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Workshopping the Next Generation of American War Literature

ISSUE:  Spring 2010

In addition to precipitating the Baby Boom, the rise of the suburbs, the expansion of higher education, and a growing sophistication of the national palate, the flood of soldiers returning home after the end of World War II had a signal impact on American literature. More than sixty years after the end of the war, the work of writers such as Joseph Heller, Howard Nemerov, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Randall Jarrell, and Norman Mailer continue to be read in graduate seminars, book clubs, and high school classrooms across the country. 

The connection between war and writing is as old as literature itself. The experience of war provides aspiring writers with a venerated subject, as well as a sense of legitimacy and gravitas. At the same time, writing about war can give soldiers a chance to organize and make meaning from what is a fundamentally chaotic experience. As the former Poet Laureate and WWII veteran Richard Wilbur reflected in an interview for the NEA’s Operation Homecoming documentary: “If you’re a soldier existing under combat conditions or threatened with combat conditions, you’re going to feel rather disrupted. You’ll be disrupted by fear and uncertainty and simply the strangeness of fighting a war. And writing poems is a way, a small way, to put some of your life and mind in order.”

Following the path blazed by World War II veterans, a number of more recent American writers have used their experiences in the Vietnam War as a source of inspiration. As Tobias Wolff, a Vietnam veteran and longtime professor of creative writing at Stanford University, put it in the same documentary:

I’d always known I would wear the uniform. It was essential to my idea of legitimacy. The men I’d respected when growing up had all served, and most of the writers I looked up to: Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Erich Maria Remarque, and of course, Hemingway, to whom I turned for guidance in all things. Military service was not an incidental part of their histories. They were unimaginable apart from it.

While the Vietnam War is associated most closely with films—like “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Apocalypse Now”—the end of the war also saw an outpouring of important work by veteran writers, books such as Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army, Yusuf Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

After nearly a decade of US soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems reasonable to ask: where is the literature of our current conflicts? Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet, garnered praise when it came out in 2005, and a number of veterans have published memoirs (Melia Meichelbock’s In the Company of Soldiers, Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away, and John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, to name a few). But aside from these and a smattering of shorter works, the literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has yet to emerge.

Perhaps the basic circumstances of military service now differ from those of the last century. As Robert Olen Butler, a professor of creative writing at Florida State University and a Vietnam veteran, pointed out, the lack of a draft fundamentally changes the composition of the military:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

Perhaps today’s literarily inclined veterans are drawn to other, more contemporary forms of expression. And indeed, posting on Facebook and blogging from the field are so common among soldiers that the military recently decided to clamp down on such pursuits.

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of time. Some of the best American war literature took decades to emerge. A Farewell to Arms came out in 1929, more than a decade after the armistice treaty, and Catch-22 wasn’t published until sixteen years after Japan surrendered on the decks of the USS Missouri. 

Whenever this generation of veterans begins writing, many will have to contend with something Hemingway and Heller never did: the MFA workshop. Although graduate creative writing programs have been around since the GI Bill, this generation of veterans will be the first to filter through the MFA workshop en masse.

Flip to the author biography of any novel, collection of short stories, or collection of poetry published in the past decade and more often than not you will see the three letters, MFA, signifying a Master of Fine Arts degree. MFA programs are a boon to aspiring writers who want time to write, an opportunity to study and network with “real writers,” and a chance to put off “real life” for another few years. And university administrators, seeing low overhead, high profit margins, and an expanded crop of teaching assistants, have responded to the demand for MFA programs with great enthusiasm. In his recent book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl, a professor at UCLA, writes that the number of graduate creative writing programs in the United States grew nearly sevenfold between 1975 and 2005, from fifty-two to more than three hundred and fifty. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on whom you ask.

Critics of the “MFA aesthetic” assail the workshop’s homogenizing nature, its focus on craft and career as opposed to vision and imagination. In the eyes of its detractors, D. W. Fenza wrote in The Writer’s Chronicle, MFA writing workshops are “places where the fog of spiritual malaise is so thick that one’s own self becomes the only reference point—a self misled by the disembodied discussions of technique and careerism that drift over the seminar table.” Former University of Michigan professor John W. Aldrige called MFA programs a vast “assembly line” that produces “small, sleek, clonal fabrications of literature.” The implicit contrast here is to writers like Whitman, Twain, and Hemingway, writers who really “lived” before they started writing. As Poetry Foundation President John Barr wrote,

Each year, MFA programs graduate thousands of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think that writing poetry has something to do with credentials. The effect of these programs on the art form is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety . . . Will the next Walt Whitman be an MFA graduate? Somehow it seems hard to imagine.

In lamenting the rise of the MFA and the demise of literary authenticity, critics like Barr, Aldrige, and Thomas Wolfe—whose 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” argued for a return to reportage-driven realism—seem to imply that MFA programs have domesticated American literature. In doing so, they fall (wittingly or unwittingly) into a dichotomy first articulated seventy years ago by literary critic Philip Rahv. In his seminal essay, “Paleface and Redskin,” originally published in the Kenyon Review, Rahv contends that American writers “tend to group themselves around two polar types,” palefaces and redskins:

Consider the immense contrast between the drawing-room fictions of Henry James and the open air poems of Walt Whitman. Compare Melville’s decades of loneliness, his tragic failure, with Mark Twain’s boisterous career and dubious success. At one pole there is the literature of the lowlife world of the frontier and of the big cities; at the other the thin, solemn, semi-clerical culture of Boston and Concord. The fact is that the creative mind in America is fragmented and one-sided. For the process of polarization has produced a dichotomy between experience and consciousness.

These days, Rahv’s dichotomy isn’t so clear cut. As New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani rightly pointed out in an April 2000 essay:

It’s clear now that the most exciting writers at work today—both in the United States and abroad—have transcended Rahv’s great artistic schism and done so with remarkable energy and élan. Such masters of the contemporary novel as Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie—along with a new generation of writers like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith—have discovered a myriad of ways to fuse the cerebral and the visceral, the high and the low, the world of ideas and the world of raw experience.

But the basic divide between experience and consciousness still retains authority. Although its contours have shifted somewhat, the paleface/redskin dynamic continues to play out in American literature, especially in the MFA workshop.

In critiquing the self-reflective careerism of MFA programs, the aforementioned critics seem to imply that the writing workshop is an inherently paleface institution, a sterile factory for the production of highly-refined, interior work about the tragedies that punctuate our daily lives. The contemporary redskin, meanwhile, is heralded for exploring the rugged terrain of experience. While many present-day redskin writers have MFAs, they tend to cultivate outsider identities, tracing their pedigrees through famously individualist writers such as Whitman, Twain, Mailer, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, writers who cut their teeth on the battlefield and the wide open spaces of the frontier. Writing about war tends, by virtue of its inherent danger and externality, to fall in the redskin camp. Even those writers who focus on the more interior, meditative aspects of war—writers such as Anthony Swofford and Richard Wilbur—often find themselves grouped with redskin writers like Tim O’Brien and Denis Johnson.

One might assume that introducing a generation of recently returned veterans to the MFA workshop could precipitate a grand clash of redskins and palefaces, with the muddy combat boots of experience tromping through the tastefully decorated drawing room of interiority. In reality, the combination of warriors and workshops has produced a more subtle tension.

The fundamental challenge of writing about war is to translate an indescribable experience into language. As Gabe Hudson, the author of Dear Mr. President and a former rifleman in the Marines, wrote in a recent email:

Writing war fiction is nearly impossible. The word ‘war’ is primordial—it’s stitched into our DNA—and no matter what you think of war, the word itself is somehow sacred. The word ‘war’ represents language on the far edge of what language can do, trying to name what can’t be named.

Although Hudson is a creative writing professor himself and expressed great gratitude for the support he received while pursuing his MFA at Brown, he is skeptical about the value of an MFA workshop for a recently returned veteran. “The academy and the composition of war literature isn’t necessarily a natural fit,” he wrote. “There’s the danger that workshops might bleed your work of its requisite edge, or that your personal workshop ecosystem isn’t equipped to nurture your artistic vision.”

For his part, Robert Olen Butler sees no inherent disjuncture between MFA workshops and writing about war. He worries, however, that recently returned veterans might not have enough distance from their wartime experience. “The vets I’ve had, their experience has been too close to them. They have not forgotten enough. It took me eight years to be able to write well about Vietnam,” he said. “I needed every minute of it, to assimilate into my unconscious the abiding and important essence of my experience.”

But what do they, the writing student-veterans themselves, have to say about their MFA programs? Most I spoke to for this essay emphasized the highly professional, supportive nature of their workshops. “Everybody has something unique to bring to the workshop,” said Brian Van Reet, a first year MFA student at the Michener Center in Austin who spent a year with the 1st Calvary Division near Baghdad. “I’ve mostly just felt really accepted. The nervousness of workshopping a story is the same no matter what you’re writing about.” In his workshop at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Vietnam veteran and poet George Kovach said that “the discussion was always focused on the work itself, and that suits me fine.” Describing his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Roman Skaskiw said. “It was awesome. The best couple years of my life. I had a full beard, a pot smoking girlfriend, and a profound visceral distrust for my government.”

For these individual writers, the primary challenge of the MFA workshop has been the alienation that comes from writing about an experience unfamiliar to the rest of the workshop. Roy Scranton, an Iraq War veteran who has participated in graduate level writing classes at the New School, found it hard to workshop writing “no one else in the room can relate to.”

If you’re workshopping a love story that’s one thing. If you are workshopping about an experience no one can relate to, it seems like you are really going uphill . . . [In] some of these classes I was the only vet in the room and I felt as if I was representing the entire war experience, what it was like for all vets.

Brian Van Reet compared his experience in workshops at the University of Missouri to that of a classmate from Kenya. “She was writing about stuff that was foreign to most of the people in the workshop. In a way I’m writing about a foreign culture too.” That ability to make the foreign feel intimate, Van Reet reflected, to bridge the gap between the reader and page, is a mark of good writing. 

The “foreignness” of military life combined with a proliferation of stereotypes about war, however, can create strong expectations about what war writing should be. In his workshops at the New School, for example, Roy Scranton said he found a “tendency to expect trauma narrative.”

I’ve had difficult experiences with a couple teachers, who thought they knew how I should write about it. They hadn’t had the experience themselves but they thought they knew all about it. One wanted more violence. Another one saw everything through the framework of combat and recovery.

“There is so much pressure on your memories,” said Roman Skaskiw. “So much expectation that you will be a victim or a hero.” In his first workshop at Iowa, he recalled, a classmate went so far as to challenge the veracity of the details in his story. “She said ‘You are using the wrong terms for military stuff’ and said you need to live an experience before you write about it.” When Skaskiw informed her that he had just returned from four and a half years as a rifle platoon leader and a company executive officer in Iraq, the classmate retracted her critique.

Some writers who are veterans would just as soon shed the label “veteran writer” altogether. Blaine Graves Garrison, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program and a former naval officer, wrote about this issue in a recent email: “For the same reasons that it is inadequate to exclusively group and understand writers based on their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc., I resist the phrase ‘veteran writer.’” Mark McGurl addresses this question directly in The Program Era, writing about the emergence of “a virtual cultural identity emanating from the authoritative experience of war.” It is thus, he writes, “that we can speak of Tim O’Brien . . . as a Vietnam-American writer, in the sense that the psychic wounds inflicted on him in his year of combat have become foundational to a career in the same way that Roth’s Jewishness has.” For veterans of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this “virtual cultural identity,” reinforced in the context of the MFA workshop, might be difficult to shed, particularly if the publishing industry retains its obsessions with news hooks and the memoir of trauma.

One could argue all day about the influence of MFA programs on American war literature. Meanwhile, the workshop model is spreading, albeit in a somewhat modified form. In the past few years, veterans-only writing workshops have sprung up in VA centers and military bases across the country. Ranging from national programs such as the NEA’s Operation Homecoming and the IVAW’s Warrior Writer Project to smaller, local programs like the veterans workshop at NYU, these workshops focus on building community and getting the story out, for therapeutic as well as literary purposes.

“The most important thing about this kind of a workshop,” said Lauren McClung, who taught NYU’s veterans writing workshop last year, “was sitting together and being able to talk about the war, their family lives, their personal lives. Having that connection with each other was the most powerful thing about the workshop.” In such a context, the sense of community is not incidental to the production of literature. Roy Scranton, who participated in McClung’s workshop, said that while the participants had vastly different levels of experience “all of them brought a desire to connect and a willingness to talk about what happened. That sense of community really made it work.” Sally Drumm, the founder of the Milspeak Creative Writing Seminars in South Carolina, does not see her class as therapeutic per se. However, she said “I’m a firm believer in the power of narrative writing to heal wounds of memory . . . It helps people to survive. We learned through the Vietnam vets what happens when people are silent. We can’t let that happen to this new generation of vets.”

This desire to connect is at the heart of all literature, no matter the context of its production. And it applies to readers as well as writers. The literature about war allows readers to see the human face of events that have been reduced to headlines and body counts. After nearly a decade of fighting, we can forget that our country is at war on multiple fronts. Even when we remember, we are disconnected from the fear and uncertainty and strangeness of fighting a war. Reading the work of veterans, said Jon Peede, director of Operation Homecoming, helps “the American public to understand war on an intimate level. They see the crawler across the CNN screen, they read a newspaper headline about an IED in a city they aren’t familiar with; that’s much different than reading a memoir about who those seven marines were who died.” The effect of the writing workshop on the next generation of American war literature remains to be seen. But no matter where they are written—in an MFA program, a VA center, or the reading room of a public library—the stories and poems of our veterans are an essential piece of understanding who we are, as a country at war and as the citizens in whose name the wars are waged.


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