Helping Warriors Unleash the Power of the Pen

A library in Ohio helps veterans share their experiences

November 8, 2011


The best pleasures in life are often unexpected, and we have been lucky enough to be ambushed by a program that has become one of the most extraordinarily rewarding experiences of our careers. The Sylvania branch of the Toledo–Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library and Lourdes College of Sylvania cosponsored the Veterans’ Writing Workshop, which began in the fall of 2010. Together we crafted a variety of thought-provoking writing and reading exercises intended to encourage all veterans, active and retired, to write about their experiences for their own benefit or to share them with friends and family.

The strategy

We, the authors, brought a valuable combination of skills to the program. Holly, a professor of English at Lourdes, has 20 years of experience teaching rhetoric to students of all skill levels, while Amy harbors a deep interest in history and memoirs from her 15 years of maintaining the History and Biography collection at the Main Library.

Still, it took a great deal of discussion to figure out what kind of program structure to develop. We hoped to avoid intimidating veterans who didn’t have much writing practice, yet keep the sessions challenging enough to encourage those who already had some writing experience. We finally settled on a workshop format with a two-hour program each Monday evening for six weeks to provide the greatest flexibility for responding to what would likely be a variety of backgrounds. Each week’s activities were based on a theme that would work regardless of the writer’s abilities: writing about a place (week 1), writing about an event (week 2), using humor in writing (week 3), writing about a memorable person (week 4), writing about yourself (week 5), and weaving a sense of reflection into writing (week 6).

Amy dug through war memoirs and photocopied examples of each concept to show how professional writers like Michael Herr, Sebastian Junger, Stephen Ambrose, and Philip Caputo handled them. She also included interviews with people in a variety of war-related roles, collected by Studs Terkel and Christian Appy, to add an even more vivid sense of reality and to demonstrate how less-polished passages could still be effective. Holly created dynamic writing exercises centering on issues appropriate for veterans and effective for their writing in particular. Subjects included organization (how to tell the story to create the strongest impact), audience (how honest to be, depending on the intended reader—children and grandchildren vs. buddies, for example), and use of description and metaphor (how to make your writing different from other pieces on similar topics).

We began each session with a homework review, critiquing as a group a few pieces sent to us in advance. Then we moved into our theme for the week with Holly’s writing lesson, which sometimes included in-class writing activities. Amy then passed out articles, and we discussed the authors’ use of the technique under discussion. For example, Holly explained how to write dialogue, and Amy shared examples and led a discussion about it. We took a break (with cookies), and the vets enjoyed informally talking with one another. We had many lively discussions on such topics as PTSD, coming home, and identifying enemies, real and imagined. We wrapped up with a homework assignment for the following week’s class.

As with all newly formulated programs, we worried whether we’d see much of a response, especially since we were unsure of the best way to reach vets of all ages and backgrounds. The library’s marketing department disseminated the information to local newspapers via press releases and a prominently featured push on the library’s website. Amy sent fliers to the local VFW posts, talked to a friend active in the Vietnam Veterans of America, and gave information to the local Rotary organization. Holly hung flyers around the Lourdes campus, and College Relations posted the information to the college website. The Toledo Blade surprised us with a Sunday feature on page one of the newspaper’s second section, which proved to be the most useful tool for generating interest in the program.

The unit

Thirty-five veterans from all branches of the military who served in every conflict from World War II through the Iraq War—as well as during times of “peace” between these events—attended the program, with the majority being Vietnam veterans. We had two female registrants, one of whom completed an entire session. Some vets had seen a lot of action; others were in support units and rarely if ever fired a weapon, but all of them had great stories to share.

The veteran with the most unusual background was an engineer on a German U-boat during WWII. At first he worried the other vets would not welcome him into the group, but it turned out that they were intrigued to hear stories from “the other side.” One vet was just finishing up his term as a representative in the Ohio Legislature while another was extremely active in Rotary, and having friends in government and business organizations is always a bonus in these difficult times.

The vets were intensely focused and really seemed to enjoy both the exercises and the conversations they had in class. As they didn’t serve together, they weren’t exactly a “Band of Brothers,” yet despite their wide range of experiences, they shared a similar strong sense of camaraderie, more like a Band of Cousins. Some group members wrote every week, some as they were inspired, and some hardly at all. We realized that what mattered the most was the act of sharing their stories, regardless of format. Many attendees felt compelled to warn us that they hadn’t been to school in years and/or never could write to begin with. We were braced to provide intense rudimentary instruction, which turned out to be completely unnecessary. We were extremely pleased with the quality of the writing, quickly realizing a passion to tell one’s story is a fine motivator in achieving excellence.

Because of the response to the first session, we decided to offer a second six-week session in the winter. Many first-session participants signed up for the second, which prompted us to invent a new series of classes so we wouldn’t repeat what they had already learned. We met on a less-formal monthly basis for the summer and are in the process of printing a commemorative book, In Our Boots, containing 20 essays and poems from the workshop.

The spoils

Some of the many benefits that resulted from this program include:

Outreach to underserved populations. Reaching out to veterans proved tricky: They range so widely in age and background that we had to work hard to find our targeted audience and lure them in. And, while most vets enjoy swapping stories, not many of them choose to write them down. We liked that we managed to mix strong educational and social elements into our arsenal for this program, while still focusing on the message “Regardless of your background, just come in and share your story.”

We were further able to connect some of our veterans to community resources of which they were not aware, such as library materials and service organizations specifically aimed at veterans, including the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project. A counselor from the local veterans’ center attended the second workshop and was able to spread the word about his organization. Most importantly, this often-neglected population gained a strong sense of pride in their writing and affirmation of the importance of their voices.

Community connections: The library received phone calls from people who wanted to tell us they appreciated this initiative, including calls from veterans who were not participating and people without direct ties to veterans. The widespread appreciation for the value of this outreach effort was impressive. Offering support services to veterans is very much in the news of late, so we were fortunate to tie into burgeoning community interests. This outreach stimulated a large amount of unexpected positive (and free!) publicity.

We were also happy to strengthen the bond between Lourdes College and the Toledo–Lucas County Public Library. Forging strong relationships between learning institutions is a tremendous asset, especially as one program links to the next. This workshop led to Lourdes publishing pieces of the vets’ works in the college’s literary magazine, The Tau. We teamed together again to present a memoir-writing class as a lifelong learning project for Lourdes College and now are working on writing about our experiences in professional and scholarly articles. The veterans read pieces at a regional Poetry Speaks project led by the city’s Poet Laureate, made a presentation to the American Legion, and were asked to speak at a City Art Day by the Sylvania Chamber of Commerce.

Intergenerational relations: The program has forged bonds, connecting veterans of different eras and encouraging vets to share stories with family and loved ones, which is especially important as the World War II generation is dying out and their unshared stories die with them. We frequently heard people remark that they wish they’d had the chance to hear stories before losing parents or grandparents. The Greatest Generation, in particular, tends to keep stories quiet. Many of the Vietnam vets remarked about how their fathers never discussed their war experiences and how that affected their own ability to share their experiences in Vietnam. Their work in this program ensures that their children and grandchildren gain a sense of familial and national history through the vets’ own voices.

What the instructors learned

We have been overwhelmed by the emotional rewards that came from encouraging these veterans to tell their stories. Every person who participated in the workshop worked hard to participate fully, and they all expressed great appreciation for our efforts.

More than any movie or book could ever do, this workshop has put a genuine face on war for us. We have a stronger understanding of the full impact of military service on the lives of so many people around us. Some days we were near tears due to the poignancy of their stories and the generosity of their gratitude. We will always be grateful to those who have shared their stories and hope that in encouraging them to do so, they will be able to process and share their experiences with their loved ones and others.

AMY HARTMAN is librarian of the Sylvania branch of Toledo–Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library. HOLLY BAUMGARTNER is a professor of English at Lourdes College of Sylvania, Ohio.



Achievement Unlocked

Three stories about selecting, archiving, and creating games in libraries


Poet Laureate Philip Levine

America’s street-smart new poet laureate has a few choice words to say about a lifetime of experience with good librarians–and some bad ones