outskirts, where work and housing are hard to find, where people see them on the street and stare purposefully past them. In this room, and on these pages, they are speaking, and being heard, and shoring themselves up.

One said to me, “This notebook is like having my own house. I write in here, and it’s quiet.”

Another talked about how his anger scared him, but less so when he wrote it down. I left wondering what the world would be like if every single person were given a notebook, and encouragement when they read from its pages.

Elizabeth Scarboro is the author of the memoir My Foreign Cities, an unlikely love story set on the frontiers of modern medicine.  My Foreign Cities was chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2013 and will be released in paperback this February. Scarboro’s writing has appeared most recently in The Millions, The New York Times, and the Bellevue Literary Review.