Like the great majority of the American population, I have no one in my family who died in military service. Generations of my ancestors served in conflicts from the Civil War to World War II, but no one died in combat. Five years ago I knew only one man who had been killed in Vietnam. The grief of war was an abstract thing to me. I understood Memorial Day, meaning I knew the difference between it and Veterans Day and the Fourth of July, but it still felt like a day of observance that belonged to other people. Read more
Posts from the ‘Seeking Quan Am (forthcoming)’ Category
Fred, my writing mentor for The One-String Violin, was afraid of this. “You’ll get a young editor who will reject it because it doesn’t fit the stereotypes,” he said. I dismissed it. It is so time for a new look at everything to do with the war in Vietnam, I thought, and that will be self-evident and editors and agents will pick it up in relief. Isn’t everyone exhausted from the effort it takes to buy into that Rambo thing – man against the jungle and the bad guys (who are never us), blood and sweat, violence, snarls … ? Read more
I came to the Chautauqua Institution six years ago and while I loved it, I had not been tempted to return. My own fault, really. I approached it, by habit, as a Learning Experience. I took classes. I listened to lectures. In the spirit of the Institution’s founding, I felt Improved. But nothing happened that stirred me.
This year, by chance, I came across the theme for the season, “What It Means To Be Human,” and saw the theme for Week 8, “War and Its Warriors: Contemporary Voices.” I scanned the speakers. Some were new to me but I had the books, in some cases multiple books, by four of them on my shelves. Read more
Well, it’s only the evening of the first day and I am already unglued. Eight years ago today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood in the amphitheater at Chautauqua, the place I was sitting, to deliver what came to be known as the “I Hate War” speech. Tonight the program interspersed anthems and hymns with recorded segments of that speech. Read more
Anyone who knows me knows this just isn’t my style but here I am and that table is my desk for this week. I am at the Chautauqua Institution, a village on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in far southwestern New York State, founded in 1874 (hence the Victorian style and yes, those are plastic flowers) as a place for lectures, performing arts, interfaith worship, and recreational activities. Each week throughout the summer, the grounds fill with people exploring a theme. My week is War and Its Warriors: Contemporary Voices, so naturally, I am here. Read more
The One String Violin, the book I am working on with Mark Smith, is almost finished. Finally I put all the sections together and added up the words: way, way too many. Even our most devoted readers might think we had overestimated their patience. So I set about to edit. First to go are all the extra words, of course, but there weren’t that many. I had to cut whole incidents, entire thoughts. Happily, we plan a website where the outtakes will find a home but until I create that I will put a few things here. This is from my epilogue, in which I talk about the process we went through that made it possible for such different people to write a book together.
Mark and I share a disdain for stories that focus only on one aspect of the war. Too many books and movies hit only one emotional note – all horror, or glory, or fury or brutality. Mark says war was 10% terror and 90% boredom. To me, 10% terror is plenty but there is that 90%.
So I learned about the ordinary. I learned about shipping film back and forth and what happens to clothing and skin in the heat and humidity. I learned about the way helmets were decorated and that the letters Mark received from home did not survive because he simply could not carry them around.
I learned, though, that dried spices were worth carrying because they could turn dreary C-rations into a kind of stew they called “Saigon Slumgullion.”
The war was filled with ordinary moments but nothing I could do would make them ordinary to me.
The last stages of any writing project, and particularly the book I am writing with Mark, involve a shift from the solitude of writing and editing to the idea that this project will be public, that other people will read it and have opinions, and will be affected. This means I have to learn a new way of engaging even casual conversations. For instance:
I met a woman last week, an assistant in an oral surgeon’s office. She looked to be in her 40s, so a generation younger than me. She asked what I did. I said I was a writer and mentioned I was going to Vietnam in November.
I spent Memorial Day trying to get the prologue to Mark’s book right. Like any good writer, I managed a dozen words, deleted seven of them, and then checked Facebook. But my newsfeed was filled with official announcements … “we pause to remember …” and I would think, “who is ‘we?’ Veterans don’t ‘pause’ to remember anything. From veterans the message is ‘never a day goes by …'” and then I would have to go back to the writing and try to make it fit the task and not get overwhelmed by the very gap between civilians and veterans I was trying to write about. Read more
“Have you finished the book?” It was the first thing Fred said when he saw me one day and he followed it up with, “I’m going to ask you that every time I see you.”
And he has, too. He asks when he arrives for dinner, or at Cafe Dewitt where we are meeting for lunch, or even at his own retirement party at Ithaca College.
“Getting there,” I say. Inwardly I ponder the process, briefly touching in on a world that has become intimately familiar while remaining utterly strange – the world of the war in Vietnam in 1967 to 1969. Read more