Until recently, I believed that narcissism was as essential a tool as language for poets and writers. Specifically, that the grandiose level of confidence narcissism requires was the secret to writing beautifully, honestly, and without fear. I adopted this as a poetic ideology, and stood by it with the kind of fervor I assumed entitled me to spout the opinion at parties and bars with the insolent authority reserved for politicians. I must have sounded ridiculous paraphrasing lines from “Song of Myself” or that bit from W.S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman” that warns: “don’t lose your arrogance yet…/you can do that when you’re older.”
I declared narcissism’s importance so often that what began as a sincere philosophy eventually became a shtick. I had retorts for counter arguments memorized. If someone brought up pathological narcissism, I’d smirk over my cheap, flat beer before reciting something about “great writers’ narcissism” lasting only as long as they’re “creating” because they’ve succeeded in “cultivating an extinguishable grandiosity.” If someone argued that my theory left no room for revision, claiming narcissists aren’t capable of the humility it takes to rewrite, I’d wave their comment aside and remind them that while the “arrogant energy” we’re drawing from is “inherent,” it’s also controlled. We aren’t diving into the well, so-to-speak—we are lowering the bucket down to sip from only when we need to, thus when we aren’t drunk on ourselves, humility abounds.
If you are one of the people I forced to listen to any variation of the above, I am sorry. I cringe thinking of the things I said, of the vanity I said them with. I am sheepish—yet, I can’t bring myself to retract the theory completely. So I’m changing the terms:
When a person enlists as a writer they are signing up for a lifetime of self-doubt. This is not news. For a long time, it seemed natural to me to combat this inevitable doubt with its opposite: narcissism. A narcissist is her own god shouting, “Screw you! Do you know who I am?” to every editor who rejects her, and there is something empowering about that kind of resistance. Although, what the narcissistic writer misses out on (yes, even if her narcissism is of the “extinguishable” kind) is the passion that is born from uncertainty.
Recently, in an interview with the New York Times, Eileen Myles said, “As things get worse, poetry gets better, because it becomes more necessary.” The “things” Myles is referring to in this instance are America’s political ideals, but her insight also applies to writers on a more intimate scale. After all, it’s when we are in the depths of self-doubt, looking desperately for any sign of dignity, that we question why we pursue art at all. And then, purely because we asked, we remember why with passion. Our art becomes necessary to us again. We remember we aren’t writing to win the $15,000 prize. We’re writing because every day people are born into a world that is falling asleep. We aren’t writing to get an agent, or with hope Leonardo DiCaprio will play our protagonist in the film version of our novel. We’re writing because the wind is warm this morning, and mist is lifting itself up from the river. Because we are still capable of love. Because we are witness to horror that needs a name.
The downfall of the narcissist is that things never get bad, so her writing never gets better. Jaded and dispassionate, the narcissist doesn’t have to question the necessity of her art because she believes she exists to bless the world instead of interrogate it. Berryman warned Merwin (in the portions of the poem I consciously neglected to quote at the bars) that arrogance easily turns to “vanity,” and avowed that “the great presence/that [permits] everything and [transmutes] it/in poetry is passion.” If living in a constant state of conviction breeds writing from vanity instead of vehemence, we are indebted, then, not to our confidence but to our doubt. What we find there is a fierce will to persevere so we can more accurately name and transcend what is terrible and what is beautiful.
Katie Condon has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Inprint. Her recent poems appear in or are forthcoming from The Adroit Journal, Indiana Review, New Ohio Review, and other journals, as well as the anthology Hallelujah for 50ft Women. Katie received her MFA from the University of Houston, and is currently a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee.
Above all, style is somehow the beginning of writing: however timidly, by committing itself to great risks of recuperation, it sketches the reign of the signifier.
—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes
Like events are drawn to one another—Jung recognized the richness of these potentially mysterious connections, and described them as examples of “synchronicity.” Significantly, these connections are not causally related, as are events that take place within our realm of logical understanding (i.e., I turn the knob and a door opens). Rather, synchronous connections are, as Jung suggested, highly idiosyncratic “meaningful coincidences,” with different connections occurring to different people.
Those who are highly sensitive to such connections are often considered disordered by mental health practitioners—yet this kind of careful attention (for that is what it is) may serve seekers of good fortune and good prose especially well. On the other hand, superstition is patently useless. In the latter, general rules are formed, codified, and become fossilized: about the number thirteen, about black cats, about cracked mirrors, and so forth. These are blindly followed for no reason other than cultural tradition, which, as we have seen through the bloody millennia, is always the worst reason to do anything. Superstitions are, like the severed rabbit’s foot that embodies them, dead, a mere artifact of no great use to either its current or previous owner.
May your writing style be congruent with your self. The seeker of good prose—who is quiet, who watches and listens, who remembers, who remains present—is quite often superstitious, but their superstitions are their own. In casinos, I have seen many times at the roulette wheel persons who play only Even numbers, or persons who play only Odd. Others play their birthdates and those of their loved ones—some only play Zero or Double Zero. Those who are successful are connected to their superstitions in a way that is alive. It is important to bear in mind that the signifier expresses its meaning through the player. The Odd player prefers the askance, the out-of-place, the missing, the mysterious. They may throw the dice in craps with their left hand. The Even player prefers unity, order, symmetry—a straight path through. Then there are those who play the Zeros—who play against the rest of the table. These are the misanthropes, the anti-social, or the perverse.
We are usually not consciously aware of the relationship between our present self and our writing style. But it is striking to consider that disconnect between the two could lead to poor prose—each influences the other to an extraordinary degree. Yet in this harried age, it is often said that we no longer know ourselves. To this end, it may be helpful to meditate over a list of potential signifiers before embarking upon any writing session. My favorites (by no means a complete list) include: Cleanliness, Calm, Precision, Care, Attention, Refinement, Concentration, Focus, Texture, Richness, Congruence, Sharpness, Faith, Dignity, Anticipation, Joy, Connection, Harmony, Holiness, Love, Mystery, Hope, Despair, Beauty, Sadness, Night, Solitude, Clarity, Danger, Risk, Resolve, Forgiveness, Compassion, Goodwill, Absolution, Grace, and Redemption. Consider which concepts resonate, and open unintended doors in your imagination—begin your writing from there.
 Many famous short stories describe the experience of such an individual, such as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and also Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.”
Michael Shou-Yung Shum is a PhD candidate in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Tennessee. His most recent work appears in Burrow Press Review, Spolia, and Your Impossible Voice.
Novelists used to draw inspiration from newspapers. Gustave Flaubert got the idea for his first novel from a newspaper article about a woman who poisoned her family; Jules Verne said the idea for Around the World in 80 Days came from a newspaper. But these days, newspapers (like many forms of media) are dying. There is, however, one medium of non-fiction narrative that’s on the rise — a place where writers might find new inspiration. That medium is podcasting.
Except, I don’t really mean podcasting in general. Podcasting, like television, is just a method of delivery, and podcasting encompasses a broad swath of mostly terrible things to listen to: rambling, unedited, uninteresting conversations about whatever. These are not the kinds of podcasts I’m talking about. I’m talking about the highly crafted, narrative-style podcasts, podcasts that elevate documentary journalism to art.
What sets these podcasts apart is how they offer an intimacy with their subjects unmatched by any other medium. Print can’t convey the full texture of emotion in the human voice, and film often shines too bright a light to get into the private moments of our lives. Audio bridges the divide, capturing reality without distorting it too much, and remaining sharable in its original, organic form. And the very best of these podcasts not only offer dramatic, intimate narratives, but also new ideas on how to approach the construction of those narratives. Writers should take note.
What follows is a list of some of the podcasts that, as a podcaster and a writer, I have found especially inspiring.
The podcast that really put narrative podcasts on the map this past year was Serial, the show from This American Life producers that reinvestigated the 1999 murder of a high school girl in Baltimore, Maryland. Serial caught on in part because of its titular serialized format, ending each episode with a cliffhanger about whether Adnan Syed, the man convicted of the murder, was actually guilty of the crime.
But the genius of the show was that it didn’t just tell its story in a linear fashion. Instead, it kept coming back at the same material from different angles, telling the story first in a way sympathetic to Adnan Syed, and then turning around and telling the story from the least sympathetic angle. The show was a great example of how a mystery story doesn’t need to start with a mystery and end with a solution. Instead, you can place the mystery at the center of the story, like a black hole, around which the galaxy of characters, events, details, and even different solutions revolve. If you somehow missed the bandwagon on Serial, start at the beginning with The Alibi.
The other investigative show that’s gotten a lot of press recently is Mystery Show, by former This American Life producer Starlee Kine. If Serial were a hearty meal, Mystery Show is more like a frothy dessert. Kine takes tiny mysteries (so far, all of them contributed by her witty, radio-genic friends) and tries to solve them herself. Each episode plays like a Nancy Drew story directed by Wes Anderson. I’m a huge fan of Kine’s work, but early on, I felt like the mysteries she was solving on this show (Why Brittany Spears was carrying a certain book? How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?) lacked substance. Kine is a charming narrator, but I wanted stories about things that mattered more.
The latest episode, delving into the mystery of a Welcome Back Kotter lunchbox and the life of the painter who painted it, finally won me over, and it’s a perfect demonstration of Kine’s method. Instead of focusing relentlessly on the solutions of her mysteries, she lets the investigation expose all the messy, endlessly fascinating threads (specifically the people she meets along the way) around that solution. As with Serial, it’s a reminder that, in the right storyteller’s hands, the process of trying to solve a mystery can be more interesting than the mystery itself.
Another popular podcast this year was Startup, a show that told the story, week by week, of starting a company, specifically a podcast company. What made the show fascinating was how host Alex Blumberg (also a former This American Life producer) dramatized his own doubts and struggles (and hilarious late night conversations with his wife) along the journey to create his company. Unfortunately for the story, he succeeded pretty quickly, so the drama receded, and in the second season of the show, the subject switched to a different company. That second season was good, but its quality investigative journalism couldn’t match the first season’s self-interrogating high wire act. I recommend you start with the first episode of that first season, How Not to Pitch a Billionaire.
What I like about the personal documentary genre style is how it upends the traditional personal essay. Instead of a narrator merely relating his or her memories of a story, the narrator has to do some actual footwork, ask questions, find evidence, document what really happened (or is currently happening).
One of the most recent examples of this genre is Millennial, the story of a young woman struggling to find a job after college. Host Meghan Tan is especially good at capturing dramatic scenes from her actual life, including tearful fights with her boyfriend, but my favorite episode was Brunchies, when she turned her microphone outward to capture the stories of other people her age dealing with the same struggles.
First Day Back is the story of a documentary filmmaker struggling to get back to her career after six years of maternity leave. Instead of merely dramatizing her own struggle, host Tally Abecassis broadens the theme of the show, interviewing family, friends, and other artists to explore the universal tension between creativity, career, and family life. Start with the first episode, Getting Back Out There, but stay for the most recent one, which features stories from her listeners.
Finally, How to Be a Girl is the story of a mother struggling with parenthood after her three year old son informs her that he is actually a girl. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, each episode mixes stories, interviews and reflections on everything from gender to parenting to the very nature of identity. Start at the beginning with Mama, I’m a Girl.
What playwrights call monologues, radio people call “non-narrated” stories. This is a misnomer, because these stories are narrated. The distinction is that they’re narrated by the subject of the story rather than the producer making the story. But what makes them a unique audio art form is the combination of conversational storytelling — the unique sound of the spoken word — and the the editor’s hand in sculpting that spoken narrative into its ideal shape.
One of the original masters of this form is Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, who’s been making all kinds of audio documentaries, most of them historical, using interviews and archival tape, for decades. Almost 20 years ago, he made a series of stories for NPR where he gave teenagers recorders and asked them to document their lives. The resulting stories are some of the most incredible audio portraits ever made. Since the start of the Radio Diaries podcast, Richman and his producers have gone back and produced updated versions of each of these diaries. They are not to be missed. My favorites are Josh: 16 Years Later and Melissa: 16 Years Later.
Other shows that feature “non-narrated” stories include ARRVLS, which explores the “impact of unexpected events in the lives of everyday men and women.” ARRVLS has told stories about plane crashes, boarding school and the perils of being gay in Cameroon. A recent standout episode is In the Left Pocket by My Heart, the story of a woman living in the wake of the death of her newborn daughter.
For more non-narrated podcasts, check out Everything Is Stories, which features “tales from the underground, the underdog, and the outlaw,” and This Is Actually Happening, which tells stories about “what happens when everything changes.”
Stories on a Theme
Most people who make narrative-driven audio stories cite This American Life as their first influence, and This American Life’s format has always been to choose a new theme each week and tell a bunch of different kinds of stories on that theme. So it’s probably no surprise that a lot of podcasters influenced by TAL are making podcasts with themes. Except, instead of changing the theme week to week, these shows have settled on just one theme, and they’re bringing new stories every week on that same theme. You could imagine this approach becoming repetitive, but it turns out that mining a single theme can unearth some real depth.
One of the recent breakout hits in this vein is Nocturne, which features stories about the night, a topic that turns out to be fertile ground both for stories and for sonic details. Host Vanessa Lowe knows how to tell a story that lights up the dark corners of your mind, but the show’s secret weapon is its sound design. Step outside on a hot summer night and all your senses wake up. This show sounds like that. Episodes have featured truck drivers, bakers, mockingbird haters, and the host herself, trying to go for a hike in the woods even though she’s terrified of the dark. Another recent standout episode is The Vanishing Dark, about why it matters that most humans see so many fewer stars in our sky than we used to.
The theme of The Heart is stories about sex and love, and the show approaches that theme with a frankness and raw intimacy rare even in this new world of FCC-free podcasting. Host Kaitlin Prest has talked about her desire to create a sex-positive podcast that isn’t a panel discussion about sex and love, but an immersive sound experience of sex and love. One standout episode is The Hurricane, the story of a one-night stand that took place during Hurricane Sandy and why it didn’t last.
Neighbors is a more loosely defined podcast about the idea of getting to know the strangers around you, hosted by Jakob Lewis in Nashville, Tennessee. For me, the underlying theme of the show is human connection, whether that connection comes through a tea ceremony, a board game, music, or a funeral in which a family cleans, prepares, and buries the body of their beloved son themselves. A recent standout episode explored the connection, through the culture of food, between highbrow and lowbrow taste.
Reply All is a show about the internet, which covers all kinds of internet phenomenon, from the impact of the Yik Yak gossip app to the obsessive editors of Wikipedia. My favorite episodes are those about people whose lives have been impacted by the internet, like the first woman to put a webcam in her bedroom, and a Hasidic man who lost his faith and then his family as a result of exposure to the web.
Love + Radio
Lately the podcasts I find most inspiring are the ones that keep trying new things, and there’s no show trying more new things than Love + Radio. Host Nick van der Kolk describes the show as “a very musically-inclined non-fiction radio experience,” and that’s a good description of the show’s experimental nature. Most traditional radio stories either use scripted narration as a framing device, or they use the highly edited, non-narrated style to sculpt their stories. Episodes of Love + Radio, by contrast, use neither the handholding of scripted narration nor the non-narrated style of editing out the interviewer. In fact, Love + Radio doesn’t edit out a lot of things: interruptions, phone calls, people blowing their noses. It’s audio vérité, but stylized, artful vérité. Whereas most audio stories attempt to smooth over the seams between bits of interview tape, Love + Radio savors those seams, in all their messy, ragged glory.
Most episodes feature an audio portrait of a character crossing some sort of cultural boundary. In The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt, a seemingly innocent public radio reporter enters the seedy world of a strip club manager. In Jack and Ellen, a young woman poses as a teenage boy to extort money from pedophiles. In The Silver Dollar, an African American man befriends members of the Klu Klux Klan. In The Superchat a woman tries to interview men on a chat line while they try to get her to have phone sex. One recent standout episode, and one of the best audio stories I’ve ever heard, is The Living Room, the story of a woman who has a perfect view from her apartment into the bedroom of a couple across the way, and how she watches as that couple’s relationship evolves over time.
Another show that defies easy categorization, and plays heavily with the sound-design of its stories, is Here Be Monsters, a show “about the unknown”. A standout episode is Do Crows Mourn Their Dead?.
Scott Carrier has been making incredible radio for decades, and he recently started a podcast called Home of the Brave to rerelease some of those old stories along with some new ones. Check out The Rebel Yell, his story about dropping acid while covering the Republican National Convention in 2004.
Rumble Strip Vermont is a show that features interviews with ordinary people from Vermont, and there’s just something about the realness of those conversations that makes it stand out. One of the best recent episodes is Homeless.
I’ve tried to steer clear of podcasts that are also radio shows in this essay, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Radiolab and Invisiblia, both of which are hybrid radio shows and podcasts, and both feature incredible stories that span the divide between science and wonder. You’ve probably heard of them already, but if not, it’s time.
It’s been clear for a while now that podcasting is a thing. But it’s not just a thing. It’s a new art form. Just as cable TV elevated television to new artistic heights, podcasting is elevating audio journalism to new realms of inquiry and imagination. And you can listen to it in your car! Start today.
Rob McGinley Myers is the host of his own podcast, Anxious Machine, which features stories about how humans are affected by the things that we’ve invented. He’s also a member of The Heard, a podcast collective that (full-disclosure) includes several of the podcasts mentioned above. But he’d be a fan of all of them no matter what.
My husband joined the military about a year after I finished grad school. I was not a big fan of this idea.
He’d talked about joining for years, with varying degrees of seriousness. I tolerated his patriotism as a sort of quirk, a charming weakness. I was an aspiring writer raised by pacifists; my family were not military people. So I recycled his recruitment pamphlets when they’d land in our mailbox. I waited, really, for him to grow out of it.
And then the economy tanked, and Dave ended up working in a battery-recycling plant in an industrial sector of the Twin Cities. This job was serious Bruce Springsteen-lyric territory. Dave had to have his blood lead levels tested monthly. He stirred huge vats of molten lead so hot that in summer, he and the crew were given salt pills so they wouldn’t pass out. In the subzero cold of winter, driving a forklift between buildings, he was issued a headsuit that looked like chain mail and fit tightly along his hairline and down his neck: Sir Lancelot of the lead-lands.
Even I—typing the day away, talking shop with my writer friends, maybe enjoying some seeded artisanal muffin at my choice of cafe—had to admit that the disparity in our daily lives was not fair. Dave’s U.C. Berkeley history degree wasn’t seeing the light of day at the lead plant.
He told me he wanted to do something meaningful. He wanted to know what was going on in the world, he wanted to contribute. This was post-9/11 and his motivations were admirable. I just didn’t quite share them.
I was tired of feeling selfish, following my own improbable (and—this was key at the time—completely non-paying) dream. I guess I can write anywhere, I said. All I need is a word processor, right? So into the U.S. Navy we went.
Back then, I couldn’t have dreamed up any worlds more different than the literary sphere and the military one. I didn’t know of any service members who were writing, let alone their spouses. But for me it didn’t matter much, because immersion in military life and then motherhood came hot on the heels of one another. Within months of entering the military we had our first baby. When she was three months old, Dave was deployed on six days’ notice to the Persian Gulf on the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan.
Certainly, the deployment could have been far worse, and we were quite lucky. However, in my own tiny world, writing was a distant memory. I had an infant on my own, and motherhood, plus the cross-country move, the total isolation from my comfy school-and-writing world, had done something to me. I wandered around, indoors with my infant all day, like a dumbstruck vessel of love and caretaking. Motherhood gave me some newfound skills, sure—the ability to sustain another human being with nothing more than my own self; the ability to, when faced with a blown-out diaper and wrecked onesie, actually cut the thing off the baby in such a way that you could peel the child out cleanly and salvage her freshly-bathed hair and face. But my old proficiencies, the things I felt had made me me—well, they were stirring around in there somewhere, making me a little dissatisfied and urgent in the sort of neurotic way a zoo animal might be (I know there is something else I am supposed to be doing, but what is it?). I couldn’t figure out how to get to them.
In any case, these were minor concerns. We were a military family now. The war was occupying our own and our friends’ thoughts and fears. It was dragging on and people were being sent out on deployment again, and again, and again. A year would turn into eighteen months. Some of my friends had babies their husbands didn’t meet til they were a year old. My civilian friends could not fathom why we had yoked ourselves to the military at such a time in history, and we were starting to think maybe we had been crazy too.
We were starting to love these people. There was something about them (and in that way, we hoped, there was also something about us). The gallows humor. The endurance. My husband was in charge of folks eighteen, nineteen years old. Former foster kids. Escapees of abuse or poverty or maniacal religion. Ivy League grads. Nice kids from stable, patriotic homes. People who cared. People who had signed up the same way we had, from wherever they’d started – and now here we all were, and they were our friends, and it really hadn’t been so bad for us comparatively, so—how could we leave?
And then, finally—I learned about all the people in the military who were writing, and my worlds, for the first time, came together.
It started, probably, with Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” the novel famously begins. A traditional, arguably Tim O’Brien-influenced book from a veteran of Fallujah—everyone was reading it in 2012. I read it and felt the full disgust of war descend upon me, which without knowing it was probably what I wanted to feel, probably what any civilian reading it wanted too. The Yellow Birds stirred a strange hunger in me for narratives of the war, for every perspective I could find on this bizarre conflict that had shaped and pressured much of the past decade of our lives. I wanted to hear from writers who’d had “a dog in the fight,” so to speak—the veteran-writers (and, as I’d later discover, some military-spouse writers) who’d also had to engage, in varying degrees, in an international event that the vast majority of the American public had been lucky enough to sit out on.
That same year, I read what felt like The Yellow Birds’ brilliant and hilarious opposite: Fobbit, a satire of the war in Iraq by Army veteran David Abrams. Instead of going “house to house,” these soldiers go from computer to computer inside fictional FOB Triumph, near Baghdad. “Who the fuck fucked with my Power Point?” is a common battle cry. One of my favorite lines: as Staff Sgt. Gooding, “the Fobbitiest of the Fobbits” (he uses lavender-vanilla body wash!) types a report, his fingers “flew across the keyboard like he was playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 and had only two minutes to finish the damned thing.” This kind of comedic relief (with the implicit doubts and criticisms of the war that it raises) felt absolutely necessary as we emerged from the endless slog of the second Iraq war. Reading it was a breath of fresh air. It also felt somehow liberating: All this shit had happened. We were each, in our variety of ways, a part of it. Was it okay to laugh at ourselves, to realize that at times we’d been in the midst of a truly absurd situation? I felt like Abrams was saying yes: that to process something that’s happened, to give you a way to contrast all that was horrible, you have to allow humor. Humor can, after all, be smarter than solemnity, and Fobbit is so damn smart I felt proud to the core that a soldier had written it.
A “golden age of war lit,” people started saying.
When Phil Klay’s Redeployment won the National Book Award for fiction this year, it started to seem that this was indeed so. And the books have just kept coming. There’s Jesse Goolsby’s June ’15 release I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them—a novel-in-stories by a writer with the heart of Walt Whitman. Poetry by talents like Brian Turner and Colin Halloran. Memoirs from women who served, such as Kayla Williams and Jess Goodell, with more coming down the pipeline from women veterans as I write (Teresa Fazio, Lauren Halloran, Jerri Bell, and on and on). Novels and story collections from non-American writers, such as Iraqi-born Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition. “Man is not the only creature who kills for bread, or love, or power,” Blasim writes, “because animals in the jungle do that in various ways, but he is the only creature who kills because of faith.”
It’s far from a homogeneous group. Some veteran writers are overtly critical of the wars and even of their fellow soldiers’ war writing, such as Roy Scranton, whose beef with much of the relatively-apolitical modern war writing is that “by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for.”
It’s not what you love to hear, maybe, as a military spouse; but how meaningful it is, how much it says about the damage done by these recent wars, that a veteran is writing this way. Perhaps even more importantly: how much it says about this extraordinary crop of veteran-writers—smart, tolerant, big enough to handle criticism—and maybe even about the whole point of living in a country that lets you fight for it and still, in writing, eviscerate it.
A particularly exciting realization for me was that military spouses were writing nearly as much as the veterans themselves. Siobhan Fallon won a 2012 PEN award for her story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone, a book that made me alternately chuckle and nearly weep. Chuckle, because her details of military life are so dead-on: the surreal FRG (Family Readiness Group) meetings, the chipper ombudsman in her perfectly-fitting khakis, the bizarre and archaic instructions for a service member’s homecoming. Weep, for characters like Kit who come home wounded to find a new wife who’s just not sure Army life is for her; for the woman who loses her husband and asks Kit, in a brief and heartbreaking moment, to serve as a stand-in.
There are military spouse poets, I learned, such as Jehanne Dubrow, who inhabits the persona of a modern-day Penelope in her collection “Stateside.” There’s novelist Tiffany Hawk, whose funny, sad debut Love Me Anyway taps into the life she led as a stewardess before marrying her pilot husband. There’s Lily Burana, an Army wife who makes great material out of the fact that she’s a former stripper; she even (when she’s not writing novels or memoir) has led burlesque dancing classes for women whose husbands are on deployment, just so we can have a little surprise in our back pockets (or not!) when they come home. Kathleen Rodgers, Jodie Cain Smith, R.H. Ramsey, Terri Barnes – the list of mil-spouse writers goes on and on.
There are so many writers within the military community that I could never possibly list them all here; these are merely some of the best-known, to serve as an intro for civilian readers. The best resource I can think of for learning more about recent war writing is Peter Molin’s fantastic blog, Time Now. For a more concise intro, Air Force officer Jesse Goolsby recently listed what he considers to be fifteen of the best books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (by service members and civilians alike) for The Daily Beast. (The official caveat at the end of his relatively innocent book list – “The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States government” – underscores the delicate line walked by the small handful of authors who are writing while still in the armed forces, as opposed to the much greater number who publish after their military separation.)
My own blog, The Military Spouse Book Review, lists every fellow military-spouse-writer I can uncover, and I’m always on the lookout for more.
If a nice and literary-minded civilian out there asked me, Should I start reading some stuff by you military people?, I would shout Yes, a thousand times yes!
What’s the importance of it, they might wonder. I know about the wars. I hate them/supported them/love the troops/think Dick Cheney was a genius/despise the military- industrial complex down to the cellular level/ eat nothing but Freedom Fries.
But most of all, I love the troops. Isn’t that good enough?
Yes and no. First of all, I’d say thank you for loving the troops—and I mean that sincerely. But there’s so much more to it. There’s “loving” someone—or what they seem to stand for—in a distanced way. Then there’s trying to understand them.
What I think is earnest and honorable and true about veterans’ writing—novels in particular, perhaps, because I can speak to these most comfortably—is that these authors are trying to close the military-civilian divide, not widen it through some kind of self- aggrandizement. None of what you will read is that “You’d better call me a hero, because I put it all on the line for you” bullshit. Veteran writing is absolutely not about giving civilians some massive guilt trip, nor is it about straining to maintain a cheerful spin on whatever has gone down these past 13+ years.
The gist of the writing to come out of these wars, for me, is that it’s only “about war” so much as it’s about being human. Novels and poems by veterans and military spouses are doing what the best novels and poems have always done: giving you a take on the human experiment that changes you, makes you stop and lose yourself in another life for a matter of minutes or hours. From one writer to another, I don’t think there’s anything more important.
For nearly a decade after my husband joined the military, I’d thought I was worlds away from the intellectual life I’d once led. I jealously guarded this perceived disadvantage—because some small aspect of it was real, I suppose, but also because it let me off the hook.
How dumb of me to think you had to be one thing or the other. How endless the excuses I could make. I can’t be a writer and have small children…I can’t be a writer and a military spouse. The people I’ve met, or whose works I’ve read, over the past year and a half have showed me time and again all the ways this isn’t true.
Andria Williams’ first novel, The Longest Night, is forthcoming from Random House in January 2016. She runs the Military Spouse Book Review, a blog that showcases military spouses and female veterans who write novels, memoir, and poetry.