Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group

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Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group

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The Weight of My Armor

Creative nonfiction and poetry from the Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group 

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HISTORY

The SVWG was established in March 2010 by SU Professor Eileen Schell and SU Writing Instructor Ivy Kleinbart in memory of Eileen’s uncle, Brady Lane Smith, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot who died December 29, 2008 from health complications associated with his military service and its aftermath. With vast numbers of young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to a culture largely ignorant of their combat experiences, we wanted to create a space for veterans and their supporters to explore the impact of military service on their lives in a supportive writing community. In keeping with this aim, our group focuses primarily on creative nonfiction and memoir writing across various forms (poetry and prose). Over time, we’ve found that the camaraderie and shared understanding within the group has inspired writers to document aspects of their military service or family history that they might otherwise have been disinclined or unable to approach in isolation. Our workshop invites creative risk-taking and seeks to ease the important and sometimes painful memory work involved in veterans’ writing. Memoir writing is a complex and challenging undertaking that can become even more fraught when the writer faces traumatic memories. The excavation of repressed or unexamined traumatic memory often entails re-experiencing the trauma on some level. Through private and communal acts of turning their experience into art and giving public readings or publishing creative work, veteran writers may come to terms with and deepen their understanding of their military experiences and be able to convey those experiences, if they so choose, to broader publics. The space of the writing workshop is often crucial in this process, along with other practices of understanding and healing that writing group members pursue in their lives. The exchange that occurs when veteran writers are able to receive feedback from other veterans—many of whom can relate to their stories and share similar first-hand narratives—is invaluable. Such discussions may help writers to unearth and make sense of aspects of their experience they had not considered, as well as potentially reshape their understandings of and attitudes toward these experiences. The value of communities of veterans helping other veterans make sense of military experiences and the trauma of war has been well documented in the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay (1995; 2003) and Dr. Edward Tick (2005). … Both Tick and Shay [also] argue that storytelling rituals and acts of engaged listening have real potential to heal the divide between veterans and civilians. In the acts of describing and working to make sense of their experiences of the military, SVWG writers are consciously positioning themselves as societal witnesses to warfare, a role that Tick says is integral to the larger social project of taking responsibility for the costs and consequences of war and beginning to heal from it. The writers in this anthology have gone to great lengths to play a role in that healing process, and we invite readers to join them in a collaborative partnership by reading and thinking deeply about their words and meanings. Reading their work and really listening to their stories is not an easy affair; the voices and images in this collection will no doubt leave their mark on the minds of many readers and prove challenging to some. However, there’s much to be gained in the exchange. Shay argues that “healing from trauma depends upon the communalization of the trauma—being able safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community. So before analyzing, before classifying, before thinking, before trying to do anything—we should listen” (4). In addition to fostering veterans’ healing processes, active listening aids civilians in gaining a deeper appreciation of veterans’ experiences and the complicated processes of reconciliation and adjustment that define reintegration for so many. Listening is also crucial in taking responsibility for our nation’s ongoing global military involvement.

COPING THROUGH ART

"Writing about my military experience and being part of the Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group has had a transformative effect on how I think about myself as a veteran and a writer. Having the support and perspectives of other veteran and military family member writers has enabled me tomore effectively work through some my experiences from my time in the service and make art from them. During my time participating with this group, I have seen how important it is for us to share our stories from different generations and perspectives. It also showed me that it is important to share your art with an audience wider than your own peer group. I often say, without exaggeration that writing has saved my life." --Jennifer Jeffrey, member of the Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group