This month, my story “War Happens” comes out in the anthology Red, White, & True. I wrote the story for this back in 2012, and it went through something like four revisions. Considering the amount of revision I had to do, I was amazed it got accepted in the first place!
The original version was 1,500 words, and the final version was over 3,000. Part of it was that Tracy Crow kept saying to go deeper. That part was really hard for me. I hadn’t really written about the war like that before, and there are places I still don’t want to venture.
But I’d thought about writing about war. It’s like I wanted to purge myself of the poison of whatever war is. But I was still in the army at the time, and they wouldn’t have done too well if I’d wrote about the not so good sides of war. But fiction, I was safer. Put in a fantasy world, and it wasn’t real, except in the story.
That caused me to veer into quite dark territory in my fiction writing, and I was completely unaware of it. By dark, usually things were resolved for the main character, but not overall in the story. Like in a recent science fiction story that just got rejected again, the army decided to experiment with making soldiers cyborgs. One of the characters volunteered, and then couldn’t get out of it when things didn’t work the way she wanted. The army was disappointed with the volunteer rates and decided to order everyone to do it. The first sergeant gives all his soldiers an “out” before they’re forced to do this, and the main character is able to escape, but the army was still doing the experiment.
That’s a lot of the way I felt as a private. Mission first, private second to last, and woman soldier last. Because sometimes something would happen, and the results wouldn’t be right, and all you could do was accept it. In the last months before I transferred from Fort Lewis, we had a terrible platoon sergeant. She was so bad that it was going to be either the transfer or I would get out. In a job, you could quit and go somewhere else. In the army, you’re stuck.
And the first sergeant thought it was a big joke, that she really wasn’t that bad. So he didn’t do anything, and all of us suffered in frustration and anger. My own squad leader (who I was older than at that point) would come back from meetings with the platoon sergeant and take her anger out on me. Not cool. But she was in charge, and I really couldn’t say anything.
It wasn’t until all the sergeants got fed up and mutinied against the platoon sergeant that something was finally done. The sergeants had been plotting and documented everything, and the platoon sergeant was gone.
I think in my writing, I’d sort of been dancing around this darkness. But once I had to write “War Happens,” I dove right into it. The story was about a friendship that was destroyed by the war, and I wrote it in one sitting.
I remember when the first request came back for editing, I thought I knew the place she was talking about. I went in and fixed it, thought all was well. Then Tracy came back again and wanted more about the experience. At that time, I had just taken a workshop in writing where my strengths were analyzed (workshop was discontinued after three sessions, but is coming back in a different form). One of the things I found out was that I entirely left setting out of my stories. So this time, when the revisions were supposed to go deeper, I understand instantly what they were looking for and what the story wasn’t doing.
But it was so hard actually doing it. There was a part of me that didn’t want to wreck the original story and what I’d done with it. But there was another part of me that was dragged into kicking and screaming, because it was much safer for me not to go into that much detail. Details meant more of the experience — both to the reader, and to me, and I tapped into things that I’d forgotten, sometimes willingly.
The deadline was tighter, too. I dropped everything else and worked on only it for an entire I think. It was exhausting writing it, and I was never more grateful to look at it and realize I was done. Then I noticed it had doubled in size!
It had also changed quite drastically (I’m an organic writer, so this is common when I write). So that little devil popped onto my shoulder and suggested that I might have changed it too much, because it was still like the original and not like the original. I plopped into an email, pretended like my head wasn’t screaming “You screwed it up!” and sent it. Everyone was happy with it. Only minor edits to clean stuff up after that.
Earlier this year, I had a review done of my writing, which is different from a critique. I’d had one done before, but this time, everyone told me I was writing really dark. I knew instantly that goes back to being in Desert Storm. I’m now now working on shifting my writing to be lighter and happier.
War has a very curious legacy.
Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present
Edited and with an introduction by Tracy Crow
Available from Amazon
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Even as we celebrate the return of our military from wars in the Middle East, we are becoming increasingly aware of the struggles that await veterans on the home front. Red, White, and True offers readers a collection of voices that reflect the experiences of those touched by war—from the children of veterans who encounter them in their fathers’ recollections of past wars to the young men and women who fought in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The diversity of perspectives collected in this volume validates the experiences of our veterans and their families, describing their shared struggles and triumphs while honoring the fact that each person’s military experience is different.
Leila Levinson’s powerful essay recounts her father’s experience freeing a POW camp during World War II. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder provides a chilling account of being a new second lieutenant in Vietnam. Army combat veteran Brooke King recounts the anguish of raising her young children by day while trying to distinguish between her horrific memories of IED explosions in Baghdad and terrifying dreams by night.
These individual stories of pain and struggle, along with twenty-nine others, illustrate the inescapable damage that war rends in the fabric of society and celebrate our dauntless attempts to repair these holes with compassion and courage.