Jim McGarrah, Vietnam
The Vietnam War memoir "A Temporary Sort of Peace" by Jim McGarrah, struck me with its fearless honesty. So much can happen to a person during war. The terrible experiences become embedded in mind as terrible memories. So what does it take to convert these terrible memories into a story that can be shared with other people? To learn more about what that feels like, I asked the author a few questions about his memoir writing process.
JW: You talk in the book about how hard it was to face your war memories. And yet, you managed to write a whole book about it. I am hoping you can share some of what that felt like.
JM: Yes, I did write a whole book, but I was thirty plus years and a lot of therapy past the war before I could look at it objectively and with the honest perspective of an old man, able to admit my own character flaws and willing to face the fact that politicians use words like honor and patriotism to manipulate their personal agendas. You can't write a credible war memoir if you're still stuck on either end of the extremes – pumped up with pseudo-glory or bitter from reality. I've felt both ways in the past and I had to learn to balance those issues emotionally before I could describe them and reflect on their influences personally with any credibility. Any attempt at honest reflection involves some painful introspection.
JW: When did you first start thinking you wanted to write about those years? What were your initial thoughts, misgivings, or plans?
JM: I wrote an essay about ten years ago for a magazine called Southern Indiana Review. The subject was returning to the Veterans Administration out-patient clinic to be examined for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The VA had only recently begun to admit that such a condition existed, even though historians as old as Tacitus, among others, were describing similar symptoms in Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. After the article was published, I put it out of my mind and went on to other things.
When we invaded Iraq five years ago, the parallels with the 1960's came immediately to mind. Politicians and journalists were even using some of the same phrases to fire up the population for a limited war with a third world country. One of my university students, a beautiful and sensitive and talented young writer, had joined the National Guard the year before the invasion to help pay her way through school. She was called up and returned home a paraplegic at the age of twenty. At that point, I went back and looked at the old essay and started to wonder how I had managed to get myself involved so easily in an event that influenced my life so heavily for decades afterwards. Not only that, but I wondered why we had learned so little between Vietnam and Iraq.
So, I started writing a series of inter-connected essays about that period in my life in an attempt to understand my own thoughts and feelings at the time. I believed that by doing this I might somehow discover why history seems to always repeat itself. My only misgiving was that I might not be talented enough to do the subject justice. After a few of those essays had been published and I saw there was an interest in the subject, I also saw that what I was doing was evolving into a book. I don't really plan projects. I start writing about things I feel and try to discover something worth knowing in them.
JW: What sorts of steps did you go through to gather the skills, and organize the information and arrange the structure?
JM: The first step in writing about life is to live it. As an editor, so often I read stuff that is technically flawless, but says nothing interesting. As writers, we are translators, not creators. And, what we translate is specific experience, or composites of experience, into language that's both accessible and full of emotional substance. If we have never involved ourselves emotionally in the process of living, we have nothing to translate and it becomes difficult to make a connection on a level that resonates with a reader.
Secondly, we have to overcome our own fears and our own feelings of self-importance. We're making ourselves open and vulnerable so others may learn something about what it is to be human. I put these things down as steps because they often require conscious discipline to accomplish. Another very important step is reading. I read constantly and I read everything lying around, from labels to Ladies Home Journal to James Joyce to Salmon Rushdie to Gaston Bachelard. I've read the Bible several times, not because I'm a religious man, but because it's an anthology of forty great poets and story tellers. Not only does reading help you gather skills and see how they are used, it also teaches you variations of structure and organization.
Possibly the most important step I ever made, and it's a one time step that never quits, is moving my writing from a means of expression into a tool to search for meaning in life or discover something or relearn something that we forgot about human nature. Then we create an opportunity for a reader to learn something new as well. Robert Frost once said, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." This is the quality that sometimes allows writing to approach the level of true art.
JW: What sorts of feedback or coaching did you get?
JM: I was privileged to study with some of the best writers currently working, not necessarily the most famous, but the best. From 1999-2001, I went through the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Vermont College and the faculty at that time was simply amazing. I don't know how else to put it. The class I graduated with is responsible for dozens of good books in the 21st century, largely due to the influence and encouragement of the faculty that was there at the time and the intensity of the curriculum.
JW: What did you tell yourself, to sustain your commitment to putting these difficult memories on paper.
JM: I just kept telling myself that besides exorcising my own demons, I might actually help some other person deal with similar circumstances. I forced myself to believe that what I was doing might make a difference, might turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts. I have always believed that my experience was not unique, only my reaction was and through a record of that some connection might be made with someone else. Judging from the responses I've received by people who've read the book, I'd say the assumption was true, and I'm thankful for that.
JW: What reactions did you get from other combat veterans?
JM: One example – I gave a public reading last December. In the audience, I noticed a man whose eyes started to get moist. After the reading, he came up to me and asked if I remembered him. I confessed I didn't. He told me his name and that we went to high school together. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduation and gone to 'Nam. I hadn't seen him in forty years, but he thanked me over and over again for finally getting things right, for telling the world how it really was. That was a very humbling and inspiring moment for me. I've had several more like it. I've also had some older vets from WWII who felt like I was unpatriotic for talking about the war the way I did.
JW: What did you find surprising about the response to your book?
JM: What I've found surprising is the overwhelmingly positive response I've been getting from younger, college-age, readers. Many of them who have never studied much contemporary American history wondered how baby-boomers could relate Vietnam to Iraq and had a much clearer understanding after reading this memoir. Also, I've had several students come up to make after readings and say "thanks, now I understand my dad better."
JW: Do you speak to groups, or reach out to other veterans or other trauma survivors about your experience?
JM: I speak to as many people as I can as often as I can and I ask a lot of questions. I also do public readings and book signings and teach writing workshops in various places. But, that's contingent on my time schedule and whether or not I can earn enough money from the engagement to pay for the trip. I'll go just about anywhere.
JW: I hate admitting my frailties so I am impressed by your telling of experiences you weren't proud of. How did you feel about writing so frankly?
JM: No human is all good or all bad. All humans equivocate. If you create a character in fiction that is all one way or another, that character doesn't read real. He or she reads as a stereotype and the text becomes boring very quickly. If you write non-fiction and you describe a real person as all one way or another, you're lying. To write a memoir, an author must be able to confront himself or herself with honesty and integrity, no matter how humiliating the experience. Anything less and you're cheating yourself and your audience. Good readers know immediately if they're being led down the path of bull shit.
Also, what makes books interesting is drama. What makes drama is conflict. A person in real life is conflicted about most things, no matter how insignificant, on most days. When you capture that on the page, it FEELS real to a reader. As to how I felt – relieved.
JW: But it seems so final, putting yourself in this light in a published book. You can never retract it. Doesn't that bother you?
JM: if I worried about wanting to retract them, I wouldn't have written them. Not everything we write is pretty. Not everything we write is accurate, or with the best judgment. But, we are responsible for everything we write. Therefore, if you don't want to communicate something keep it off the page. When it's printed you are saying to the world, right or wrong I accept the consequences of this language. Being a writer requires a thick skin and a certain mental toughness that most people don't have. Everyone thinks they can write wonderfully until they try and find out they don't have the stomach to do what's necessary emotionally.JW: As a memoir writer, you looked back across time, and saw your own life moving through decades. I wonder what lessons and discoveries this long view gave you about how your life has worked.
JM: That's a very complex question without an easy answer. I can't say that, looking back, there weren't things in my past I might have done differently, or better. On the other hand, I don't regret the experiences I've had because the sum total of them is who I am today and, for better or worse, I like who I am today. I have received a lot of privileges in my life and I've shared my benefits with others. I've raised two fine children and influenced a lot of people, both positively and negatively. But, a long view of my life tells me my life has worked for me and I'm truly appreciative that I've lived long enough to enjoy it. Many of my closest friends didn't.
JW: What's next?
JM: My newest collection of poems, "When the Stars Go Dark," is due to be released nationally this winter as part of Main Street Rag's Select Poetry Series. I'm working on a second memoir that picks up after the Vietnam war that examines where my generation went after the war and why.
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