In an earlier post, I gave one of the reasons for attending writing conferences is to learn how to improve our craft. I had not expected to learn more ways to help a soldier at the 2010 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Denver, CO. Yet the best session on Memoir, that I attended at the conference, was presented by the MilSpeak Foundation–which taught me about craft and helping soldiers.
The Milspeak Foundation grew out of a series of writing seminars, started and led by former Marines, to help soldiers and their families process the traumatic events they had witnessed as part of their service. The level of art revealed during these classes inspired the seminar leaders to share the writings with people who have no military background. The Foundation now leads free creative writing seminars across the country, and provides a venue for publishing high-quality writing about the military and military family experience.
While the less worthwhile AWP sessions on memoir consisted of writers saying how tricky a certain issue can be, and then reading passages from their own books where they struggled with the issue (and, in my opinion, were still struggling), the Milspeak session offered concrete suggestions on unlocking memories and creating graceful writing.
We can use these techniques to help ourselves write well. To do this, put your left brain in the role of leader and your right brain in the role of reluctant writer. Here is a technique that the MilSpeak panelists said they use for unlocking memories:
- The most dramatic incidents brought up during the MilSpeak seminars were often the ones that the student writer quickly glossed over. The leader encourages the writer to choose that incident to describe on paper.
- The writer might respond with a single sentence about the incident. The leader then asks, “What happened as a result of that incident?” Now the writer creates a few sentences.
- “Can you add some details about what it smelled like?” The sentences are expanded into two paragraphs.
- Over several days, the leader encourages the writer with specific cues. “Describe what it looked like.” “Describe what it sounded like.”
- Then the most frightening part of the writing–“Tell us what it felt like.”
- Finally, the healing comes in as the leader asks the writer, “Now, tell us what is important about how this makes you feel.” (Note, no one implied that the healing is complete; it is more a matter of integrating current life with past scars).
The MilSpeak session at AWP began with dramatic readings from several veterans, spouses, and non-military seminar leaders. Their interplay of ideas, attitudes, and experiences forced tears from many of the listeners. You can purchase an anthology of these writings from Amazon , or download it as an e-book, for FREE, from the MilSpeak Foundation website.
Now, create some strong writing by unlocking your own difficult memories.