“The pen is mightier than the sword,” goes the timeworn adage, and for two writing workshops in Waco this June, the pen may help those who have used the sword.
Veteran Writes, a project of Dallas-based The Writer’s Garret, will lead a weekly writing workshop for veterans and their spouses beginning Thursday at the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco and a broader June 18 workshop and panel discussion, “Writing as a Healing Practice,” at the West Waco Library, 5301 Bosque Blvd.
Leading the weekly “Learning to Share Your Story” workshop is Austin writer Leila Levinson, author of the 2013 Texas Nonfiction Book Award finalist “Gated Grief.” Levinson teaches writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin and for three years has led writing workshops for veterans in Austin.
Her family experience got her involved in the subject, she said in a phone interview. Her father, Reuben Levinson, was a World War II Army captain, a surgeon with the Third Army, Seventh Corps, but rarely talked about it.
But Levinson stumbled across a shoebox filled with his war photos one day and discovered a deeper, detailed look at her father’s experience, from the Allied landing at Utah Beach on D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps near the war’s end. She wondered why her father didn’t talk about any of this.
“It was a light-bulb moment,” she recalled.
Levinson later undertook a book project in which she interviewed more than 100 World War II veterans involved in freeing the survivors of Nazi work and death camps. Decades later, some veterans still could not put words to their memories.
“They were clearly still in the grip of the shock and horror of what they had found in the camps,” she said.
But as some veterans talked about their experiences, they discovered ways to process and cope with traumatic memories.
The process of writing can prove healing for veterans with painful memories and suppressed emotions, research suggests, and Levinson, winner of the Military Writers Society’s 2011 President’s Award, thinks the focus needed to describe something in words plays a key role in that healing.
“Mindfulness is a valuable strategy for vets. . . . When you put something on the page, it makes it organized from the swirling chaos of our feelings and memories,” Levinson said.
Waco veteran Robert Cervantes, a research data manager with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Waco and a U.S. Army veteran with two tours of duty in Iraq, is a believer in writing as therapy and plans to attend the June workshop. Cervantes, 42, had two deployments in Baghdad between 2002 and 2008, the first as a private, the second as a noncommissioned officer and each with their own stresses and emotional pressures.
Trained as an artilleryman, Cervantes found his unit assigned to infantry patrol duties, and the experience of front-line combat left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, as the majority of the soldiers he served with. Writing was part of his therapy upon returning and it helped.
“What a vet thinks in his head is not always reality, but built up from that self-talk that we do,” he said. “Those memories tucked away are brought to the surface (in writing), and only by listening to or reliving those deeper memories do you understand that.”
Prompts and exercises
Though attuned to the experiences and perspectives of veterans, Levinson addresses more of the mechanics of writing, using writing prompts and exercises to get workshop participants busy writing rather than second-guessing.
“It’s an irony that we have to have rules to eliminate rule-making,” she said. “There’s no magic to any of this.”
Sometimes writing exercises are shared with others in the group, but often not. What is surprising is that participants often don’t write about their military experiences, Levinson said.
“It’s all over the place. A lot (of participants) ended up writing about childhood stuff or their relationships with their children,” she said.
That is no surprise to Cervantes, who notes that veterans coming home from war are still are individual personalities and each handles problems in his or her way. For some, writing helps. For others, group discussion or activities such as fishing do the trick.
“It’s important to try,” he said.
The June 18 panel discussion, held from 1 to 2:30 p.m., takes a broader look at the healing work of writing, with Levinson joined by authors Jack Woodville London, Ruth Pennebaker and Waco’s Jenuine Poetess.
Poetess, founder of the Waco Poets Society, also is involved with therapeutic creative writing programs for youth at Klaras Center for Families and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department facility in Mart.
Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts are funding the two programs.
“Veteran Writes Workshop: Learning to Share Your Story” will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursdays in June at the Building 91 Conference Room, Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs, 4800 Memorial Drive.
To register for the “Learning to Share Your Story” workshop, go to learningtoshareyourstory. eventbrite.com. For information on the June 18 “Writing as a Healing Practice” discussion, contact Maggie McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.