How to Build Your Own Veteran Writers Group
Edited by Maxine Hong Kingston
the workshop day, we hope to learn to truly listen to one another.
There are two sessions when we intensely practice listening. In the
morning, each of the circle of participants introduces himself or
herself to the rest of the group, “checks in” by telling everyone
how he or she is feeling. In the afternoon, writers read their
stories and poems to the group. We prepare to listen by evoking
Avalokiteshvara, the buddha of compassionate listening:
evoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of
listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You
know how to listen in order to understand. We evoke your name in
order to practice listening with all our attention and
open-heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We
shall sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and
listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively
that we will be able to hear
the other person is saying and also what has been left unsaid. We
know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal
of pain and suffering in the other person.
the sound of the Bell of Mindfulness, our ears awaken.
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exercise: I try to really listen during the go-around and not sit
here thinking what I'm going to say when it's my turn.
will I be able to do this?
look around the room, and except for a couple of newbies, all I see
is familiar faces. Suddenly I'm more interested in hearing what
they've been up to than ever before. (And the newbies--I want to hear
their stories too.)
it has something to do with the weather—today is gorgeous. Plenty
of sun, just a touch of wind, flowers blooming. No hawks though
(there’re usually hawks—where have they all gone?). The
eucalyptus stand together in their separate groves, hatching plots or
energy permitting (the go-around takes a long time), I do manage to
listen. To the stories, at least. (And everybody here is an expert
listening deeply isn't hard at all—when I want to, when I'm not
trying to frame everything that's being said, when I'm not trying to
make poetry out of it.
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i am the bell
bowl you call
hit me with.
say things like
take a breath now,
clear our minds
we can listen afresh
the next reader."
empty our minds now.
have a long day
had a long day.
empty our minds
we can process what we heard."
am the bell.
why i am.
am the bell.
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November 17, 2007
Silence. Being Still. Doing Nothing.
This is one of the most
powerful aspects of our discipline in the Veterans Writers Group.
How can silence, doing nothing, be so powerful? In the silence, you
can hear everything. More, you can hear nothing.
I will give two
examples. The first is a positive example of the proper use of
silence. The second is a negative example of what happens when
silence is needed but not used.
In our group one
meeting, Pauline Laurent read her story about hearing of her
husband’s death in Viet Nam. We heard her describe in very
personal detail the premonition, the Army representatives coming to
her door, greeting her, telling her, “We regret to inform you that
your husband, Sergeant Howard E. Querry, was fatally wounded…”
She described saying, “Dead? Is he dead?”, the room spinning,
the daze of the following moments, retreating to her room, feeling
herself die inside. It was an intense story. A moment after Pauline
finished her story, the facilitator invited (gently rang) the Zen
mindfulness bell. This was the signal for silence. We sat in
silence. Pauline’s story hung in the air. The hurt was raw, the
feelings deep. As we sat in silence, the feelings washed through us.
We felt the hurt, but there was nothing that needed to be done about
it. Feeling was enough. The feeling moved through us. In a minute
or so, it had found it’s place in each of us. Pauline’s story
was heard, the feelings felt. It was so.
Once the feelings
settled in us, the facilitator invited the bell again. This brought
us back to the room, the present, where we were. We were ready for
the next person to read their story. Silence had done it’s work.
At a different event,
Keith Mather and I were part of public reading of our work by several
in our group. We sat together in a line and read to an audience.
Keith read us his story of how, after resisting the Army and war and
deserting to Canada, he and a friend went out one day to hunt food
for their commune in the backwoods of British Columbia. In the bush
they were surprised and confronted by a large black bear, and true to
his Army training, Keith fired his rifle as threatening targets
presented themselves. When the running and the shooting were over,
three bears lay dead, a mother and two cubs. It wasn’t his plan,
but it was what happened. Keith concluded by reading, “I had
refused to kill. I had left my country and was in exile because of
my refusal, yet I had killed.”
Being a fellow Army
deserter, it was an intense moment for me. I was sitting next to
Keith and was next in line to read. I looked at Keith. I felt
uncomfortable. The irony struck close to home. Instantly, I opened
my book and began to read. I read my story, and it went OK. But
something wasn’t quite right. Feelings unfinished hung in the air.
I knew I had done something wrong. But it was done. There was a
moment of silence after my reading, and the room readjusted and
rebalanced itself. For most of the people, things moved on and it
But not for me. I knew
I had done something wrong. Feelings remained unfinished. Thinking
about it later, I realized that I had wanted to escape from the
feelings, rather than deal with the feelings and issues that Keith’s
experience brought up for me. Had I let there be a moment of
silence, the silence would have let the feelings find their place in
me, in Keith, and in others. But I hadn’t done that. Because I
felt uncomfortable, I jumped in immediately and started reading my
story, thus interrupting the process of allowing peace, acceptance,
to enter. Months later, I talked to Keith about this and apologized
to him. Only then did it feel complete.
Silence is the power of
In silence, you can
hear. You can feel. You can experience presence, being aware in the
present moment. In silence, you accept what is.
In silence, you feel
your reactions to the story. You feel the story go through you.
Your feelings have space to accept the story, for the story to find
it’s place in you. In silence, there is no judgment or need for
judgment. There is no debate, right or wrong, or opinion. I, self,
opinion, the expression of ego, is suspended. There is simple
presence. In allowing this, in allowing the story to go through you,
you also accept the other person. Thus, in silence everyone can be
accepted without judgment. This is where the healing is.
Others have also tried
to form groups of veterans to promote healing. Some groups
succeeded, others failed. I have heard of groups that fell apart due
to deeply felt differences of opinion, of perception of intense
events in the past, which hurt them in the present. We also have had
our differences of opinion, differences of perception of intense
events in the past, which still hurt horribly in the present. But in
silence, we didn’t have to be right or wrong, we could simply be.
Each person could be heard. Each person could be heard without the
need for judgment, simply heard.
In the end, it’s not
about right or wrong. It’s about being, existence, truth not in
opinion, but truth in felt experience. Hearing this, accepting this,
accepting each other, our group survived, thrived, and most
This is the essence of
silence in the group.
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