Monday, November 26, 2007

In the lines of fire
Soldiers take to fiction writing contest to help combat the stress of war

By Danielle M. Capalbo writing in The Boston Globe this past weekend.

Since March, Bowie Sessions has worked with the 28th Combat Support Hospital at an emergency room in Baghdad. There, the 23-year-old Army medic treats wounded combatants and civilians, he said, so they can live to surgery. In the end, he and his colleagues can't save every life.
"I can't tell you how many men I've watched die," he wrote. "How many black bags I've pulled up the zippers of."
When the day is done, Sessions leaves the ER to return to his quarters, a tent he shares with 30 other men, around which massive blast shields protect the medics from mortars or improvised explosive devices. Then, he writes by e-mail, he carries a folding chair from beside his cot to the hallways of a building nearby. Settled, he opens his laptop, and types well into the night, writing page after page of his novel.
His goal is to write 3,000 words a night. At that pace, he'll have all the words he needs by deadline: 50,000 by Nov. 30.
Sessions is among a booming group of military personnel on tour of duty who have taken the challenge of National Novel Writing Month. More than 96,000 adults across 73 countries are registered for the event, an ambitious call for anyone, anywhere to start and finish a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. This year the story isn't necessarily the numbers - of words or participants - but the places: Writers are popping up on US military bases in foreign countries.
War has long given rise to literature, transforming the men and women it affects into haunting, haunted storytellers, the bearers of a complex horror, from the scribes of ancient war texts to Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien. "Why do people write about war?" said Charles S. Maier, a professor of history at Harvard University. "The same reason they write about love: It's a big experience."

To make sense of the experience and depart from the monotony of war every day, Major Brad Leighton said he encourages troops to be creative.
"We want them to express themselves and tell people how they feel, even if it's just for themselves, just writing a journal," said Leighton, a press desk officer from Claremont, N.H., stationed in Baghdad. Leighton is a writer himself, with 12 years of experience reporting and editing as a journalist, understands the value of process. "This is something that's going to be a part of their lives that, for good or bad, will always stick with them."

Informed by warNaNoWriMo, as it's called, doesn't demand that troops address war. Their options are expansive, from sci-fi to comedy or romance. But striking a balance between their intense day jobs and exquisite literary expression often transcends a simple equilibrium. The daily experience of war can't help but inform their stories.
"The man wasn't sure what he was searching for, but he knew that it wasn't here; some kind of answer. Maybe he was looking for some kind of explanation for all this, maybe they hoped Chance had come back."
By the glow of his laptop, Sessions, who is from Oakland, Calif., churns out pieces of his novel - "a dystopian modern fantasy," he wrote, in which massive tears in the fabric of reality release a horde of demons into the world. In turn, everyone entrusts their world's fate to a strange benefactor who calls himself Chance.

Already, his story has seen the effects of his grisly work in the emergency room. In a scene excerpted in his profile at NaNoWri, the protagonist discovers a bloodbath on a train car, bodies strewn about, with ghastly sights and smells that Sessions vividly narrates. "Something I wouldn't have so easily been able to describe [before]," he said.
Specialist Eric Rutherford, 30, of Salem, Ore., says writing a novel about zombies helps him cope with the painful images he must capture as an Army photojournalist with the 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. Not everything Rutherford photographs is carnage, he said, and the specialist strives to illuminate and preserve through his work the positive dimensions of life in Iraq that mainstream media often ignore. Still, there are images he can't easily erase from his memory. The hardest part, he said, is covering memorials for soldiers killed in duty.
"[It's] sad as hell," he said in an e-mail interview from Tikrit, Iraq. "Last week I had to do one. The first I have done in quite a while. . . . I sat down that night and cranked out about 5,000 passionate words."

"Nobody knows where it started, or where," his novel begins. "Some say it was a bio-weapon that got out of hand. Others hold that it came from China. Quite a few even believe that it was punishment from God for how we had become as a society . . . Maybe the war will never be over. Maybe they never will be stopped. Maybe this is the end for mankind forever. I don't have time for maybe anymore. These days, I just try to make it to tomorrow."
A military writers' forumSince NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty held the first monthlong write-athon in 1999, military personnel have been registering to write in growing numbers. The trend caught Baty's attention last month after a military chat forum was added to the official NaNoWriMo website.

"Soldiers that are stationed in Germany or Iraq don't have the same sort of in-person community as a lot of us here," said Baty, who lives in Oakland, Calif. "If you're in Baghdad, you can't go out to the local coffee shop with your laptop." The chat forum gave troop members a place to connect. "Some had thought they were the only military personnel participating."
Now, they can communicate regularly. Some even plan to stage "write-ins" on their bases.
"I want them to feel like, here's something affirming," said Cybele May, the NaNoWriMo moderator who opened the military forum. "Here's something you can do, when everything else seems so hopeless sometimes." May knows of at least 100 deployed military personnel who use the forums regularly, and she says civilian participants leave uplifting posts of support for the troops.

As for Sessions, the forum is a useful place to swap information with colleagues, but that's about it. The focal point of his first NaNoWriMo is the writing itself.
"Unfortunately, for most of my tour, I couldn't write - because while I wanted to 'exorcise my demons,' through writing, it also destroyed me somewhat emotionally," said the medic.
Now that he can write again, in the stony dark of his concrete base, at the center of the capital of war-torn Iraq, Sessions said he won't stop until the book is done.

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