“Describe a barn…”

The Linda E. A. Wachtmeister Contemplative Garden at VCCA – I think. There are so many enormous boxwood hedges here that I’m often not quite sure where I am with relation to the map.

I always find the criticism of war literature on friend and colleague Peter Molin’s blog Time Now thought-provoking, and one of his posts this week challenged me to some personal reflection. A subsequent e-mail exchange provoked me into writing about it. Thanks, Pete. At least I’m getting words out this morning!

I’m currently at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for two and a half weeks courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts, which kindly funded the visit fully and provided me with a $1,000 stipend through their scholarship program for artists who are military veterans. VCCA houses a group of about 25 writers, artists, and composers for stays of up to a month, feeds us three squares a day, gives us studio space in a renovated barn or cottages, and then leaves us alone to work or socialize as we choose. Pretty good deal, and for those of you concerned about how I’m using your tax dollars? I’ve been working from either 0600 or 0700 every morning until about midnight, with short breaks for an afternoon walk, meals, and perhaps for a pre-dinner happy hour involving wine from the local Food Lion. I’m doing my best to earn back your investment by writing—well, trying to write—something that’s as good as I know how to make it.

One of the things that some of the other writers here and I have discussed during our social time here is the challenge for many women of learning to believe in our right to create art, and to believe in the quality of the art that we create. A lot of the women here have horror stories about times their work was derided, devalued, and dismissed. I had my creative writing ambitions shot down in a ball of flames twice: once by a visiting writer at the college where I got my undergraduate degree in 1982, and again by a professor at another college when I took her class on shore duty in 1995. These are long stories for some other blog post, but the bottom line was that I let that discouragement, self-doubt, and a raging case of impostor syndrome deprive me of an art form I love for almost a quarter of a century. In those years, I did no serious creative writing. Made no effort to practice, or to improve my craft. I exercised no self-discipline and didn’t write anything creative regularly. I scribbled random journal entries or long e-mails if the spirit moved me, but otherwise set aside the cherished dream of writing a book that had first arisen when I was in the fourth grade. Funny thing is, I’d never allowed the naysayers to keep me down when it came to my military service or my intelligence work. I had no problem putting myself out there, demanding the opportunity to do jobs that I knew I could do well, and (at least after my first tour) insisting that I get appropriate recognition for having done them.

Military service gave me back some confidence. I decided to use my GI Bill to pursue what I loved, even if it was completely impractical. I applied to the Master of Arts in Writing program at Johns Hopkins and was accepted in 2005, three years before I retired from the Navy. By 2004, the Army and Marines were grinding themselves down with repeated deployments. Their support communities reached out to the Navy and Air Force with requests for “individual augmentees” to fill ground support billets in Iraq and Afghanistan. At first these “IA” assignments were voluntary; sailors and airmen who believed in the fight, or wanted to do what they felt they’d been training for, jumped at the chance to deploy. I had strong reservations about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—something else for another blog post or essay some day—so when my commanding officer offered me the first shot at a plum IA assignment, I declined to volunteer. It was probably the first time in my entire sixteen-year career that I hadn’t jumped at the chance to take on a challenging job that promised both excitement and great bullets on a fitness report.

Late in that year, though, naval intelligence was exhausting its pool of sailors and officers motivated to go to the Middle East in a ground support job. The Secretary of the Navy, or maybe it was the Chief of Naval Operations, sent out a message that all naval personnel in certain specialties such as communications and intelligence were immediately and indefinitely on 30-day standby to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. Update your wills, do the following online training modules, make sure your affairs are in order and your seabag is packed.

The following spring, I enrolled in the Craft of Fiction class at Johns Hopkins. To teach setting and mood, our instructor, Margaret Meyers, asked us to complete the “John Gardner challenge”: Consider the following as a possible exercise in description.  Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death. It’s an exercise that anyone can do, and one of the cool things that comes out of it is that every single person in a class will describe a different barn, from the point of view of a different man with a unique background, and the result will be something original and, usually, deeply unsettling to the writer.

I put everything I felt about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into that exercise. And it wouldn’t let me sleep at night. I kept going back to it. My mother-in-law read it and offered a twenty-minute critique that ended with me half-shouting in exasperation, “Judy, there’s no law against you writing your own barn. So if you think you can write a goddamn barn so much better than I can, I suggest that you sit down and start writing it already!” The twinges of the old self-doubt and impostor syndrome began to resurface, because if your family doesn’t love your work, the critics sure as hell won’t either; but the train of that story had already left the station and there was no going back. I couldn’t not work on it. I brushed off my mother-in-law (though I never permitted her to read any of my work again). I allowed Iraq and Vietnam to creep onto the page, and the original paragraph morphed into a short story.

Although I didn’t think I was ready to submit anything for publication anywhere, in a why-the-hell-not moment just after New Year’s in 2007, I entered it in two categories in the West Virginia Writers annual competition. It took a first place in “Appalachian Theme” and a second place in “Emerging Writers.” At the conference, the editor of a regional literary journal cornered me, asked me to send him the story, and requested the right of first refusal on it. So exciting! I’d arrived!

I did as he asked. The day I got home, I printed the story out on nice paper (this was before most journals were using Submittable), attached a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and mailed it off to Kentucky. And I waited. I was afraid to send a follow-up query, and believed that simultaneous submission to other journals was inappropriate when a respected editor had solicited my manuscript. I watched the mailbox for a full year, and never received either an acceptance or a rejection.

The story went out again to two other journals requesting “Appalachian” or “southern” fiction in 2009, as part of the thesis class requirement to submit finished work. Both journals declined to publish it. I’d made it to retirement in 2008 without being called up for an involuntary individual augmentation assignment, so I didn’t feel that what I had to say about war much mattered to anyone. There would be much more interest in the writing of the troops who’d deployed. After grad school I decided I was done trying to write military stories. I filed the manuscript and forgot about it for a few years.

In 2013, I started editing for the Veterans Writing Project’s literary journal O-Dark-Thirty. After editing for several months, I remembered my little barn story and decided to try one more time to place it. I looked for a journal that seemed like good fit, and fired it off to Stone Canoe. They snapped it right up: it was published in 2014, nine years after I’d written the first draft.

When former Marine Tracy Crow and I were writing and editing the history/anthology hybrid It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistanwe were shocked to find out how women’s stories about war, just like their contributions to the war effort, had been discredited and dismissed, or overlooked entirely. Very few women veterans of World War Two wrote and published war memoirs before the 1990s, when the 50th anniversary of milestones like D-Day renewed American interest in that war and those who fought it. Most didn’t believe that their contributions had been significant, or that anyone would be interested in what they had to say about how they’d done their little part for the national defense. Their families had to convince them that their efforts had mattered, and cajole them into writing things down so their stories would not be lost.

Knowing what I know now? I should have shotgunned that story to every journal calling for submissions in the back pages of Poets & Writers. I should have treated the submission and rejection process just like I treated the naysayers in the Navy: Oh, yeah? Fuck you, I can so. I’m good enough, and you want me to do that job. You just don’t know it yet.

What would have happened if I’d treated my writing career the way I’d treated my military service? Oh, yeah? Fuck you, I can so write. I’m good enough, I have something to say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you want to listen. You just don’t know it yet. Maybe the story would have seen daylight in the first decade of the war. “Memorial Day” would hardly have revolutionized war writing—it’s not particularly innovative, and it’s certainly not the barn that I’d write if I wrote it now, even though I still stand by every thought and feeling that went into it. But if I’d believed in myself more, and fought harder for the thing I had created, it might have found its way into print sooner. I might even have been able to say to my mother-in-law before she passed away, See, Judy? That barn was just fine the way I wrote it.

I wonder if the way that women’s experiences of war have been dismissed and scorned over and over by historians, editors, critics—most of whom are white and male—is  continuing to inhibit other women veterans who have stories to tell.

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Literary Criticism, Stories, Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “Describe a barn…”

  1. Michael Lancaaster says:

    Would love to read about your barn…most anything you write.


  2. Jim Mathews says:

    Great piece, Jerri! As usual. Loved the story too! For anyone else reading this, please don’t miss out on that little nugget of fiction at the end of the post!


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