Archive for January 2010
I’ve been pretty crazy about this blog the last few weeks, and have been telling everybody I could about it. Not only is it a brilliant idea for writing, but it’s insightful and funny. If you love football and have a taste for history, definitely check it out.
I left off last time talking about chiselling and shaping until I get my story into the best form I know how. Therein lies the problem. I’m so out of sorts with fiction that I don’t know when it is in good shape, and have little clue about getting it in better shape. I know when it’s doing some of the things I want it to do, but have little clue about how effectively I’m doing it. But I’m not worried about that. The practice of writing the piece is what is most important; plus, I have a writer’s group that will look at it in a few weeks and give me some feedback. Every writer should have a writer’s group for that very reason. Artists need to communicate with each other to give feedback, to push and prod and challenge each other. Sometimes it stings a little bit, but that’s part of the process. For the most part, the experience helps the writer reach new levels and see things he can’t see because he’s too close to the action.
I also talked about being inspired by Wallace’s piece in The New Yorker. That brings me to another point: Artists should not only watch other artists work, but looking intensely at what other artists produce. This idea travels across the different artistic disciplines. It’s funny that I would mention this right now. Last weekend, I had a chance to see The Searchers at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan. I’ve loved the film for some years now, but only saw it on television, so I was slavering over the thought of seeing an original cut of it in an actual movie theatre (plus, I had a date!). I was researching it a little bit beforehand, enough to learn that it’s widely considered one of the top 5 films ever made (and the greatest of its genre). I also learned that David Lean watched the film repeatedly before he shot Lawrence of Arabia to learn how to shoot landscapes. It must have paid off… Lawrence of Arabia is considered by many to be the greatest film ever. In fact, a lot of cinematographers credit it with being their favorite film, or the film that most inspires their craft.
Back to the story… Point of View is interesting. In Creative Non-fiction, the writer is always the narrator; it’s then a matter of where he places himself in the story. Sometimes he’s an undercover observer, sometimes he’s an active participant, sometimes he’s a commentator… there are a multitude of variations on where the narrator is in CNF, but he’s always the direct filter to what is told. In fiction, the writer creates the narrator. Similar to a CNF writer, he chooses the narrator that best suits the story, whether it be a third-person omniscient, third-person limited, or first-person. What best serves the story is an issue I had to consider early on a few weeks ago. I started the story in first-person, partly because the plot bears some resemblance to events from my life. But I felt like it was too much of an ego-trip, and narrating first-person was keeping me from reaching a deeper level of meaning. So round about the third draft, I switched to third-person limited POV. I was inspired mostly by what Raymond Carver did in many of the stories that I consider his best. I felt strangely omnipotent by making such a switch. I liked it.
I’ve never mentioned the name of the actual story under consideration here. I had to brainstorm it out on my dry-erase board the other night: “Something for the Hurt.”
It’s a funny thing, writing.
Like I need to remind myself. Or you.
I got to writing a story 2 weeks ago, and got so absorbed in it that I forgot the primary purpose behind this blog… which is to serve as a metacognitive journal for my writing. Plus other stuff. So I’ve been heavy on the “other stuff” for a while now. So heavy, in fact, that I’ve ignored the metacognitive part. Until now, when I suddenly remember that I can talk out a few things here and settle some issues with my story.
The funny thing about this new story is that it is fiction. Fiction. The “F” word in my writing vocabulary. I don’t write fiction. I don’t like fiction. Fiction is too structured. Fiction is too vague. Fiction is too ordinary. Fiction is too unbelievably extraordinary. Fiction is too hard. Fiction is too stuck-up. Fiction curries too much favor from the academically elite minds that dominate the craft of writing, which in turn enables fiction to make my beloved Creative Non-fiction its literary bitch.
I’ll credit two sources for this sudden shifting of gears. One would be my friend Nath Jones, who recently joined a writer’s group that I’ve been part of for two years. She’s the first fiction writer to join us, and it must be something about her psychic waves lapping at the shores of my mind (I’m not the only one… Matt Wood, another CNF writer in our group, just gave us a piece of fiction he wrote). My second source would have to be David Foster Wallace and a piece he had in The New Yorker a few weeks back. It got me to thinking about how fiction writers can create and use Allegory to broaden their themes (I did a little digging to be sure I was using the correct term… A Handbook to Literature told me that allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself… Thus it represents one thing in the guise of another [another special shout-out to my man Herb, who gave me AHL when he retired]). Check out “All That” to see how Wallace does it.
So I got to thinking about how I can work to add a skill like that to my writing repertoire. I must have just needed to announce to myself that I was interested in that, because about 3 days later, in the midst of some cognitive processing, I was blindsided by something. And it wasn’t my usual CNF impulse, which usually feeds me parts of stories. This sucker came to me in its entirety– the whole thing dropped into my lap. So now I am tasked with chiseling and shaping it until I get the story in the best form I know how. But I’m not dealing with allegory in my story… more like it’s kid brother Symbolism. Still, it’s a step in a new direction.
I’ve touched upon a significant difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction writers intentionally create symbols and allegories to further their themes. The fiction writer doesn’t announce those meanings; he implies them and leaves the rest to the reader. A simple example of this is the titular mockingbird of To Kill a Mockingbird. But allegory and symbolism aren’t indigenous to the CNF ecosystem, because CNF deals with real life. In real life, man makes symbols intentionally, and is intentional with their meanings. A simple example of this is my friend Jim’s 1990 Indiana State Football Championship ring. It was intentionally designed to symbolize everything about that season, his school, his team, his work ethic…
Nathan Geist is a 2005 graduate of Zion-Benton Township High School, is in his final year of studies at Southern Illinois University, and recently appeared in the film The Promotion. From September 2008 until September 2009, he served a year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan as a Chaplain Assistant in the US Army. During that time, he posted periodic updates on The Seeker; this is his first post-service update.
I hope you all had a merry Christmas and that the upcoming decade brings you lots of blessings. I’ve had several people ask me about my transition from soldier to student since I’ve been back, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about it. One question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is, “Do you have PTSD?” Well, it’s complicated…
A few months ago, I was walking through a nearly vacant Six Flags parking lot with Joanna during Fright Fest when a propane torch malfunctioned and made a very loud boom, not unlike so many Rocket Propelled Grenades that were launched by the Taliban against the bases where I served while in Afghanistan. For a split moment, the parking lot disappeared and I was back on rocky terrain in Herat, and Joanna wasn’t my fiancée standing next to me, but my chaplain. I froze for a moment, panicking about what to do next, as there were no bunkers around and I was in the wide open. When I realized that the whizzing sound of an RPG didn’t follow the explosion, I was back at Six Flags, holding Joanna’s hand. I bring up this episode first because it is the most severe I’ve had since I’ve been back, though there have been other minor post-war struggles. For the first few months after my return, I had dreams that I was stuck in Afghanistan and couldn’t get home. The dreams rarely included combat scenarios, but even when they did, they were more exciting than scary. The dreams have faded, and the less contact I have with the Army, the less frequent they seem to be.
Taking into account everything I just said, you might be convinced that I have PTSD. I disagree. There have been incidents that have triggered my combat instincts, but I haven’t worried too much about them. I relate them to something somewhat similar: When I spent weeks playing the newest video game in junior high, I would walk away after beating it, but not without constant incidents that triggered my memory of the game and, in some wacky ways, triggered my gamer instincts.
While going through the pre-deployment phase, I was frequently told that when I’d get back from war, I would have scars that go deeper than the skin, and that they would never heal. Likewise, I’ve attended post-deployment meetings and have been told by people who haven’t heard a fragment of my experience that I probably have PTSD. I’ve found that the Army and the media both like to beat it into veterans’ heads that they most certainly have PTSD; well, here’s one soldier who doesn’t have it. I know I’ve had incidents that triggered memories, but the more time that passes, the less frequent and less intense they become. Eventually, these memories will become as fuzzy to me as beating Super Mario Bros. 3. Sure, I have been changed by spending a year in Afghanistan, and I will never be the same person I was before I went to war. But anybody who comes home and isn’t a changed person never truly went to war in the first place.
One thing that does haunt me is that I have been allowed by God to come home and send this email to you while so many others will never spend time with their families again. I have discovered a “normal” that is comparable to the normal I understood before; the families of my fallen 2-130th Infantry Battalion brothers will have much more difficulty finding normal– if they ever find it again. If you see me waking up in the middle of the night to cry about something, it’ll be for my fallen comrades, not for my experiences and certainly not out of self-pity.
There is another pain that still lingers from the deployment, and it is in my upper and lower back. Both are constantly uncomfortable, and at times I wake up in the middle of the night with a crippling, burning sensation on my tailbone that has only worsened with time. I have visited the VA Hospital, but I am still cutting through the red tape to see a back specialist. Doctors tell me that preliminary x-rays indicate that there is no obvious injury to my back; 22 years of a functioning back tell me that they’re wrong.
Another question I am asked is how school has gone for me since I’ve been back; more specifically, did I get back early enough so as not to dig myself an academic hole that was too deep to get out of. Yes, I did. I finished outprocessing at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin on Friday, September 4, 2009, just three minutes before the outprocessing stations closed for that day… and for the weekend… and for Labor Day. Had I been any later getting home, then I wouldn’t have finished outprocessing the day that I did, and I wouldn’t have been on campus for another week. While some of my professors would have accommodated me no matter how late I returned, other professors were much less considerate and told me that they were intending on dropping me from their rosters if I wasn’t in school the week after Labor Day. But, I did make it in time for school following Labor Day weekend, worked my butt off for the rest of the semester to catch up, found myself on the Dean’s List of Honor Roll students despite the delay, and I am now just a couple credits away from graduating in May 2010. I say this not to toot my own horn but to point out to any miracle naysayers: my early return has allowed for a September 2010 wedding and for my life to move forward 8 months faster than anticipated; not to mention I will now graduate with Joanna.
As many of you know, there is lots of excitement surrounding the proposal with Joanna. Our love story was something that was once shared just between the two of us, but we couldn’t be happier extending our excitement to those who are touched by it. We can’t thank our supporters enough for turning our love story into an award-winning one. When Joanna and I began dating in early 2006, I believed that God told me He was going to do big things with our story; He didn’t disappoint. And the excitement doesn’t end with our story being selected as the top proposal story of the year out of 3500+ entrants on The Knot… our proposal story is also the first proposal story featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: True Love. The book was released last week in bookstores across America. With any luck, this won’t be the last time you can go to the bookstore and pick up our love story: I am in the primary editing stages of publishing a memoir of my experience in Afghanistan… and you’ve already read the bulk of it! My email updates are being written into a work of non-fiction that I hope you will be able to pick up on bookshelves no later than Christmas 2011. You didn’t even know it, but you were reading the rough copy in my emails. Funny thing is, I didn’t know it any better than you did, because I had no idea that so many people would be so receptive (or at least interested) in the adventures of SGT Bandee mixed with my analysis of the situation in Afghanistan.
So, I promised you big news and a good ol’ update on Danger this week, and my hope is that I have satisfied your expectations. The next few months will be exciting for me: there will be lots of wedding planning, I will finish my last semester in college, and I will be getting my honorable discharge from the Army National Guard for completing my 6-year obligation. I could re-enlist if I wanted to work through the ranks, and in fact, I was offered a promotion to Staff Sergeant immediately after I returned from Afghanistan. It was like a dream come true, really: it was the promotion I had been vying for over the past several years, busting my butt every way I knew how. The promotion would have included a transfer to a different unit, one I wanted to be a part of for a long time. Beyond that, it would put me in a position to become the kind of leader I was trained to be, and I’d be one of the youngest Staff Sergeants in the Army. It was my dream promotion, and it seemed everything was falling into place for me. There was only one thing that could change that: The realization that raising a family and enjoying the simpler things in life was more important than achieving rank and making a name for myself. Which is exactly why I turned down the promotion. I get out of the Army in April, and I’m not looking back.