Professional writers team with veterans to help them tell their stories
Bruce Knight, a ground surveillance operator with the U.S. Army Airborne Rangers for more than four years, fingers the chain out from under his T-shirt and eight dog tags clatter against his chest. “Maybe I’ll write about them,” he says, clutching the tags in his hand. Knight wants to write about what went down in Somalia. He wants to write about being shot in the back by a sniper in Panama. He wants to write about what he doesn’t discuss with his wife and sons. Tall and broad-shouldered with a perfectly clipped black-and-white haircut, Knight, 42, is an intense, formidable man. “I’ll write the truth,” he says, cool eyes narrowing, “the way it really was.”
Kayla Rogers may write about Slippery Rock, Pa., where she grew up with her grandma and grandpa. Slippery Rock is where, two weeks before 9/11, Kayla joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 as a junior in high school. She could write about being on the last flight of Marines into Kuwait City when the U.S. bombed Baghdad in 2003, or how she was the only woman in her company of 200 because the only other woman “freaked when she saw her first dead body and was sent home.” She could write about capturing prisoners, how you “bag and tag” them — sacks over their heads, wrists tied with wire — or sleeping on top of her Humvee and the bullets for the 50-caliber weapon that were “about 4 inches long and as thick as a lipstick tube.”
Rogers is 26 now — her lipstick is cherry red, her hair is platinum and she’s traded in the 4-inch bullets for 4-inch white patent-leather high heels— and she’s not someone you’d imagine has ever seen a Humvee much less slept on one. “Sometimes I didn’t think I’d make it out of there because of all the close calls,” she says. “I promised my grandpa before he passed away that I would write a book.”
They are two of the veterans who want to write, two of the 51 who sat down earlier this month at the Veterans and Writers Workshop given by the Writers Guild Foundation in Los Angeles. The foundation is the educational and charitable part of the guild; this was the West’s first workshop and the East has held two. Because I was going to be a mentor, I asked Tom Fontana (“Oz”), president of the WGA’s East Foundation, how the workshops came about.
“How can we help people tell their stories? How can we fill a void that no one else is doing?” Fontana says. Michael Weller, a New York playwright (“Moonchildren,” “Loose Ends”), came up with this intriguing idea: to find people whose stories haven’t been told, American stories, and give those people a voice; to create workshops that bring professional writers together with people who want to write and haven’t had a chance to learn how. They decided to begin with the military. “We have a responsibility to help them be heard,” Fontana says. Because many Americans pay scant attention to the wars or to the heroic young men and women who are fighting them, we have a responsibility to listen. . More than 1.8 million have served in the armed forces since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq; there are about 700,000 veterans from these wars.
“No experience necessary! Free to all veterans and military members. An opportunity to work with some of the top writers in America.” That’s on the flier that goes out wide — posted at Camp Pendleton, the VA, Operation Mend, Wounded Warriors and many more — and they responded.
And so do the writers. Academy award-winning and nominated screenwriters, Emmy-winning television writers, novelists, playwrights, journalists — the foundation raised $30,000 to put on the workshop. The 25 vets who came in from out of town got put up in a hotel for two nights; the foundation catered six first-class meals and one cocktail hour. It’s slightly ironic that they put a bunch of tough Marines and soldiers in a hotel on Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of boys’ town — maybe one of the vets will write a comedy about it.
You would think the writers’ stories would pale next to the vets until you hear Dell Reisman talk about flying 35 missions in a B-17 (the “Flying Fortress”) in the U.S. Army Air Corp in World War II, a war long ago and far away for these vets but still vivid to Reisman: “Remembering the other planes getting hit, counting the parachutes in the sky.” Dell has written for television practically since television began.
“Did you always want to be a writer?” I ask.
He laughs. “I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I was going to do. Came home, went to the University of California at Berkeley on the GI Bill, certainly with no idea of being a writer.”
It seems that most writers don’t start out with a grand passion to write.
Allan Burns began as a page at NBC and wound up creating “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Jay Kogen ( “The Simpsons”) was a delivery boy, bookstore clerk and movie usher before writing his own material. Carl Gottlieb (“Jaws”) was a stage manager for the Committee improv group, and I was a secretary. I had no idea how to write when I began. I never took a writing course, never went to college, and after five published novels and , I’m still not sure.
“Can you teach someone how to write?” I ask the writers. The answer is usually yes … and no. “It’s like tennis … or playing the trumpet…,” Alessandro Camon ( “The Messenger”) says. “They can be taught but they have to learn. No one is born knowing how to do it, but that doesn’t mean anyone can become Roger Federer or Miles Davis. Talent itself cannot be taught, but it can be enabled, I think.”
The kickoff breakfast is a buffet on the second floor of the Guild’s building, across from the Farmers Market. Name tags and scrambled eggs. Everyone is slightly uncomfortable — like a mixer in the ninth grade. Everyone breaks off into assigned groups: two or three writer-mentors to six or seven veterans, nine groups who will be together all weekend. Writing and talking about writing, for a short story, novel, screenplay, poem and, as it turns out, stand-up comedy, a video game and a song.
Some of the vets bring finished screenplays bound with brads just like in Hollywood; one brings a shiny, hot-off-the-presses, self-published book. Some, like Knight, have never put pen to paper, and some, like Erik Murillo, have never let anyone read their work. Murillo, 37, was born in Peru and came to L.A. when he was 7. An Army PC technician, he is soft-spoken with pale brown eyes and pale expressive hands that move when he’s making a point like ground crew signaling a pilot where his center line is.
Erik is home nine months after serving in Iraq. “I can jump into an armored vehicle and perform a mission, but have someone read my script?” he says. “That’s another thing entirely.” He can tell you about Mosul, about the cows walking around drinking dirty sewer water, the used hypodermic needles on the ground. He can tell you about the sand and “how it comes into you — imagine a whole world in sepia,” he says, eyes wide. He can tell you about Christmas 2008, when 14 mortars hit his unit or how a suicide bomber detonated himself across the windshield of a Humvee, but he’s not easy with someone reading what he has written.
Tips from mentors. : Go around the table and tell something about yourself, but inject a lie ; that teaches participants how to capture an audience. Write a letter to a person about an unresolved issue; that teaches how to face fear and self-doubt. Read what you’re writing out loud. Does the dialogue sound like people really talk?
Mark Norman (“Shakespeare in Love”) is on the fourth floor talking about throwing out the first draft, what he calls the “suck draft,” while Kogen is on the third floor talking about throwing out the first draft, the “vomit draft.”
Write in a journal. Write under the deadline of a kitchen timer. Listen to a song and create a character. Listen to a different song and write a scene featuring that character.
Alessandro and Larry Andries (“The Pacific”) walk their group, equipped with pen and paper, across the street to the crowded Grove, with instructions to find two people, watch them and write a two-character scene. Be back in an hour and a half.
They have homework. Write a monologue — a single shot, two people in frame, one is you at your age talking to the 16-year-old version of you who’s sleeping in the bed. One page.
This stuff isn’t easy.
After French toast and bacon, we break off into groups. I stick with Camon and Andries’.
They read their scenes. It’s more than emotional. Not just a lot of laughter and a few tears, but a wellspring of camaraderie. When Murillo reads his monologue, he has six guys flanking him who will cover his back. They’re all in this together now — just as they were in uniform.
And by Sunday afternoon, there is a bond of vets and writers. Scott Olson, 23, a U.S. Navy Pay Officer 2nd Class, who looks like he just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, takes the microphone. “I’m just a farm boy from Missouri who would never have had this opportunity. Thank you.”
“One of the most inspiring two days in my professional life, thanks for including me,” says Chris Knopf (“Equal Justice”).
And in the weeks after, along with lots of thank-yous, there’s incentive and excitement.
“I’m cranking things out,” Army Staff Sgt. Thom Tran says. “Not necessarily good things…,” he laughs, “but I’m cranking … my confidence is higher.”
Sergio Santos, a captain in the Marine Corps, says he’s writing three pages every morning before he goes to work.
And Murillo is sending me his script. “It was a challenge before to have the courage.” This is from the guy who volunteered to go “outside the wire” to distribute food and toys to Iraqi children in the most impoverished areas of Mosul.
“The workshop was more than generosity,” Knight says, “it was the care and appreciation, the feelings, the help, the offer of continued support … everyone always said to write you need a formal education … and I’ve had this idea for awhile.... And Evan Wright (“Generation Kill”), said just write a scene. And I did. He said just follow through with it and continue on. So I’ve been carrying it everywhere so I can continue on.”
“Oh, yeah?” I ask. “So, where’s the scene now?”
“In my pocket,” Knight says.
“It’s the most I’ve talked about the war since I’ve been there,” Kayla Rogers says. “The workshop brought back memories I totally forgot, even from growing up … it lifted a memory block.” The journal she kept in Iraq is being sent to her from Slippery Rock. She’s ready to read it now. “I’m going to fulfill the promise I made to my grandpa,” she says. “I kept saying I was going to do it; I just needed somebody telling me how to get started.”
Los Angeles-based Elaine Kagan is an actress and the author of “The Girls,” “Somebody’s Baby” and other novels.