Archive | Why I Write

Helen Benedict: Why I Wrote a War Novel

Photo courtesy of Richard Wolinsky

Photo courtesy of Richard Wolinsky


Words After War, in partnership with the New York Public Library, presents “Danger Close: Writing War in the Workshop.” At 6:30 PM on Thursday, November 21, novelist and journalist Helen Benedict will moderate a panel to include Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Maurice Decaul and Mariette Kalinowski. Tickets and further information can be found HERE.

We are excited to share an essay written by Helen that first appeared in On The Issues Magazine. Read an excerpt below and follow the link to read the piece in its entirety.

In 2006, when I discovered that more women were serving and fighting in the Iraq War than in all past American wars put together, I wanted to know why: why they had joined, why they went to war, and what was it like to be a woman in combat.

To find out, I traveled the United States for roughly three years interviewing women veterans. Some I spoke to for an hour or two by phone, others I talked with for many months, visiting their homes, touring their towns, seeing their high schools, and meeting their families. In the end, I interviewed some 40 women from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force, most of whom had served in Iraq, although a few had served in Afghanistan, Korea, or Vietnam.

These women opened their hearts to me in ways I found extraordinarily courageous and moving. Some were proud of their service, others loved the military but opposed the war, and yet others had turned against both the military and the war – but they all wanted to be heard. I wrote my nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, based on those interviews, and a nonfiction play of the same name.

Yet, I knew there was more to say.

Read the rest HERE. Hope to see everyone tomorrow evening.


Danger Close: The Long Walk and the Loss of a Fallen Friend

The Long Walk

EOD1 Sean Carson

Brandon Willitts writes about how Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows helped him through the loss of his friend, EOD1 Sean Carson.

Shortly after I moved to New York City, news came that an old Navy buddy, Sean Carson, was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. The loss of Sean seemed to rip a hole right through me, for a lot of reasons really, but mostly because it felt like no matter how far I traveled away from Afghanistan, or how long ago I left that war, it might never leave me.

Sometimes a book comes along at exactly the right moment you most need to read it. I found solace in Brian Castner’s extraordinary memoir, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.

Brian Castner is a former Air Force EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officer – Sean was a Navy EOD technician – and his memoir is a magnificent portrayal of his experiences dealing with the confusion of war, struggles with coming home, and learning how to manage his difficult post-war emotions. The real power of Castner’s writing comes from the raw honesty of his struggles with PTSD – his frustration and confusion were palpable and real for me.

Through his writing, I felt like someone was throwing me a lifeline: the pain he described felt like my own pain, the confusion he described felt like my own confusion. It has become one of the most difficult reads of my life, while also being the most necessary.

After I finished The Long Walk the hole in my heart felt smaller. The loss of every one of my brothers now hurts a little less sharply than before. I might never completely put my war behind me, but somehow knowing that someone else has also struggled with such similar emotions, allows me to feel much less alone.


Will you be in NYC on 11/2? Come to our first public event, “Danger Close: Writers on War” featuring Brian Castner and some of our favorite writers! Information and tickets HERE. Can’t attend but interested in getting involved? Make a tax-deductible donation HERE.



Why I Write: Words During War, Words After War

Words After War

David Eisler

Words After War Policy Writing Fellow, David Eisler, reflects on why he writes and on the importance of bridging the military-civilian divide through writing.

My first experience with writing regularly started during my deployment to Iraq in 2008. I was young, inexperienced and following in the footsteps of so many others who had written about their time in combat. I kept a handwritten journal for personal thoughts, as well as a public blog where I wrote for family and friends. At the time, I didn’t think too much about the words themselves, but instead used the writing as a chance to escape from the daily routine.

I ended up writing far more than I’d ever anticipated, and then continued the process during my second deployment to Afghanistan. When I eventually left the Army, I had two journals collecting dust on my shelf and an online blog that served as a nostalgic reminder of my time at war. It took a long time before I was able to read it all from start to finish.

When I finally did look at it, I soon realized I wanted to transform it from simple journal entries and blog posts into a more polished product, transform it from words during war into words after war. I didn’t necessarily feel the need to tell my story, but rather use it as a medium to help bridge a psychological gap between those who have been there and those who haven’t. For me, it’s not necessarily a war diary, but the mostly coherent thoughts of a guy in a warzone. And yes, I believe there is a difference.

Putting that collection together has rekindled my interest in writing. I no longer write as a way of coming to terms with my own experiences, but rather I write to tell a much larger story, or maybe even to influence the national conversation in a meaningful way.

As veterans, we have a tendency to lament the state of the national conversation about those who have served. We sometimes rationalize our complaints by telling ourselves that “civilians don’t understand,” or other times we wonder about the disappearing social contract and fading culture of shared national responsibility.

But it’s up to us, as veterans, to take the initiative and bridge that divide, to reach out to those who might not see the common humanity that we all share. It’s up to us to reach out to those who might not see how veterans have much to offer in the way of knowledge and experience. When we block civilians from our conversations, we are only reinforcing tired stereotypes.

By coming together in a creative environment, such as a writing workshop, where we can find common ground through narrative and character development, we are closing the gap between all of us, both vet and civilian. We are letting go of tired stereotypes – one story at a time.

–David Eisler



Taking a Whack at ‘Why I Write’

Why I Write

It was late July and I was on vacation with my family. We were renting my second-cousin Parky’s house on an island in Maine. Eighth grade started in six weeks. My required Summer Reading list was full of thick classics. They felt like an insult to the spirit of the season. There wasn’t much to do but fashion bows from driftwood, arrows from garden stakes, ride up and down the island, jump off the dock if it ever got hot enough, bum candy money from old aunts, sniff the lupins, get bored, be obnoxious, feel guilty, eat lunch, doze over summer reading.

I was stuck on the first third of Huck Finn, mostly because I was reading a Stuart Woods book every night (the Stone Barrington series), staying up late in my pine sap-smelling room in the barn loft. There was a bookcase full of them, loud covers and quick hits of drugs, sex, violence, money, all the dirt and excitement I felt was missing from the school-required tomes. I arrived one morning at the breakfast table with a twitchy eye, a symptom of reader’s fatigue, I figured. Then I found that I couldn’t quite work my jaw enough to slurp down my cereal. I inspected a moldy mirror: the left side of my face was puffy and unresponsive. My mother prescribed Advil and OJ and shooed me out the door.

By the end of the week it felt like my skull was melting. Unable to blink, my eye watered constantly. I drooled when I spoke. It was widely acknowledged among the adults that there was a problem but nobody really felt like taking a boat ride to the ER. It was probably just a spider bite, an allergic reaction, nothing some sunshine, salt water and corn on the cob couldn’t fix. In the meantime, I was the Elephant Man of Cranberry Island. Ashamed of my appearance, I retreated further into the universe of Stone Barrington, the man with the chiseled jaw and unparalleled sexual prowess.

When we returned home my pediatrician delivered a diagnosis of Lyme disease-related paralysis. I took antibiotics for a few weeks and gradually my face returned to normal. But stares from other tweens lingered heavy in my mind. Life loomed long and hard before me.

It was only when I began to make sense of embarrassments, bad luck and poor decisions through writing that I realized it was all material, gristle, blog fodder, whatever. But more than that, churning these experiences into words provided a sense of perspective and ownership, a bit of comforting distance, the occasional triumph. I’ve turned that summer and every misstep since into jugs of tart lemonade. And these jugs, these stories, whether they are your own or others, significant or seemingly trivial, reappear at the most unlikely of places, often when you need them most.


Sign up for our writing workshop here, led by Matt Gallagher and hosted by Mellow Pages library.


Why I Write


Why I Write


I recently spoke with a veteran who had just finished his final tour in Afghanistan; he was preparing for graduate school and looking forward to a life after the Army. He commented that I’d been over there early on in the war, and I joked that I once felt like I had almost missed it.

As I listened to his stories, I secretly hoped that his words could somehow take me back over there again, maybe collapse the space between the Afghanistan he saw so recently and the one I remembered so distantly. Through his stories, perhaps, I might reclaim the memories that have faded over time. I listened carefully for the Afghanistan I too remembered.

As he talked, my mind drifted to the day that I’d watched the flag-draped coffin of a fallen solider being loaded into the belly of a C-130. I stood in an empty space along the Kandahar flight line, watching the plane taxi down the runway and lift off into a clear morning sky. The plane quickly disappeared over the rugged mountains along the horizon, and soon I felt hollow and helpless. The pain of that dead soldier’s sacrifice was so immediate that it felt heavy and moored within me, like an anchor line had been knotted to my sadness and thrown over the side.

For many years after that day, in my mind, I would return to that empty, hollow place along the flight line and stare out at the distant mountains. The rugged peaks stood far off in the distance, like sentries along the horizon, making everything seem tiny set against them, even a massive C-130 sitting idly along the flight line. And in that hollowness, somehow, it felt like those mountains were holding a falling sky in place, as though the sharp peaks kept all of the more broken parts of the war from crashing down on top of me.

Selfishly I believed the mountains would protect me, that somehow they held every shard of that shattered sky from falling on me. And yet, the sky eventually fell, and I lost two good friends in Afghanistan: Jeremy Wise and Sean Carson.

Years later, I have come to realize that even though I’ve been living my life back home, in the United States, somehow no matter how far I travel away from that time or place in my life, I left a piece of myself in Afghanistan forever. I once heard someone describe depression as the act of holding too tightly to the past, and anxiety as the act of holding too tightly to the future. When I write down everything I remember from my time over there, it’s as though I am closing the door on some of my grief and maybe even on some of the ghosts of my past.

I want to imagine a future where the war no longer sits so prominently in the front of my mind. A future where the grieving for dead comrades feels less immediate in my heart. I want to imagine a future where I have moved forward, let go of the past, and stopped worrying so much about the future.

As a veteran, I believe I write so I can move forward and let go of the past; conversely, I believe I write so I’ll never forget my past. For me, writing is this strange, paradoxical act of remembering something in order to try to decide whether it’s worth forgetting. I write to remember Jeremy Wise and Sean Carson. I write their names down so I will never forget them or what they gave on my behalf. Simultaneously, I write so I am able to move forward with my life, to feel less alone, to feel less hollow along that flight line.

Nothing about my past, the death of friends or the war has ever been easy for me. But I write it all down anyway. Often, after I have written it all down, all of it feels less difficult than it once did. And that is enough for me.

–Brandon Willitts

Register now for our NYC veteran writing workshop led by veteran and writer Matt Gallagher