The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Writing through the Darkest Hour

In The Things They Carried, author and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien uses fiction to explore war's truths and half-truths, searing memories and distorted perspectives, and its tangle of obscenities and fears. While reading O'Brien's raw, blunt narrative can be a jarring  experience, it also contains a therapeutic element for the author. As O'Brien writes, "It occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others." Later in the book, he notes that, "Stories can save us."

No one is more familiar with the saving grace of writing than Ron Capps. Capps, a veteran whom we profiled in a recent issue of NEA Arts, quite literally saved his own life by writing about his wartime experiences and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since then, he has dedicated his life to helping others make sense of the memories that threaten to disrupt or destroy their lives. He conducts in-patient writing workshops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and in 2011, he founded the Veterans Writing Project in Washington, DC. Last May, the Veterans Writing Project published the first volume of its literary journal O-Dark-Thirty, which features fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from veterans and members of the military community.

In honor of Memorial Day and this morning's launch of Blue Star Museums, we wanted to pay tribute to the men and women who are brave enough not only to fight for our country, but to lay themselves emotionally bare by sharing their personal stories. The following poem by Paul L. Greenberg appeared in the second edition of O-Dark-Thirty, and offers a beautiful portrayal of the physical, mental, and emotional toll that war can take.

Gunnery Sergeant Stark

By Paul L. Greenberg

You stop your wheelchair at the corner,
violent hacking from your throat
and dust belches out
Dust from the deserts of Al Anbar
Dust from the plains of Djibouti
Dust from the mountains of Helmand

You shake in your chair as the spasm
rattles your torso
and the stubs of your thighs
bounce on the edge of your chair

The fleshy fissures in your forehead
trace the sleepless nights
the sleepless years
of humps, ranges, patrols
of courage anger fear
cigarettes and canned beer
rifles grenades pistols knives
angry ex-wives
and children
who call
to ask you for money
and reproach you
for things you can’t remember

Paul Greenberg is an avid fiction writer, English teacher, and performance artist. He has taught ESL in South Korea, Morocco, and most recently in Rangoon, Burma. He has served in U.S. military on both the active and reserve side for 15 years, and currently resides in North Carolina.

Be on the lookout for the next volume of O-Dark-Thirty, which will be released on Memorial Day.

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