Book Excerpt from Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021)
I threw Brett a going-away party at my mother’s house the night before he left for boot camp. It was the summer of 2005, about a month after we graduated from high school. My mother was out of town visiting her old college friends. While most of our friends who showed up sat in the living room drinking cheap beer or on the rusted deck chairs behind the house smoking menthol cigarettes, Brett and I crawled out my second-floor bedroom window onto the roof of the front porch. The night was cool and dry, and for a couple of hours we sat there, sipping cans of Miller Lite he had taken from his old man.
My mother’s house was sided in dark-stained wood and shielded from a busy intersection by a stand of dense trees and shrubs. The street light that normally illuminated the four-way stop had burned out; Brett and I watched car after car approach the intersection, miss the stop sign, slam on the brakes at the last minute, and skid through to the other side. We chuckled every time.
Parked on the side of the street in front of my mother’s house was a light royal blue 1984 Buick Century with a sagging headliner and a crumpled front passenger door. My father had bought it for me the year I turned 16. The second time I pulled it out of the garage I crashed into a split-rail fence during a snowstorm. For two years I drove that thing—until one day when I couldn’t get it to start. By then my father was looking for a new vehicle for himself, so he offered to sell me his truck if I could find a buyer for the Buick. Brett took one look at it, knew he could get it running, and paid cash. He drove it all winter our senior year and planned to flip it before he left for San Diego.
That night on the roof, the asphalt shingles abrasive under our ass cheeks, I didn’t really know what to talk about with Brett. I asked him how the car was running. “Piece of shit,” he said with a sly grin before taking a sip from his can. If he was nervous about leaving the next morning, I couldn’t tell. If he asked me about how I was feeling about the next stage in my life, I don’t remember. Mostly we just sat and drank.
Brett told me once that he could still remember Whitney’s face when he told her he had enlisted. They were leaning up against Brett’s car in the parking lot of Hardee’s, on the east side of town. He just blurted it out. There had been no discussion. No consultation. Whitney felt hurt and dismayed. She thought their relationship meant more to Brett than it seemed to that day. She was also scared. Not about him being gone. It was more that he might not ever return or that he might not return the same man she loved.
When Brett told the recruiter he wanted to become a police officer after he got out, the recruiter told him he should serve as a presidential guard. Brett’s plans changed during boot camp after he made friends with a few Marines who were on their way to becoming members of the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, FAST for short—though Brett told me that FAST really stood for “Fake Ass SEAL Team.” The promise of travel and adventure that came with FAST sounded like a good deal to him.
“The problem,” Brett explained after he left the service, “is that no one considers FAST guys to be ‘real Marines.’ We’re not in the shit in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
That all changed one night in 2007. Brett and his FAST buddies were getting drunk in the barracks at Virginia Beach. An officer came into Brett’s room and said he was looking for combat replacements who wanted to go to Iraq. Brett thought about it. No one in the room made a sound. He wouldn’t be doing what he had been trained to do in FAST, but at least he could say he had been there—that he’d actually done something. That was all the convincing he needed. Brett raised his hand. He was the only one.
“I know it’s dumb, but looking back I was so proud of myself,” Brett told me. “I showed I had the biggest balls in the room.”
The Five Essentials of Storytelling
Oftentimes I’ll start writing a story—or what I think might make a good story—only to run out of steam before I bother finishing. Sometimes I stop because I lose interest in the subject or because I don’t think what I have to say is all that important, even though I know in the back of my mind that isn’t true. Other times I stop because I can’t figure out how to end the story or because the ending hasn’t happened yet.
Because traumatic experiences are frequently unresolvable or difficult to make sense of, the stories we tell about them lack a resolution as well. I’m reminded, for example, of a story relayed to Michael Herr, a war correspondent who spent a year in Vietnam and later wrote a book titled Dispatches about his experiences there. (He also co-wrote Full Metal Jacket with Stanley Kubrick.) Shortly after landing in country in 1967, Herr writes, he met a Lurp who was on his third tour of duty. LRRP, pronounced “Lurp,” is an Army acronym that stands for “long-range reconnaissance patrol,” and in Vietnam, Lurps spent days and sometimes weeks at a time observing the enemy in the darkest reaches of the jungle.
“Patrol went up the mountain,” the Lurp said to Herr. “One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Herr writes that he waited for the Lurp to tell him the rest but soon realized that “it seemed not to be that kind of story.” When he asked what had happened next, the Lurp eyed Herr with a look of pity. In that moment, Herr knew he had revealed to the grizzled veteran just how little he understood about Vietnam. Herr had arrived there believing that language and stories could bring form to the inscrutable and the inconclusive. He was wrong.
Later in the book, Herr circles back to this story and writes that it took him a full year in Vietnam to understand what the Lurp had tried to convey to him that day. While Herr does not explain what he learned to his readers, one expert on American literature of the Vietnam War noted that the Lurp’s three-sentence narrative “has been used to illustrate the essence of the violent wartime experiences that can be related only in cryptic and elusive language.” The Lurp’s story seems, in turn, “to sum up in a miniature the uncertainty, sudden death, and frustration of the war as it was experienced by so many. That, and not ‘what happened next,’ is the tale’s ‘meaning’ in the context of Dispatches, and Herr could not fully grasp it until he’d escaped the misconception of combat operations as mostly under control and easily comprehensible.” Dispatches in general, and this story in particular, are devoid of resolution. They are parables. And one does not explain parables.
People who tell stories like the one Herr details in Dispatches generally receive negative responses from their audiences, according to Kate McLean, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University. “The redemptive story is really valued in America,” McLean told Julie Beck for a 2015 article in the Atlantic, “because for a lot of people it’s a great way to tell stories, but for people who just can’t do that, who can’t redeem their traumas for whatever reason, they’re sort of in a double bind. They both have this crappy story that’s hanging on, but they also can’t tell it and get acceptance or validation from people.” Jonathan Adler is a professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering. His research may give us a clue as to what kind of story to tell when there isn’t much redemption to be had. Through his research, Adler has noticed two themes in people’s stories that tend to correlate with better personal well-being: (1) agency, a feeling that you are in control of your life, and (2) communion, a feeling that you have good relationships in your life.
When I begin to sense that a story I’m writing isn’t making progress toward resolution, I find it helps to use a formula, especially if I am passionate about the piece and the only thing stopping me from finishing is the realization that reality—and what it takes to capture reality on the page—is unforgivingly complex. For centuries storytellers have used all manner of formulas, although one stands out above the rest: the dramatic arc.
Jane Alison is a professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia, and in March 2019 she published an essay in the Paris Review that briefly lays out the history of the dramatic arc. “Twenty-five hundred years ago,” she writes, “Aristotle dissected tragedies such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to find their common features, as he might dissect snakes to see if their spines were alike. He found that powerful dramas shared certain elements, including a particular path.”
In the Poetics, Aristotle described what his dissections revealed: “A tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself [with a] beginning, middle, and end. ... Every tragedy is in part Complication and in part Dénouement; the incidents before the opening scene, and often certain also of those within the play, forming the Complication; and the rest the Dénouement. By Complication I mean all from the beginning of the story to the point just before the change in the hero’s fortunes; by Dénouement, all from the beginning of the change to the end.” Put simply, in dramatic stories a situation arises—either by cause or coincidence—tension builds and then reaches a peak, some action is taken, and then there is dénouement, a French word meaning “to untie the knot.”
The dramatic arc—with its inciting event, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution—is by no means the only way to structure a story. I have found in my classes and in my own writing, however, that if the goal is to tell personal stories of trauma, survival, and transformation that create connection and understanding, the five components of the dramatic arc—what we can call the Five Essentials of Storytelling—are perfectly suited to the task. Unless writers employ the Five Essentials, they run the risk of presenting a story that may confuse, unsettle, or bore most readers.
As writers, we are competing with Netflix, smartphones, and a dozen other distractions that pull at our readers’ attention. If the Five Essentials of Storytelling I lay out in this chapter seem too restrictive, please keep in mind that if your story either fails to meet your readers’ unconscious expectations—or if you include information that doesn’t fit into one of the Five Essentials—more often than not your story will not engage them. Your readers will feel as though they’ve been catapulted unceremoniously back into their own realities. I’ve found this to be true regardless of how beautifully the prose is written. Once you have mastered the Five Essentials of Storytelling, you should feel emboldened to experiment with other shapes. My mother taught art for nearly three decades, and one lesson she taught me when I was one of her students that has stuck with me is this: Once you’ve learned the rules of art, you are then free to break them at will.
The First Essential of Storytelling: The Inciting Event
The first essential of storytelling is the inciting event. The sole purpose of the inciting event is to knock the main character (you) out of their routine or upset the balance of their life in some way. An inciting event can occur in two ways: (1) Either it occurs as the result of a choice that you or another character makes, or (2) it’s a coincidence—that is, something unexpected, random, or accidental happens. In other words, something spurs you to act and begin your transformation. It can sometimes help to think about your object of desire and make your inciting event the moment you decided that’s what you wanted.
In this story about Brett, I chose to throw a going-away party for him before he left for boot camp. Although I don’t think I articulated it this way at the time, I was losing a friend—or at least a version of a friend. Part of me had to have known that Brett would be a different person the next time I saw him. How could he not be? I also knew that eventually he would be deployed and put in harm’s way. And I knew that, in the summer of 2005, it seemed like the American death toll in Iraq would never level off. I was scared for him, and I felt uncomfortably out of sync for weeks after he left. Even after I settled into my own routine at college, I had to look at my reality in a new way. I had to adjust to the discomfort I felt about Brett living the current events I would be studying in a cavernous lecture hall.
There are two primary approaches to organization you can try when writing a personal narrative that I’ve found work well. The first is a straightforward chronology. Think of this as the “Keep it simple, Silly” way of writing memoir. That’s what I used in this story about Brett. Before you twist yourself into knots coming up with a clever and unique way of telling your story, ask yourself whether it makes more sense simply to start at the beginning—the time when you started wanting your object of desire.
Keep in mind that the reader will feel more invested in your story when you include in the inciting event what some call “grounding information.” When did your story take place? Where did it take place? Who else besides you were involved? What is the situation? This story about Brett, for instance, begins in the summer of 2005, after he and I graduated from high school. We grew up in northern Wisconsin. Now Brett was headed to boot camp in California, and I was headed to college at a small state school 90 minutes south of where we grew up. Brett and I are the two main characters, although his girlfriend, Whitney, plays a supporting role. The goal in beginning your story is to situate readers in a specific time and place so that they can understand the landscape—both physical and emotional—as quickly as possible. Having a strong beginning to anchor your story can help bring your story’s overall shape into focus and help you feel in control of the narrative as it develops.
* * * * *
The enormity of the grief Brett brought back with him from Afghanistan and his overpowering sense of loss were simply too much for him to process at first, let alone share with Whitney. Instead, he acted angry, abrupt. He didn’t understand why, and he felt there wasn’t much he could do about it. He lived in a strange world where the rules and conditions were quite different from those he had grown accustomed to in the Marine Corps. Once the anger subsided, depression would set in. Even though he had a job and was going to school, he felt out of place and unimportant. His own perception that he was somehow insignificant, coupled with the trauma he had experienced, was what hurt the most—and what caused the most despair.
For months after Brett first got home, Whitney felt like it was her responsibility not only to understand what Brett had been through but also to make things easier on him. In a sense, she felt that she needed to grieve for Brett. She eventually realized that while she could love and support him, Brett had to want to help himself. He needed to make changes and find a new sense of purpose. “It was really, really difficult,” Whitney told me, “because there were times when I didn’t want to be by his side, when he treated me poorly, when I actually packed my bags and drove three hours to my parents’ house in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stand to be around him for another second.”
After months of emailing back and forth with Brett while I was still living in DC, I compiled all of the stories he had sent me into a semi-coherent Word document and organized them into a timeline from when he left home to when he and I reconnected online. What had once been fragments of thought became a sort of mosaic. I wish I could have seen his face when he opened the document; he had written more for me than he had ever written about anything else. He had told his stories, wrapped his arms around them in a way that made them coherent and meaningful.
The first time a story I wrote about Brett was published, I felt as though I had passed my own kind of milestone. I made an impression on myself, and I liked that feeling. It was something I had never felt before, and whatever it was that happened inside me when I wrote like that—I wanted to feel it again and again. By that point in my life, I had written dozens of college papers and an honors thesis, as well as a master’s thesis. A paper I wrote about the T-4 euthanasia program in Nazi Germany was awarded $350 by a national historical honor society. As a professional communicator for the federal government, I had also written or helped write more than a hundred research reports and testimonies for Congress. But none of that writing was for me. What I wrote about Brett was. Writing about him and what he had confided in me was the only way I knew how to make sense of the incredible toll that keeping silent about trauma takes on those who never find a way to communicate what they survived.
When Brett recounted his stories to me—and gave me permission to write about him—he handed me a sort of power I didn’t know I would crave. There was power over the story, of course, but there was also power over the reader. I could use description and metaphors to make someone feel something. As soon as I learned that first piece had been accepted and was going to be published, I had this sneaking suspicion, this feeling that great and enviable things were going to start happening to me. I was going to write a book about Brett, I thought. I was going to find an agent who would sell that book for tens of thousands of dollars to a big New York City publisher, and I was going to spend months traveling the country, speaking to veterans and their families and anyone else who has ever cared about those who serve our country. I was going to save people.
My piece was published in the morning a couple of weeks before Veterans Day in 2013. The first few reader comments were positive and affirming. My friends and family shared it on social media, and before long, several people—some of them complete strangers—sent me private messages commending me for all I had done to help Brett. I saved his life, some of them said. The day after the story was published, my mother ran into Brett’s mom at the grocery store, and with tears in her eyes, Brett’s mom hugged and squeezed my mother for well over a minute. “Your son saved my son,” she said.
A few days later, I clicked on my story and scrolled down to the bottom where the reader comments were stacking up. I skimmed through the words of affirmation as I sipped hot coffee in my home office, just down the hall from where my wife was frying eggs for breakfast.
“Go back to jerking off to Full Metal Jacket,” one anonymous commenter wrote, “and leave us combat vets the fuck alone!” I put down my mug and leaned in closer to my laptop. What was this guy talking about? I couldn’t understand. My hot heart pounded inside my chest as I read the rest of his rant: “Just a bunch of shitty broken vet porn,” he continued, “with a bullshit ending.”
I scrolled back up to the end of the story. “If it’s one thing Brett has learned,” I had written, “it’s that talking about your trauma can help—as long as you can find someone you trust and who helps you to take a fresh look at your experiences. While you may not be able to find complete and final truths (none of us can, really), you can create meaning out of your painful experiences by creating a coherent narrative that explains them. That is what Brett has done, and it has made all the difference.”
That was all true. I hadn’t written anything I didn’t think I would write again.
The Second Essential of Storytelling: Progressive Complications
The second essential of storytelling is the progressive complications. In this section of the story, you experience escalating degrees of conflict. If you do one thing, you’ll potentially put yourself in great danger—either physical or emotional danger. If you don’t, you may be tormented by regret. My progressive complication is the act of writing about Brett after he returned from Afghanistan. If I write about him, I may provoke angry reactions. I may be accused of profiting from Brett’s trauma or trafficking in tragedy to fulfill some other ulterior motive. If I don’t write about Brett, perhaps I may be contributing to a nationwide conspiracy to deny the reality of what war does to those who survive it.
When deciding what to include in this section of your story, keep in mind some sage advice from one of the masters, Kurt Vonnegut. One of his most important rules for writing was that, “Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”
* * * * *
Early one evening, as I packed a bag for my weekly trip to Chicago for work, my cellphone buzzed on the top of my dresser. It was Brett’s mom, Val. She said Brett had crashed his car into a tree after flying off the road. He was alive but banged up and struggling, she said. He had been drinking before the accident and didn’t know how the sheriff’s office was going to react to what happened.
“Was he suicidal?” I asked, remembering a passage from some book that speculated about the true cause of combat veterans dying in “single-car crashes.” Val couldn’t be sure.
On the way to the intensive care unit, I found myself wondering what might have possibly gone wrong. There was no way Brett could be suicidal, I told myself. He had everything he said he ever wanted. He had a loving and faithful wife who stood by him through the most difficult and harrowing times of his life. He was a hardworking and dedicated undercover drug agent for the county sheriff’s office—the exact job he had wanted when he left the Marine Corps. In the first nine months of that year, Brett told me, he had racked up more drug arrests than all the other officers in the department combined. He had purpose. He had meaning. People with purpose and meaning don’t wish for death.
* * * * *
“They said his head went through the driver-side window,” Whitney told me before I entered Brett’s room. She was holding her hand over her cell phone, trying to mute our conversation. Her face was puffy and pink from crying and not sleeping overnight. Her straw-colored hair was pulled back into a tight bun. She wore a shawl with sleeves that made her look like she was wrapped in a blanket. After she told whoever was on the phone that she would have to call them back, she hugged me tight; her face against my chest left a small tear stain on my dark-blue flannel shirt.
“You should see the other guy,” Brett joked as I came into the room. His face was hard to look at. His cheeks were puffy, and the left side of his face was pocked and smeared with dried blood, which made it difficult to tell how badly the glass had cut him. From his cheekbone to his hairline, he looked like he had taken shrapnel from a grenade explosion. He chuckled and then winced in pain as I gently put my hand on top of his. Machines all around him beeped and whirred.
Brett told me he had five broken ribs and a concussion. His right middle finger had also been dislocated, and his left shoulder—the one he busted up in high school—was still out of its socket. He was in a lot of pain, and every time he wiggled or tried to get more comfortable, it felt like someone was stabbing him with a steak knife. I asked him what happened, even though I had already been told most of the details.
“I have no idea, man,” Brett said. “Honestly.” He shook his head and looked toward his feet at the end of the bed. He was tired.
“He was up for almost two days straight,” Whitney chimed in. I hadn’t noticed that she’d come back into the room. “He came home Sunday morning, tried to sleep and couldn’t, so he went into town to run errands. Then one of his informants said he wanted to meet up, so Brett went to the bar to meet him.”
“I had two beers with the guy,” Brett said. He paused and took a labored breath. “And then I told him I had to leave. Got in the car. Don’t remember anything else. I woke up here this morning.”
“The state trooper said it looked like he missed a curve, went down into a ditch, and then hit a tree. The car is totaled,” Whitney said.
“Were you drunk?” I asked.
“I don’t know what the blood test will say,” Brett replied.
He had downed a few drinks, Whitney said, but that normally wasn’t enough to put him over the legal limit. “But then again,” she added, “he also hadn’t been sleeping or eating, so who knows what that amount of alcohol did to him?”
* * * * *
Brett and I spent the rest of that evening watching reruns of American Pickers on the small flat-screen television that hung on the wall in front of his bed. We were done talking about the accident; there didn’t seem to be anything more that needed to be said. Outside the room, just within earshot, I could hear Whitney and her mother, as well as Brett’s sister-in-law, talking over plans of what to do next. I tried to tune them out and focus on the television, but they were talking louder than I think they realized. It was almost as if they wanted Brett and me to hear what they were plotting.
Just as one episode ended and another began, they came back into the room. Whitney stood on the opposite side of the bed from me, and Brett’s sister-in-law stood at the foot of the bed, blocking Brett’s view of the television. I clicked off the set as Whitney’s mom sat down in a chair near the door. She clutched her purse to her chest as Brett’s sister-in-law began relaying the plan.
“We talked with Josh,” she said. Josh is Brett’s older brother, a cop-turned-detective-turned-arson investigator for the state. “He says you need to tell your department about your PTSD. He says you need to tell them that you were self-medicating and that you’re burned out.” Brett stared back at her blankly. Whitney grasped his left hand, careful not to disturb the intravenous ports.
“He says if you claim PTSD,” she continued without giving Brett time to respond, “the department has to treat this accident as a medical issue. If you don’t tell them, it will be a disciplinary issue, and you’ll probably lose your job.”
The Third and Fourth Essentials of Storytelling: The Crisis and the Climax
The third and fourth essentials of storytelling are, respectively, the crisis and climax. The crisis is the point in the story when you absolutely must make a decision. This decision will determine whether you’ll get closer to or farther away from your object of desire, and it will reveal your true nature to the reader. How are you going to act at the moment of truth? What are you going to do? What do you really believe? What do you value? You must make it clear to the reader what your choices are and at least imply what the possible outcomes may be. You’ll know that you’ve found a true crisis when it’s possible that something bad could happen regardless of what decision you make.
For example, let’s say you’re faced with the difficult decision of whether to report wrongdoing committed by a superior at work. If you report the wrongdoing, those in authority may not do anything about it, or your peers may see you as disloyal. Or, alternatively, the wrongdoing may be stopped, and you could be seen as a hero. If you decide to say nothing, you may retain the trust and respect of your peers, although the cost of such a decision may be that someone will continue to be harmed by the wrongdoing. More than anything, the reader wants to see how you approach and make sense of the crisis. If the decision you made was easy for you to make, then it probably wasn’t a real crisis. And if it wasn’t a real crisis, your reader may end up feeling cheated after sticking around for what turned out not to have high enough stakes.
The climax, in turn, is the point in the story where you actually make a decision—where you answer the question raised by the crisis. Did you report the wrongdoing, or did you look the other way? The decision you make will reveal who you are as a character to the reader. After all, actions always speak louder than words. The climax also contains the immediate result of your decision. What happened next? Keep in mind that it’s not a good idea simply to allude to the decision and the immediate outcome—readers want to see for themselves what happens.
The Fifth Essential of Storytelling: The Resolution
We all need resolution, and so do stories. How many times have you sat through a boring lecture or staff meeting and thought to yourself, When is this thing going to end?
“A life without temporal boundaries,” explains philosopher Samuel Scheffler in Derren Brown’s Happy, “would be no more a life than a circle without a circumference would be a circle.” The resolution—the fifth essential of storytelling—is about making sense of all that has happened in the story. If the inciting event shows the reader the before, the resolution is where the reader gets to see the after.
I appreciate happy endings. Not the trite, sentimental endings that mean next to nothing. Rather I’m talking about an ending where the main character is in a better place than where the character started. Everything I have done—and you have done—has been built atop everything we’ve lost. But that loss, that pain doesn’t have to lead to cynicism or resignation. Instead, we can try to focus on how our worldviews may have shifted. Did you change from a feeling of meaninglessness to meaning? Naïveté to worldliness? Ignorance to understanding? Belief to disillusionment? Perhaps you want to focus on what you learned. Or you may want simply to tell the reader whether you got what you wanted. If you did get what you wanted, what was that like? If you didn’t get what you wanted, how did you cope? If what you wanted changed, how are you now going to go about trying to achieve your new goal?
I struggled for two years to tell this story about me and Brett; I lost track of how many times I’ve typed it up then deleted all I had written. Time after time I would come to a certain point, and there would be no place for the story to go—except perhaps to explore the sadness of wanting things not to be the way they undeniably were. In my struggle of deliberation, I considered several possible endings. I could have ended the story by repeating the opening scene: Brett’s going-away party at my mother’s house, the night before he left for boot camp. Maybe there was a way, I thought, to extend that scene and end it with some kind of epiphany? I’ve heard it said that the beginning and ending of a story can be seen as mirrors hanging on opposite walls, reflecting everything that has happened in the story. How do I get my mirrors to face each other so they create the illusion of infinity? Did Brett or I say anything particularly prophetic that night that could stitch the whole story together? I cannot recall.
I also thought that perhaps the best way to end the story would simply be to tell the reader more about what all happened next. Brett resigned from his position and decided to find work that was more conducive to the less intense and middle-class life for which Whitney had waited so long. A few months after the accident, Whitney gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. They named her Josie. She looks much like Brett did as a baby. Sometime after that, Brett and Whitney sold their home and moved back to our hometown so Whitney could open a wedding venue in an old barn her parents owned. Brett helped with the renovations and worked a series of odd-for-him jobs. He sold used cars for a little while. Then he got a job working at my father’s paper mill, where he now serves as the safety supervisor. He told me not long ago that he likes the work. He punches in, works hard, and punches out. The simplicity of such a life is a breath of fresh air compared to the time in his life when he had to be armed—pretending to be someone he wasn’t—while meeting informants in the middle of the night.
But where does that leave me? It is, after all, my story. Maybe I could search for subtext. Maybe I could resist the epiphany ending and describe a scene in which I walk through the hospital parking lot in the dark. I could mirror the place and time where I started to remind the reader of where I had begun my journey. I could show the reader how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same. Maybe the engine in my black Ford Escape wouldn’t turn over, like the old Buick that Brett had bought off me the last year of high school.
Or maybe it would be better to focus on some theme without being too obvious. What is the point of my story? That I tried to help my friend but failed? That what first appear to be failures are really just setbacks? I could try to make this clear by focusing on sensory descriptions—smell, taste, touch, sound, and sight. I could tell the reader that it had started raining just before I left the hospital, that the raindrops were cold as they ran down my face in a stiff autumn wind, that I could smell oil and water mixing in the center of each parking space I passed. Then I could write that once I had retreated to the safety of my vehicle, I stared at my shimmery face in the rearview mirror for a minute or two before I tried to start the engine, the rain droplets falling from my beard into my lap like the tears I wish I could have shed.
Such descriptions can slow the pace of the story and bring emotional clarity without having to be explicit about what you are feeling. In my story, I struggled to make sense of what had happened to Brett and to our friendship, and what effect all that would have on my writing and my teaching. Such sensory details also help the reader experience the situation alongside you, to feel what you feel. How could I convey my feeling of shame over having profited from, whether intentionally or not, the traumatic experiences of a friend? What would be most satisfying for the reader? I want the reader to feel something for me, but I do not want that feeling to be anger or disgust.
Another option would be to give a hint of the future. What might happen next? What does it all mean? And yet one more possibility would be to address the reader directly to say, this is my point.
* * * * *
For months after the accident, a part of me, a very vocal part, thought what that anonymous commenter wrote under my first story about Brett must have been correct after all. Perhaps I really had shoehorned a convenient ending into Brett’s story. Perhaps it really was bullshit. Or at the very least, it had been too soon to tell what the end of Brett’s story would be. By writing what I did, by wishing and hoping it were true, I felt as if I had somehow jinxed Brett. Perhaps it was because he was supposed to be “fixed”—and because everyone treated him like he was fixed and because everyone treated me like I had fixed him—that he didn’t tell me he was struggling in the weeks leading up to his accident.
Putting aside all projections and conjectures, I know three things to be true. One, when Brett first confided in me that he was struggling after coming home from Afghanistan, I didn’t ignore him or wish him luck or pretend that what he was experiencing wasn’t as bad as he said it was. I did the only thing I could think of—I got him to write. Two, by getting him to explain what he had seen and done, I helped him reframe his experiences. Instead of focusing endlessly on what he could have done differently, Brett began to see just how much he had grown because of what he had survived. And three, it worked, or so it seemed, at least for a little while. Brett really did get better. And so did I. By helping Brett navigate his transition, I found my life’s work.
I never intended that to happen, and it certainly wasn’t my goal, but one thing led to another, and soon I was teaching a first-of-its-kind writing seminar for student veterans at a university in Wisconsin and getting published an edited collection of my students’ stories of war and homecoming. After the book was published, I crisscrossed the country for a few years, presenting at conferences, training instructors in best practices when it comes to teaching student veterans, and talking about the virtues of storytelling as a tool to help curb the appalling number of military veterans who die by their own hand. It was through these efforts that I connected with The War Horse, which hired me to be the director of writing seminars. Since spring 2017, I have continued to teach personal essay writing to military veterans and their families.
What I teach helps. It empowers those who feel powerless. It brings hope to the hopeless and direction to those who feel unmoored.
But writing is not a cure-all. I know that now. For all its wondrous benefits, writing cannot prevent someone from experiencing bad days or from falling into despair. All it can do is help in the process of making sense of pain, of turning tragedy into triumph.
I also know that readers devour narratives to discover how the crisis will be resolved. Once they know, they stop reading. Let me then end with this: I wonder whether it is a mistake to dwell on all that has been lost. I wonder whether it is better instead to think about all that Brett has given me—and what I have given him. Brett is not fixed. None of us are or ever will be. In many ways, feeling totally healed is just beyond Brett’s grasp—though perhaps he is closer than he ever was before.
Editors Note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter