Sharon Rubino-West, a former Marine herself and the mother of a Gulf War II veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), remembers the Helen Deutsch Writing Workshops as the first time anyone with a military background reassured her that it was alright to share her family’s story of living with a veteran with disabilities.
Prior to that, when she needed to talk about her family’s experience, she heard a familiar refrain:
"You shouldn’t be telling your son’s business. You shouldn’t be talking about this."
Only when she was sitting in her writing group, worrying about how much to reveal in her writing, did a fellow military vet tell her not to be concerned about what other people thought.
That veteran was David Tucker II, a Seattle-based playwright and one of the professional writer-mentors who led a weekend workshop at the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) offices in New York City with 40 caregivers for veterans.
The Helen Deutsch Writing Workshops for active-duty and veteran military members and caregivers is a program of the Writers Guild Initiative (WGI), a nonprofit run by WGAE, one of the 56 unions of the AFL-CIO and one that represents professional writers in film, television and digital media.
The program found new life in 2007 when Tom Fontana, a prominent TV writer and producer whose credits include TV blockbusters “St. Elsewhere,” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz,” became president and built up the membership of the foundation’s executive board while expanding the organization’s work.
Its purpose was to serve the underserved, people who were not writers but whose lives were filled with stories and experiences that needed to be told. According to WGI’s current president, playwright and screenwriter Michael Weller, the ultimate decision to hold a writing workshop for veterans came about almost incidentally.
Blessed with an influx of funding from the Helen Deutsch legacy grant, Fontana, Weller and the other board members came together to figure out how to best use the money. The veterans’ idea came about when the group decided they wanted to “serve those who served us.” One of the board members had a cousin who worked with veterans in Ohio and the group hit the ground running to pull the first workshop together.
In April 2008, a crew of 20 award-winning screenwriters, playwrights and novelists landed in Columbus to teach a class of 40 veteran and active-duty service members the craft of storytelling.
Christopher Kyle was one of the WGAE members who participated in that initial workshop. Although he is an accomplished screenwriter with 15 years of experience whose scripts have been directed by the likes of Oliver Stone and Kathryn Bigelow, he felt anxious as he stepped into the Ohio State University classroom where the veterans awaited their mentors.
“I was a little nervous,” he remembers. “I felt like we were coming from very different worlds. By pure coincidence, the first guy I talked to at the meet-and-greet was from Terre Haute, Ind.—my hometown. We hit it off and by coincidence again, he was placed in my group.
“In the group I saw that [the veterans and active-duty members] were just people, too, no big deal. It was just great for us to hear the stories these people had to tell and for them to have the opportunity to tell other people.”
Since that first session of workshops in 2008, the Helen Deutsch Writing Workshops has partnered with the Wounded Warrior Project to host workshops with veterans in San Antonio, flown in caregivers from across the country for workshops in New York City and has even had writers travel to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany—the largest U.S. military hospital outside of this country—for a workshop with medical personnel treating soldiers who’ve been wounded on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Rubino-West, who participated in a workshop for caregivers in 2011, the most significant thing the writing sessions provided was “a place of safety to write.”
“In the military, there’s a tendency to want to close ranks and protect each other that makes it hard to deal with reality. They want to present the reality that they create….
The workshops gave me the courage to say, ‘I don’t care what people say.’ I didn’t have that courage until I worked with the writers.”
WGI President Weller says:
"Information is power and stories are information. When you tell a story, you gain power over the experiences you’ve had, feel control over your life….We encourage people to share stories to gain power by telling it. You gain power by describing an experience with a word. A story is just an extended word for something that has no word to describe it.”
When dealing with issues that still have a social stigma surrounding them, such as PTSD and TBI for veterans or the emotional stress, physical strain, bureaucracy and isolation caregivers for veterans may face when loved ones come home, it is incredibly helpful to learn how to take a step back from the turmoil and emotion and craft a story you can share with the larger public.
“It gives [caregivers] a voice. It’s a huge contribution to their healing. Thinking you’re not the only one gives you strength to go on with your life….
People don’t usually think about what the family members are going through, but understanding that will help the healing process for veterans as well.”
The workshops provide top-of-the-class WGAE mentors—Rubino-West says her reaction upon meeting her mentors was, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I have access to these writers!”—and let the mentees make the experience whatever they want it to be.
Some people choose to work on projects totally unrelated to the war—like a sci-fi novel—and there’s no expectation to produce a piece of writing that will go on to become a published story or a movie. It is simply writing for one’s self, something the WGAE mentors find valuable as well.
Weller explains that as professionals, the members of the WGAE write to produce works that need to have commercial value. When writers volunteer to mentor, they get to reconnect to the spiritual tie they have to their writing and remember why they loved the craft in the first place.
“The people who volunteer [with the initiative] are really motivated, really want to gift their skills. It’s a rare mindset....We can gift this thing that we really love, and that has a value beyond money.”
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