by Daniel Buckman
In 2009 my fourth New York novel was circulating in paperback. I wrote and published four of them in ten years and became terrified at the prospect of sitting in a room alone for another decade. I said goodbye to all of that after those four novels and writing time in Paris with my wife and started teaching the children of immigrants in my native Chicago. I fell in love with the kids with my wife, and my life-long need to write disappeared.
It seemed that I had to be a sheepdog for a while. I got adjunct professorships at community colleges in Chicago while teaching my high school kids in the afternoons—mentoring two men through West Point, and two women through Illinois Army ROTC. I had composition classrooms full of Army and Marine Corps infantry veterans, Obama Surge grunts young enough to be my sons. It was the beginning of the Recession. Money in education was scarce, but I decided to make sure my kids and the grunts in my classes got educated by Malcom X’s famous saying about how you get things done, which is “by any means necessary.” My need to write vanished and I did my duty. How can a former soldier walk away from hard-working immigrant children? How can an infantry veteran turn his back on young grunts coming home from the Obama Surge? I never will regret giving up writing for five years to help these young people. I couldn’t have written in those years if I tried. There was duty to be pulled with both the kids and the vets.
I joined MEA in 2012 and ran an online workshop with Travis Martin and Jerad Alexander for vets to write fiction based upon military experience. David Ervin took over this summer, and we have expanded our model of publishing any veteran who wants to write literary fiction and do as many drafts as it takes. I edited many volumes and conducted many peer-edit phone calls. I told them to read Hemingway’s short fiction and the novels of James Jones and Larry Heinemann. Like the immigrant children, the young, hungry vet writers took away my need to write, because seeing them best Hemingway a few times with a story was better than writing for me. They were nephews (OIF) and sons (OEF “Obama Surge”). I had kids becoming officers, a squad of OEF/OIF grunt students, and many vet writers needing my time. I never thought too much about writing for five years, no bitterness included.
My wife of twenty-three years died suddenly at home with me and our cats in Chicago on July 6, 2015. We met on May 15, 1992. It was unexpected, a flash of severe pain for her, and then my love had slipped this flesh and crossed the river. I was talking immediately after Rebecca’s passing with other MEA staff, especially Amira Pierce, David Ervin and Travis Switalski, and they gave me a dose of the pill I make vet writers swallow: You already run and read, so you better write to save your mind.
It was beautiful and humbling. Two veterans of OEF/OIF and my old agent’s assistant and friend, now an NYU writing instructor, helped me through the worst week of my life. Ervin and Switalski loaded me with writing assignments for the website and told me to get at another book. There was no argument from me. The publishing world is much different than 2001 when my first novel was released, but I was reminded not to get anxious. Also, I hadn’t felt the need to write with the intensity needed to publish in five years. Now two veteran writers who I taught the basics of narrative a few years ago (and watched them write great things on their own) have enrolled me, the Vice President of Military Experience and the Arts, back into our basic program. The same men I told to use writing narrative for mental clarity to focus their minds away from intrusive thoughts were returning that advice and telling me to write a piece by the day to stay out of rabbit holes.
My legs are getting stronger, but I know that I will need to take the “medicine” we offer at MEA for a good year of my life. I will be both managing editor of fiction and veteran mentee in non-fiction while I work with an editor to make my fledgling essays publishable. I help run MEA, but I also walk among you MEA vet writers who are learning how to write long-distance with one of our editors.
Please stick with us when the cold weather comes and work to tell your stories. I can tell you from experience that we’ll stick with you.