Robert Morgan Fisher is a writer, musician and teacher whose father served as a naval flight officer. For the last year, he’s been leading a writing group at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ West Los Angeles campus.
Twice a week, Fisher meets with veterans for two hours in a VA conference room. He calls them ‘Wordcommandos,’ and they call him ‘Gunny,’ Marine Corps slang for drill instructor. Six students came to his first class last April – since then, he’s had nearly 40 vets participate, with over 10 attending every session. Fisher is dedicated to teaching both creative techniques and professional skills – he supports writing in all genres, teaches editing, and shows veterans how to send out work for publication. He has also created a classroom library for students and organizes literary outings (recently, they’ve attended a tribute to Langston Hughes and a reading by Tim O’Brien).
“Every class, we sit in Room 136 at the Welcome Center and we put all the books on the table. Everyone does a quick share about what they’ve been reading and writing – then we get to work,” says Fisher. Students write, read, share their work, edit and submit. Visitors to the class are “taken aback by the intensity – there is so much going on – there are sparks flying off everybody.” Fisher also makes himself fully available to students beyond the weekly meeting – they can text, email or call him anytime for help with anything from line-editing to crafting a pitch.
Writing has therapeutic significance for veterans with PTSD, be it factual or expressive. Dr. Nina Sayer of the Center for Chronic Disease Outcomes Research conducted a study, published in 2015, on the benefits of “expressive writing” for returning veterans. She notes that, whereas formal psychological treatment often requires a clinical diagnosis, referral, appointment, wait time and travel, the therapeutic benefits of writing can begin at any point, anywhere. The study Sayer oversaw was considered low-tech and easily accessible, although it did require that participants visit a website and navigate prompts. Fisher identifies the technology barrier as his greatest challenge in teaching the Wordcommandos.
“The hardest thing is helping people overcome technological access – to be a writer, you have to go online, you have to use word processing software, you need to look stuff up. It can be difficult to get these veterans the tools that they need – to type, format and follow directions. I really emphasize Submittable – I want them to study the markets, read the guidelines, and before they send out work, quadruple proofread.” Although the majority of his students’ class time is self-directed, Fisher regularly leads a tutorial for his Wordcommandos on using Submittable. “I go at this the way the son of a warrior would. I tell them this is more than a feel-good journaling class. I teach the craft of writing and the business of writing, and in order to understand the business of writing they have to learn Submittable.”
Students who have laptops may bring them to the Wordcommandos meeting for sharing. Fisher discusses his student Stan Miller, who, like many veterans, is struggling with the system. “He doesn’t have a computer – he has to go to the library or the VA, there’s so much bureaucracy around other things like housing that he can’t be thinking about a laptop.” Miller recently sent out a poem for the first time ever, via snail mail, to the Paris Review – this method (and magazine) is preferable given the difficulty Miller faces in accessing and managing an Internet submission.
That said, VA is currently undergoing improvements and has demonstrated a dedication to programs like the Wordcommando class. Other offerings focused on creative expression have included visual art, jewelry-making and Tai Chi – a music jam session, gardening class and training in ‘phone-tography’ (the art of film and phone) are forthcoming. Patty Robinson Smith, a UCLA liaison with the VA Recreational Center, acknowledges the importance of providing for “creativity and a sense of accomplishment.” Smith says, “Wordcommandos is a huge success in this regard. It has a life of its own, it keeps growing, and it’s awesome. Some people think veterans are scary, that they’ll lash out. This is not my experience at all. They’re motivated and excited for anything productive they can do."
According to Fisher, “there’s something about articulating on a page what you’re feeling or what you went through, even indirectly. PTSD impacts self-confidence and confidence in the world.” When Fisher goes for meals with students outside class, they will never sit with their backs to the door; he remarks on how they constantly monitor their environment. “Somehow through the writing veterans are able to manage all this better – although it never goes away. You learn how to cope with it. It’s a great coping strategy to be creative. There’s an old Jewish saying – it is certainly good when your hands can do what your eyes can see and your mind understands."
One therapeutic approach to PTSD, exposure therapy, is naturally related to writing, whereby the patient revisits and retells a traumatic memory to strip it of power. As Travis L. Martin, founder of Military Experience & the Arts, observed in the New York Times, “traumatic memories are fragmented. They appear in flashes of intensity…If you can put those emotions and the traumatic event in a narrative that makes sense to you,” he says, “it makes the trauma tangible. If it is tangible, it is malleable. And if it is malleable, you can do something with it.”
What people can’t talk about, they may be willing to write down, but this can take time. Fisher refers to a student in his class who didn’t write a word for six months, though he always showed up. Fisher gave him books to read, like On the Road and Gravity’s Rainbow – the veteran was especially moved by The Things They Carried and it motivated him to finally begin sharing last fall. As Fisher recalls, “this was highly emotional. I didn’t know what he had been through but I found out that he was Special Forces, an ex-Green Beret. He came in with an anecdote he had written. It was so funny and smart. I showed him how to send it out.”
Fisher asserts that submitting work is an empowering and significant experience for veterans. “Most first short stories take a long time to get published but this got snapped up in two weeks by a really good journal – it will be published in May. He immediately followed this with two more ready-to-be-accepted stories. He wouldn’t even talk about those things but now he’s writing about them. It’s giving him power over this trauma.”
Sometimes, Fisher recounts, veteran writers can struggle with how they approach “truth” in writing; they may feel the need to include every detail from a particular scene, be it fiction or creative nonfiction. He helped one writer cut a story from 50 single-spaced to 14 double-spaced pages, but at first the writer resisted. “He told me ‘but that’s not how it really happened.’ I assured him he wasn’t required to write a deposition,” Fisher recalls. “With the Wordcommandos, I emphasize that it’s not so important to precisely recount the actual events but rather, to convey the truths of emotion and theme. A single sentence that nails a hard truth or emotion can often tell us more, and be more impactful, than a 50-page single-spaced description.
Although many of his students write about war experiences, Fisher encourages them to write about other topics as well. Not only is this a great escape, but their writing affords readers a unique perspective. “The world needs to hear from you,” Fisher tells them. “They need to hear conventional stories through your eyes, because your eyes see things theirs don’t.” Fisher also emphasizes humor – in fact, he’s about to teach a course dedicated to that topic. ‘I have a strong belief that even in the most dramatic and dark stories, humor plays a very strong part. Wordcommandos respond to this really well. There’s something highly honorable about maintaining your sense of humor in battle.”