Many veterans find they need to write, and it makes sense. Men and women of the armed forces go through several intense years. Whether it was serving time overseas or just working their butts off on the home turf, they go through a lot to keep America safe. It is no surprise that they want to express themselves and find some way to share their stories. Lucky for them, there are many great programs for current military and veterans.
I attended a class with the Veterans Writing Project in 2011 and I was blown away. I listened to a man talk about the book/film “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young,” an amazing book and fun film, but the kicker was — this guy was there! He fought among those men. I have to be honest, there were tears in my eyes more than once during this workshop. If you get a chance, and are starting off in your writing endeavors, give it a go.
So, without further ado, I am pleased to introduce you to Ron Capps.
Interview with Ron Capps
Justin: Thank you for agreeing to share your insight with us today, Ron. What inspired you to start the Veterans Writing Project?
Ron: Wow. Long story. Let me try to be concise. I left the service and went to grad school for writing at Johns Hopkins. As I was getting close to graduation I knew I wanted to do something with what I was learning, both in graduate school and as a working writer—I was writing for Foreign Policy and TIME magazine. So I figured I would just give it away. I started the Veterans Writing Project (VWP) as a way for veterans who were also working writers to give away to other veterans, service members and their adult family members what we knew as a way of getting those others to write.
Justin: And we greatly appreciate you for doing that! It is a wonderful program. How is the program running today? Do you continue to teach classes, and what is the best way for veterans to get involved?
Ron: We absolutely do continue to teach; it is very much our core mission. We run our standard two-day seminars that move participants through the elements of craft—scene, setting, dialogue, narrative structure, plot, point of view, and so on. We run genre specific workshops in fiction, non-fiction and playwriting. And we partner with other organizations to bring training to specialized audiences or in specific venues: we work with Wounded Warrior Project and The Writers Guild Initiative to mentor a group of veterans in San Antonio; we work with The Wilderness Society to take groups of veterans out into wilderness areas and write; we work with the National Endowment for the Arts to teach creative and expressive writing to active service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The best way for veterans—and their adult family members—to get involved is to check out our website (veteranswriting.org ). We do travel. To date, we’ve presented in DC, Pennsylvania, several places in North Carolina and several in Virginia, Iowa, Texas, Illinois, Washington State, South Dakota, Arizona, and Massachusetts. We’re very interested in bringing our programs to underserved populations of veterans.
Justin: That is a wonderful resource. Do you know of any other programs for veterans that want to write?
Ron: Well I mentioned some of the groups we partner with already. Some of us in the VWP have teaching jobs at community colleges and bigger research universities. But we also work with non-academic writing programs like The Writer’s Center in Maryland. These are places where someone who doesn’t want or need to get a formal, academic writing credential can go and work on specific elements of their work or just get some workshop time in to hone a particular piece of work. There are also groups similar to the VWP around the country: Warrior Writer in Philadelphia, Words after War and several others in NYC, Eileen Schell’s veterans writing group in Syracuse… the list goes on and is growing pretty regularly.
Also, there are a number of publishing platforms out there, too. Our journal is O-Dark-Thirty. We publish both on-line and in print. We feature fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and interviews/profiles written by veterans, service members and adult family members. But there are other platforms out there at Eastern Kentucky University and at the Air Force Academy.
Justin: You must have come across some very inspiring stories over the years, is there one or two that you are able to share with us today?
Ron: Oh, yeah. I love hearing about and reading the works that come out of our programs or just over the transom for publication in our journal. But rather than focus on one or two individual stories, I’d rather think bigger. The most inspiring story is that we’re getting men and women to tell stories that they may not have ever been able to get out. There have been a number of cases where we’ve had spouses sitting next to each other in a workshop and one of them will read something while the other sits and stares open mouthed and then says, “He (or she) has never even told me that.”
I think one of the other big stories is that we’re getting groups of veterans together across generations. We’ve had veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan in our seminars and represented in our journal. I think this is really important.
And finally, we’re putting this writing out in front of people who might not ever be exposed to it. Less than one percent of Americans took part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and well under ten percent of Americans are veterans. We’re publishing it, but we’re also creating an archive of literary writing by veterans—which hasn’t been done before.
Justin: And of course you have your book coming out May 1, “Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years.” It sounds powerful and touching, and I look forward to reading it. Would you like to share some more about the book for our readers?
Ron: Sure. I served in the Army and as a Foreign Service officer for the Department of State for twenty-five years. During the last half of my career I was deployed to five different wars. The book is the story of what that was like, but also the story of what those repeated deployments with insufficient down-time and medical care did to me. It’s structured so that we take the reader through the war in Kosovo; two deployments in Central Africa—in 1996 during the Banyamulenge War in Zaire, and in 1998-2000 in Rwanda dealing with the aftermath of the genocide and the continuing attacks by the Interhamwe into Rwanda; then to Afghanistan in 2002-2003 and Iraq in 2004; the last set of deployments were into Darfur during the genocide there in 2005-2006. The last section of the book is about the aftermath of all that. I was medevac’d out of Darfur and sent home. I really struggled with PTSD but am recovering now, and much of that recovery is due to writing.
Justin: Wow, I am sure it will be an intense and amazing read. Thank you Ron for sharing your story and very insightful advice! Before signing off today, do you have any last bits of advice for writers in general, and military veterans specifically?
I guess I say two things. First, if you have a story—and we believe that every veteran does—find a way to tell it. Of course I push writing, but if that’s not for you, try music, art, dance or drama. Use the arts as a way of getting that story out of the back of your mind. And second, don’t isolate yourself. We’re trained in the military to be a part of a team. But when we come home we’re often broken away from that team. So don’t isolate yourself. Open up to your family, find a new squad to run with, join a writer’s group. Be a part of something that, like the military, is larger than yourself.
There you have it. Thank you again Ron!
I am sure there are many more programs out there. If you know of any, please send them my way so I can include them on the list so your brothers and sisters of the armed forces can benefit. Even if you don’t have the time or energy to participate in these programs, I encourage you to sit down at your laptop or bust out a pad and pencil and give writing a shot. As Ron Capp’s demonstrates in his book Seriously not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, the art of writing can do wonders for our psyche. The book’s website can be found at http://seriouslynotallright.com/.
And when you write, reach out to some other vets for feedback, or attend one of the above mentioned options and see if anyone wants to start a critique group. Believe me, you won’t regret it.