Koa Books

Veterans of War
Veterans of Peace

How to Build Your Own Veteran Writers Group

Edited by Maxine Hong Kingston

Introductions
How to Build Your Own Veteran Writers Group
Maxine Hong Kingston

Soldiers and refugees are coming home right now in the middle of yet more wars. How to receive them? In response to calls for help, members of our veteran writers workshop have traveled afar to organize groups. But seeing the greatness of the need and the impossibility of being everywhere we’re invited to go, we are assembling this online, how-to manual.

Some eager young vets have started up writers workshops just by having read about them. A group of IVAW write-in-community by emulating Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace and The Fifth Book of Peace, particularly the chapter “Earth.” These books can give you historic background and inspiration.

This online handbook will give practical advice, directions, and exercises.

Please know that the events in our past - the way we perceive them - are mental formations. When we relive them, and shine the light of present consciousness on the past, and write about them, we change the past. Writing is the making of a new mental formation, a more orderly, artistic meaningful one. And it's not only the past that changes but WE, the writer and the listener, change. The breathing, the activities of the body and the mind, as we write, transforms us. I am a different person when I reach the end of the story.

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Anatomy of the Magic of the Vets Writing Days
Miki Kashtan

General schedule (with variations)

Each facilitator tweaks this schedule to fit their style and wishes, but all of us keep these components, as they together create the magic of this group. We mark transitions with a bell that the facilitator rings.

  • 9:00 – 9:30 Schmoozing
  • 9:30 – 9:45 Meditation
  • 9:45 – 11:00 Opening Circle
  • 11:00 – 11:15 Writing Instructions
  • 11:15 – 12:45 Writing in Community (in silence)
  • 12:45 – 1:45 Lunch (first half in silence)
  • 1:45 – 3:00 Reading
  • 3:00 – 3:30 Walking Meditation
  • 3:30 – 4:30 More reading and/or feedback
  • 4:30 – 4:45 Announcements
  • 4:45 – 5:00 Meditation

Schmoozing:

We gather some time before the day begins, and share some morning food. This is the least structured part of the day. As the years continue with our group, it seems this part grows in importance, weaving together the intangible web of community, of love, of care for each other’s joys and pains, or accompanying each other on our life journeys, and of having light conversation and laughter.

Meditation:

We start the official part of the day with a period of silent meditation, varying between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on the facilitator’s personal preference. Sometimes the facilitator gives a little instruction about meditation, especially if many people are new. Often we skip this part. I love how we start with centering inward, connecting with the breath, or the life force in us, with what’s most important, with what helps us remember our core humanity as we prepare for the rest of the day.

Opening Circle:

We continue with a circle of introductions. This is the most challenging part of the day in terms of facilitation, because so many people have so much to share, and if the group is large, as it sometimes is, we end up taking more time than is scheduled, and are then rushed for the rest of the day. My personal preference, and that of some others who have facilitated, is to focus the introductions on a particular question rather than just open ended sharing.

I find this part of the day deeply meaningful. Many of us take emotional risks in revealing experiences that we don’t commonly share with others. It’s the time when I am most aware of how much we trust each other, how much we are willing to be ourselves with each other, dropping some of the masks we wear outside.

Here are some examples of questions that could be used for this part: What has been the focus of your writing since we last met? What have you thought about in terms of how you want to move forward in your life in the new year? What have you learned about yourself since we last met?

Writing Instructions:

After the introductions the facilitator introduces the writing focus for the day. Usually we send these instructions to the group ahead of time. They may include a theme, or some poetry to reflect on and write about, or anything else that the facilitator for the day thinks about that can help focus and sharpen the writing. The writing instructions are an invitation, not an obligation. Anyone is free to write about whatever they want, though most choose the topic.

Writing in Community:

This is the heart of our day. We spread around the house and outside, each person picking a spot that is inspiring, quiet, beautiful, comfortable – whatever will support the creative process we engage in. We do this period in silence. While each of us writes on our own, without explicit communication with others, I am always aware of the mystery of interconnection when we write. I feel myself part of a larger whole that supports me when we write. The history and the dedication to healing and community through the creative process is a large part of what makes this part work.

Lunch:

Sharing food is probably about as ancient as humans are… We all bring food to share, almost all of it is vegetarian to accommodate as many different people are possible. Again, the magic of interconnection is palpable. Without planning anything, the food elements tend to complement each other to create a feast of colors, flavors, and nutrition.

For the first half of the lunch time, we eat in silence. This allows us to focus with greater clarity on the gift of nourishment that food and community bring to us. Then, about half way through the lunch break, we start speaking with each other, following the facilitator’s bell invitation. We then enter again into the unstructured community and friendship building aspect of this day.

Reading:

As many people as possible, depending on group size, read out loud from their writing. Most people read what they wrote during the day, and some read material they bring from home. For myself, I find that the more people write on the topic, and the more of them read what they wrote during the day, the most I experience the magic of interweaving the tapestry of our shared humanity.

Many of us who are part of the group have had traumatic experiences of war or otherwise. I am invariably in awe of the strength of our capacity to invite and make room for all that people have experienced and feel able to bring to others. It is not uncommon for people to cry while they read, or while hearing other people’s writing. We have come to believe, collectively, that sharing our pain and trauma with each other strengthens us both as humans and as writers.

If the group is large, we invite newcomers or people who have not read for a while to be the first to share, and after a while open it up to everyone. We want to hear all voices, without ever putting pressure on anyone to share before they are ready. Sometimes people come several times before they are ready to share.

Walking Meditation:

Most people participate in walking outdoors. We have been blessed with hosts who have a little eucalyptus grove on their property. Walking is done in silence, being mindful and paying close attention to the connection between our steps and the nature surrounding us. We walk more slowly than the usual pace, so that our awareness and focus can be heightened. Some people stay inside and rest or do walking meditation indoors, which is even slower-paced. This period is a time to integrate and compost internally all that we heard during the reading time.

Feedback:

Often we still have more people who want to share what they wrote, and we give this priority. As the group has grown, this part of the day has suffered the most. When we get to share feedback, we focus mostly on how the writing has affected us rather than on critique or suggestions on the writing. Despite the lack of formal instruction and feedback on the writing, my own experience of participating in this group for over fourteen years is that the quality of all of our writing has improved over the years. I attribute this result to the quality of love, to the healing, and to the learning that happens simply when we know how much our writing can move others.

Announcements:

This is a time for people to share about events and happenings that may be of interest to others in the group. This ranges from personal celebrations (e.g. having one’s story published) to invitations to participate in projects and other events. There is no particular structure, and the only role of the facilitator here is to ensure that we move forward without getting too deeply into discussion about any of the topics raised during this time.

Closing Meditation:

We end the day with one more period of sitting meditation. This is an opportunity to come back inside, to take in and connect with all that has happened and bring it back to the simple focus on the breath or any other internal focus each of us has. This is an opportunity to come back to ourselves before going back home to live our lives until we come together again.

After the meditation some people leave and some people linger and schmooze. We love each other, and often find it difficult to leave.

 

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Everything Is Optional
Gregory Ross

This is what we do: Four times a year, roughly around the beginning of each season, we meet for most of a day in a beautiful house atop a hill overlooking a peaceful little green valley with horses running around [this is optional, we just happen to be lucky]. We start by “milling around” [a military term for hanging out].We greet each other and welcome newcomers. We eat. We settle into seats. Then we meditate and check in.

Next we have a short discussion about the topic [optional] of the meeting which has been set by the person brave and/or foolish enough to volunteer to facilitate. With everyone clear on the theme [optional], we meditate before we go write for about 1.5 hours. After that we meditate before we eat an always awesome vegetarian pot luck meal [again optional, again lucky].

After we reassemble, we take turns reading our writings if we are so inclined and then we do a walking meditation, after which, with the remaining time we offer/receive feedback on our writings. In closing we take a few minutes for announcements and business then we meditate. There is more milling around as we reluctantly leave.

Did I mention we meditate?

 

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Share Pain, Heal

I would have appreciated the existence of a manual before my first meeting in 1998. I had no idea what to expect from that meeting, nor the group. Years later, it seems to me that everyone in the group has either been there from the beginning or entered through a multitude of connections and interconnections. To the best of my knowledge, I am one of a very small faction that brought themselves to this group.

In spring of 1998, I read an article in the Berkeley Monthly. The author had interviewed Maxine, Ann Marks, and Charlie Motz, who I did not get to meet before he died. The article detailed a gathering and process that felt hopeful. I had been helped by all the Veterans Administration and Veterans Assistance Center programs and rap groups I could stand, not to mention civilian talk therapies, hypnotism, Feldenkrais, meditation, Rolfing, consciousness groups and psychedelics. I still felt the need to be heard by someone who understood.

I called the Berkeley Monthly and asked them to forward a letter to the author, in which I asked the author to forward an enclosed letter to Maxine asking her if I could join the group. I had no idea what that meant: to join the group. I thought they, whoever they were, might say no.

So, I put samples of my writing and a self-addressed stamped envelope into a large manila envelope and sent them to the Berkeley Monthly. Then for my sanity, I promptly forgot about the whole thing.

In august, I got a letter with one of my address stickers from a total stranger named Bob Golling, Jr., from Loomis, California, and I thought, Who the hell is this Bob Golling, Jr., from Loomis, California, and how did he get one of my stickers? When I read the letter, I was both elated and anxious.

In September, I followed the directions to Marge’s and Bill’s house. I almost missed Sanders Road. I double checked the map at the junction of Sanders, Kennedy, and Barnett Valley. I hesitated at the mailboxes, again at their driveway, and then at the door, but I knocked, waited, and then walked into a room full of complete and utter strangers. A manual would have been highly valued at that moment.

This is what happened: After a short while, a couple of people introduced themselves. Eventually I was introduced to more people; then the meeting started. That very first group, amongst these strangers, I wrote about coming home. When I read, I started to cry and Marge put her hand on my shoulder. I don’t remember much else about that day, other than thinking; this is what I have been longing for.

The task of the manual has made me realize I can’t codify the depth of feelings that brought me to this group, nor that have unfolded over the last ten years. So, this is the counsel I have for anyone seeking a gathering similar to this one: Listen to your pain. Let it lead you to those who share it, that you may help each other heal.

 

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Haiku
Dennis Fritzinger

 

whose workshop is this?
gautama smiles, instructing
the bees and flowers

 

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writing group
Dennis Fritzinger

summer. the house is the same,
a little bit older (like us).
but it doesn't show.
the garden has no idea.
the eucalyptus trees
continue their slow takeover.
the raptors have a memory
but the insects don't.
food, as always.
coffee, as always.
writing, announcements,
our family of the pen
gathered one more time.
so far we're fairly intact,
have only a few casualties.
we live in the moment.
here, have an olive. here,
try some of this bread.
how's the coffee? good.
do you like the roses?
they're from a neighbor.
words. words on paper.
words floated into the air. words
are our swords, our shields.
we know one life, and that's
the life of words.

 

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meditation
Dennis Fritzinger

meditation: i sit up straight
pay attention to my breathing
notice everyone else
sitting up straight and breathing
my eyes shift to outside
where june pours its gold on the trees
and the crows are making noise
and hawks are riding thermals
i think about the house
how it's a container
squatting on the hillside
with no say over its contents
or maybe it's a ship
and we are its lucky passengers
the wind moves us along
to where we are going
which happens to be 5 o'clock
an airplane passes overhead
my ears like the ears of a dog
perk up and follow it
or someone flushes a toilet
or a phone rings and i'm there
invisible as whitman
i think about the shared oxygen
and carbon dioxide
my eyes glance at the trees
the plants with their purple flowers
and all the green grasses
i notice i have slumped
and straighten up a little
and when the padded wooden stick
hits the bronze bowl
resting on the flat of a hand
to signal meditation's end
i get up from my seat
and put on my thoughts one by one
that i took off
when i sat down

Dennis Fritzinger

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