On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story

September 2, 2015OnPointCover


Tracy Crow

In her poignant memoir, Losing Tim, iconic writing instructor Janet Burroway writes about the death of her son, a former Army ranger and government contractor. “Every suicide is a suicide bomber. The intent may be absolutely other—a yearning for peace, the need to escape, even a device to spare family. Nevertheless, the shrapnel flies.”

A few years ago, I was struck by shrapnel, and I’ve been carrying a heavy chunk of it inside me ever since.

We’re all aware of the startling statistic, twenty-two veteran suicides a day, but the statistic never hit a personal note until the violent suicide of a Marine Corps friend. In the wake of that tragedy, my friend left behind two teenaged daughters and a slew of Marine friends who wondered what we could have said or done that might have made a difference to a friend who had become so disillusioned with his civilian life he ended it with a gunshot.

Eyes_RightHis suicide came shortly after the release of my memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. For several months, I’d been answering a number of emails and Facebook requests from veterans who were eager for writing advice. Everyone has a story, and every story matters, whether that story is written for self-reflection, a family legacy, or for publication.

But after my friend’s suicide, I stopped the cutting and pasting of advice snippets from one email to another and began to develop On Point, the first writing guide for veterans and their families. Frankly, I was searching for a way to make a difference—for a way to reduce that 22-a-day statistic that sent shrapnel flying into the hearts and psyches of twenty-two families and countless friends every, single, day.

It’s no secret that getting an appointment with a health professional at a VA can sometimes take so long that a veteran gives up. It’s also no secret that transitioning from the military into civilian life is more difficult for some. But could a writing guide, I wondered, written by a veteran for fellow veterans and families, fill a gap? After all, most mental health professionals use writing, and other forms of art, in their programs for cognitive processing therapy.

My gut said yes, and here’s why. Writing about our military experiences, even if we decide to turn our true stories into fiction, helps us develop a deeper understanding about our life, our decisions, and the motives behind our decisions because meaningful writing comes from identifying meaningful patterns. Meaningful writing requires a self-awakening. When we write, we’re training ourselves to search deeply for motive behind choices, whether we’re writing about ourselves in a memoir or essay or about the characters within our military short story or novel.

In On Point, Brooke King, a soldier who served in Iraq and who admittedly suffers from post-traumatic stress, shares how writing helps. “It helps to make sense of what is happening to you,” she said. “In Cognitive Processing Therapy, a veteran with PTSD is asked to confront their traumas head-on by writing down the incident, and then connect the feeling associated with it. I didn’t think writing was helping at first, but I kept doing it because it was the only way I knew how to express myself.”

Spring 2014 MWSA Recommended Reading List
Spring 2014 Military Writers Society of America Recommended Reading List

Over time, she said, the nightmares decreased, and the feelings of guilt and shame lessened. “I began to understand that surviving the war was a blessing and not a curse.” Today, King is the author of a chapbook of poetry about her war experiences. Additionally, she has published a short story in the military anthology, Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53, 2013), and in my anthology, Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present (Potomac Books, 2014).

When I first shared the premise for On Point with friends and fellow writers, most assumed On Point would be a guide exclusively for the military veteran with a war story. Not so. Not every military story is a war story. I never saw combat in the 1980s, but my story of overcoming self-limitations, gender bias, and abuses of power still found its way into the world.

Crow-RedWhiteTrue_high_resOn Point is a guide for writing the military story. If you are serving in the military today, or have ever served, On Point is for you. If you are, or have been, a member of a military family, On Point is for you. In Red, White, and True, I included a number of true stories from spouses and grown children, and their essays are just as compelling as the essays from Iraq War veterans. And if you are the parent of a military son or daughter, you, too, have stories about how military service has affected you; at times you have probably felt pride, worry, fear, betrayal, resentment, anger, and other strong emotions.

On Point may have been born out of grief over losing my Marine Corps friend, but over time, the book grew as a wish to inspire a cross-generational sharing of the military experience–and where needed, a healing.

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Tracy's bio photoBio:

Tracy Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and an award-winning military journalist. While assistant professor of journalism and creative writing, her essays and short stories were published widely and nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the author of the first writing text developed for military veterans and their families, On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story (Potomac Books, 2015); the award-winning memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine (Nebraska, 2012); Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present (Potomac Books, 2014); and An Unlawful Order under her pen name, Carver Greene. She can be reached through her website.



An Interview with Tracy Crow, editor of the new anthology Red, White, & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present

Tracy_Crow_bio_photo_for_EYES_RIGHTI am pleased to introduce Tracy Crow, editor of the new anthology Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present (Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press).

Kathleen: Welcome, Tracy. Please give us a brief description of the book. What is the genre and who is your target audience?

Tracy: Thanks for this opportunity to introduce my newest labor of love!

Crow-RedWhiteTrue_high_resRed, White, and True is a collection of 32 TRUE military stories that stretch from WWII to present. Each story has been written by a veteran or military family member.

I like to imagine the collection as a mosaic – in that individually, each story provides provocative insights about the impact of military experience, whether rendered directly or indirectly in the case of spouses and children or grandchildren – while collectively, they reveal something much deeper – something we’re just now beginning to understand: the cross-generational impact of the U.S. military experience from WWII to present, which includes such things as military customs and traditions, long absences, combat or training deaths, life-changing injuries –the physical and the emotional – and survivor’s guilt.

Most would assume RWT’s target audience is veterans. But because this collection includes stories from families, the audience quickly and considerably widened. As a former professor, I can also envision RWT as a college text for war/literature classes, women’s gender studies, and memoir writing workshops.

KMR: How did Red, White, and True come about?

Jeffery Hess, editor of two anthologies from Press 53: Home of the Brave: Stories In Uniform and Home of the Brave: Somewhere In The Sand
Jeffery Hess, editor of two anthologies from Press 53: Home of the Brave: Stories In Uniform and Home of the Brave: Somewhere In The Sand

TC: A dear friend, Jeffery Hess, is the editor of two excellent volumes of military fiction (Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand), and one day suggested that I compile an anthology of military nonfiction. Something about the idea immediately resonated. I began to imagine a volume of noteworthy nonfiction that would portray a no-holds-barred look at the impact of U.S. military service. Not just the impact on veterans but on families, too. I also wanted to approach the idea of how today’s military service might influence future generations.

When I couldn’t find anything on the market like RWT, I was ready to pitch the idea to my editor.

KMR: You have some impressive credentials. Not only are you a former Marine Corp officer, you are an award-winning military journalist and an author nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. What was it like to switch roles from being an author to an editor? Or have you done this before?

TC: Actually, switching roles from writer to editor is fairly easy for me. My writing life began in the late 1970s as a Marine Corps journalist, but during my ten-year career, I was often assigned as press chief or media chief – editing positions.

At the time I began work on RWT, I was the nonfiction editor of Prime Number Magazine, a Press 53 literary journal. I was also teaching journalism and creative writing at Eckerd College in Florida, and working as the adviser to our award-winning college newspaper, the Current. In my roles at Eckerd, I wore an editor’s hat: my job was to lead student writers from their shaky first drafts toward work that was worthy of publication in our newspaper or beyond, and in the case of my short story or memoir writers, several steps closer toward publication in a literary journal.

Eyes_RightKMR: You seem to have a great rapport with the University of Nebraska Press. Did you get to work with the same editor or team of editors that edited your memoir Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine (Nebraska, 2012)?

TC: I’ll always be grateful to Ladette Randolph who was the acquiring editor at Nebraska Press when I submitted the manuscript of Eyes Right. The day I received her acceptance letter ranks high on my list of Best Days Ever. But a few months afterward, Ladette accepted an opportunity at Emerson. You probably know, it’s every writer’s fear to learn that the editor who loved a manuscript enough to acquire it has left, turning over said manuscript to another in-house editor; I’d heard plenty of horror stories. But I lucked out when Eyes Right fell to Bridget Barry, who delivered unwavering passion and compassion to my project. Bridget’s entire team at Nebraska is top-notch.

Soon after the release of Eyes Right, Nebraska acquired Potomac Books, which is a notable publisher of military titles. When I pitched Bridget my concept for Red, White, and True, she readily agreed the project had merit, and championed it before the board.

Right now, Bridget and I are wrapping up our third project together with the working title, “On Point: A Guide for Writing the Military Story,” in which I attempt to lead veterans and their families through the often emotional process of recording a military experience, whether for self-exploration, a family legacy, or for publication. We’re looking at a fall release for this book, but I’ll share that “On Point” has been the most challenging project of the three because of the mountain of self-doubt that had to be scaled every day. Bridget, thankfully, brought her usual passion and editing chops to the work, and the result for “On Point” is a military writing craft book that’s part memoir, part meditations and musings, and part writing maxims.

KMR: I remember the day I saw your call for submissions on the Military Writers Society of America Facebook page. I fired off an e-mail to you, inquiring if previously published work was eligible. You were quick to respond, and I immediately sent you my essay, “Remembering Forgotten Fliers, Their Survivors.” Did you receive an avalanche of submissions once your call went out? Where else did you place your call for submissions?

Red, White and True anthology, Potomac Books, Univ. Neb Press, origianl essay kathleenmrodgersTC: I knew I wanted your story before I reached the bottom of the first page!

I wouldn’t call it an avalanche of submissions, but the work steadily flowed in for several months. Besides approaching the Military Writers Society of America, I reached out to college writing instructors within Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) programs who were working with veterans, and this step provided a handful of quality essays and easy acceptances. Writer friends from graduate school (Queens University of Charlotte) also helped by spreading the word among their writing circles. I solicited work from writers and writing instructors whose work I knew well and admired – work from Tracy Kidder, Jeffery Hess, David Abrams, Kevin Jones, Lorrie Lykins, Matt Farwell, Kim Wright, and others.

Getting submissions is easy, actually. The two biggest headaches in the process of compiling an anthology, for me anyway, were gaining reprint permissions from book publishers and negotiating the reprint fees, which I had to pay. The latter is probably why you won’t see many calls for submissions that invite previously published work.

KMR: How many submissions did you receive and how many made it into the finished book?

TC: I received about a hundred and fifty submissions. Some were quickly rejected because they were merely bios revealing a laundry list of duty stations and awards; they weren’t storytelling narratives that revealed what William Faulkner described as the “human heart in conflict with itself,” which is what I intended to publish.

While I never had a particular number of essays in mind when I started the project, and neither did Bridget, we did have an agreement on the maximum word count, which was generous. To reach my goal of portraying the U.S. military experience from WWII to present, and from as many voices and perspectives as possible, I needed the thirty-two essays in RWT.

But given a choice, I will always choose even numbers over odd, for some reason.

KMR: Since you are also an author, was it hard to turn away other writers’ work?

TC: At the risk of appearing callous…not really, thanks to a lengthy background in editing. I quickly knew which essays were hitting, or had the potential to hit, their emotional truths and targets…and which essays I could most likely help develop within my deadline constraints. You see, editors have contractual deadlines, too. But as a writer who has experienced a landslide of rejection, I was certainly aware of the tone I wanted to apply within my rejection letters; I wanted to write the sort of rejection letter I wished other editors had written to me.

KMR: Once you made your final selections and sent them to your editor at UNP, did you have much say from that point on? Did all of your selections make it into the final book?

TC: Bridget provided insightful feedback for each essay, and in some cases, the writers and I needed to go back to work to develop even stronger essays. But yes, all my final selections made it, and so did my ordering of the work within the anthology. Even the stirring cover image of the dog tags against a backdrop of the American flag – an image I found online and recommended to the Nebraska/Potomac marketing team – made it!

KMR: As a writer, I am thrilled to have my essay appear in a body of work that includes a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a novelist with a New York Times Notable book award. That being said, I’m equally honored to appear in a collection where one of the authors is making his publishing debut. From an editor’s standpoint, what is it like to work with all these authors who are at different levels of their career?

TC: Humbling…thrilling…challenging…

But each of the 32 writers rewarded me in some special way, and each continues to reward me with news about how this publication is still affecting their lives months after its release. We’ve become a family now, a forever interconnected community of writers. In November, RWT was invited to the prestigious Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, and I had the opportunity to introduce a handful of our RWT contributors to a large crowd that came to hear our contributors read from their work and to have them sign copies of RWT. Many other contributors in other parts of the country have also read their RWT essays at writing workshops and veterans’ organizations.

KMR: Since most contributors aren’t financially compensated for allowing their work to appear in an anthology, what do you think is the appeal? Why are writers excited to have their work published in a collection?

TC: Oh, how I wish financial compensation was possible!

One appeal, I think, is the sense of validation. Sure, everyone has a story, but not everyone can write that story in such an artful way as to ensure its place within a publication that will stand the test of time, as I firmly believe RWT will do. Another appeal is the opportunity to lend a voice to the overall conversation – in RWT’s case, the cross-generational impact of military service.

KMR: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

TC: If I could be granted one wish as a take-away, I’d wish for RWT to inspire its readers to reflect on how their lives have also been affected by military service or by a parent’s or grandparent’s service, and to record those reflections as a way to understand and heal old wounds, or as a way to leave a family legacy. At the Tampa Bay Times event, a gentleman who looked to be in his mid-eighties approached me after the RWT reading on the walk to the book signing, and shared that his daughters and granddaughters had been pleading with him for years to write his military stories “before it’s too late.” Choking back emotion, he added, “I’m finally ready.”

Tracy and her husband, Mark Weidemaier, who is the defensive coach with the Washington Nationals.
Tracy and her husband, Mark Weidemaier, who is the defensive coach with the Washington Nationals.

KMR: What is it like to be married to a major league baseball coach? It sounds so glamorous.

TC: Guess that depends on one’s definition of glamorous! I eat way too many hotdogs every year.

It’s glamorous for him – he gets the best view of each game; awesome dining all day in the clubhouse; chartered flights around the country; his underwear and uniforms washed, folded, and packed for road trips by the clubhouse crew, etc. When he finally comes home, I sometimes have to remind him this isn’t Nationals Park or the Marriott!

I doubt most coaches’ wives would consider our side of baseball life quite as glamorous. For eight months each year – nine if the team makes it to the post-season – most of us live alone, holding together life at the family’s home base, and catching up with our husbands for a home stand here and there, or on the road if the team is playing closer to the family’s home, and for what I jokingly refer to as the conjugal visits. Of the seven years my husband and I have been together, we’ve actually lived together less than three.

Fortunately, I love baseball. I could watch a game every day. Last year, I watched 150 of 162 games because I scheduled my writing time around the television broadcast of each Washington Nationals game. Even though I know every team loses about seventy games each year, every Nats loss still feels like a sucker punch.

The real glamor of this life, for me anyway, arises from the satisfaction of supporting my husband’s passion. He’s as passionate about baseball as I am about my writing life. Besides, all that alone time…for a writer? Now that’s glamorous!

BIO: Tracy Crow is the author of the critically acclaimed military memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine (University of Nebraska Press, 2012)—winner of the bronze medal in the 2012 Florida Book Awards competition—and the military novel, An Unlawful Order, released under her pen name, Carver Greene.

Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies, and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the former nonfiction editor of Prime Number Magazine, a Press 53 publication, and is the editor of the military nonfiction anthology, Red, White, & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present (University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, 2014).

Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and an award-winning military journalist. As a former assistant professor of creative writing at Eckerd College and visiting instructor at the University of Tampa, she taught basic and advanced courses in all facets of journalism, fiction, playwriting, poetry, and memoir.

Today, Crow and her husband, Mark Weidemaier, who is the defensive coach with the Washington Nationals, live on ten acres in North Carolina with their four dogs, Molly, Cash, Fenway, and Hadley.