Tim O’Brien, Vietnam veteran, and author of The Things They Carried, once wrote: “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
I believe stories can change the world. I always have and I always will. As a child, reading and writing saved my life. It’s why I became an English teacher. It’s why I wrote Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD. I believe stories have the power to help us face our truths, to make us better understand each other, and to teach us the morality by which to live.
Stories can make the unseen seen. They can make the intangible tangible, the general specific. They can strike a chord in people and make them change—make them take action, and even help them heal—the way nothing else ever could.
I didn’t write my book to throw around the terms “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “traumatic brain injury,” or to give you statistics on how many veterans commit suicide. Nor did I write this memoir to talk in general terms about Vietnam—or even to say, simply, that war affects families.
I wrote my book to share with you a different kind of war story–a story to make you feel something deep within your stomach because I need you to truly believe how the invisible wounds of war can go on and on, and how there can be peace and healing. I’m asking you to take a journey with me—a journey through a thick forest of family secrets, war trauma, and stigmas—a forest where everything’s really quiet, except for a sound that’s been impossible to hear until now: The sound of a little girl named Christal who is still trying to save herself with a story.
It’s hard to believe my book, Thirty Days with My Father, will be published in just over a month. Sometimes I find myself just sitting around holding my galley copy for no apparent reason–or toting it around in my car. This weekend I brought it with me for the 10-hour drive to my friend’s wedding in Louisiana. Sometimes I am afraid if I let it out of my sight, it will go away (and along with it, my dream to make a difference in the world.)
When the general public hears about soldiers coming back from war and the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) they often experience, it’s hard for them to internalize what that means. When the media tells us that war can also affect family members of veterans, it’s hard to connect with such general statements.
But if I told you a story–a story about when I was a little girl, and how I hid away from my father in my bedroom closet because I was afraid of the hollowness in his eyes, the thick pads on which he slept to absorb the sweat from his war nightmares, and the way he stormed through the house, rifle slung over his shoulder like an infant, on one of the hundreds of occasions when he threatened to blow his brains out, then suddenly, I have your attention. I have created an image for you through words, and through story-telling, perhaps I have grabbed your interest in a way statistics or general terms never could. As Tim O’Brien might say, maybe I’ve made you “feel something in your stomach.”
In hearing my family’s story, I hope you begin to care more about veterans and their families. I hope you care so much you tell everyone you can about what happened to us. I hope you tell all your friends and family about this book because you can’t stop thinking about it, or that little girl hiding away in her closet, wishing so desperately she’d die young if this was what it felt like to live. I hope you care so much you take action. It’s the only way the invisible injuries of war will stop wounding throughout generations–if we all end our silence.
When I think of Chatham, Virginia, the little tobacco community where I began my teaching career twelve years ago, I think of many things: the little log cabin off Route 57 with the winding dirt driveway–the first home I ever owned; the pungent odor of fertilizer in the spring that lingered in the air for weeks; the brightness of the stars against a sky uninhibited by streetlights. Five years ago, I left it all for city life in Atlanta. But my heart has never left Chatham.
Mostly, when I think of Chatham, I think of my former students. I think about those chilly Friday night football games when they lugged their books into the stands and gathered around me in droves because they still wanted to talk about literature long after class was over. It was the first time in my life I’d ever felt like I mattered, and that I had anything positive to contribute to the world. I think of when we studied Beowulf, when we bravely wrote our own personal monsters on tiny slips of paper, and held hands as we buried them together in a box. I think of those after-school softball practices, the dull clink of bats, and the thick sand that was forever in my shoes. I think of all the mistakes I made in relationships back then, how young and naive I was, and all the things I wish I’d done differently as a teacher.
I also think of Blair. I was 23 when I was her teacher for senior English. She was 17. From the moment I met her, she was someone I knew I’d never forget as long as I lived. I’d always planned to remember everyone’s name and face, but as the years passed, and as I taught hundreds and hundreds more students, I slowly accepted that time had changed the clarity of my memory. But I didn’t forget Blair.
This is me since I finished editing my book and started marketing it. And I thought revising was hard! I am in desperate need of a haircut, my yard hasn’t been mowed in weeks, and now I am officially making to-do lists for my to-do lists. For the past two months, I’ve come home almost every day (after working an 8-hour day job), and spent 5-6 hours per night (and often 10 hours a day on weekends) researching how I can create buzz for my book, which external publicist I should hire (in addition to my in-house publicist, at a cost of $900-$5000 per month), which cities I’ll visit on my book tour, which bookstores I’ll visit and when, how I’ll pay for it all after spending $10,000 on external editing services (Wannabe writers, are you listening?), which magazines, newspapers, blogs, websites, conferences, and organizations throughout the U.S. may be interested in doing an article or review of my book (No, your in-house publicist doesn’t do this unless you’re already famous), querying them all to gauge interest, planning a launch party, stalking local celebrities to garner book endorsements, creating an author website, keeping two blogs up-to-date, and many other things that I am too tired to remember. There is no end in sight.
Would I do it again? Would I write another book if I’d only known how hard it would be, how it would change my life, and that writing 264 pages was only a small portion of what I’d have to do to actually bring my book into the world?
It’s been two years since I finished writing the first draft of Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD, and it’s gone through at least fifteen edits (most of those rewrites heavy ones) since then. One would think as many times as I’ve read my own book–not to mention the thousands of times I’ve lived each scene over and over in my mind–that the trauma my family experienced when my father came back from Vietnam would no longer affect me. It seems reasonable to expect to become at least somewhat desensitized to painful memories if one relives them over and over enough. Or is it?
I’m not yet at that place. It’s much easier to talk about what happened back then than it is to read what I’ve written. Perhaps this is because in casual conversation, I can answer questions about my childhood in a general sense, but in reading and writing scenes, my entire self is transported into the story. Like many writers I know, I will likely never read my book from cover to cover once it’s actually published.
People have been asking what I’ll write next, and I honestly don’t know. Some days I share the mentality of my friend Margaret Edson, who won a Pulitzer for Wit, the first play she ever wrote, and never published anything else. Other times I am convinced I owe it to people–and to myself–to continue to write and to spread the word about the ripple-effects PTSD can have on families. And at times, a part of me wants to write about something completely different.
In the end, I know that once I finish marketing this current memoir, I’ll likely go back to writing again–and hopefully, will be able to find something else to say that matters, and that will make a positive difference in the world. In the meantime, I’m patiently on the lookout for the subject of my next book to reveal itself.
My editor’s assistant called today and said she was overnighting a package to me: the first official copy of my new memoir, Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD. I have seven days to proofread and return the marked copy of the book to her. This will be at least the fifteenth edit (no kidding) of my book, and likely the final one. My editor’s assistant says we’re still on for a November 1 publication, and they plan to print 25,000 copies as a first print run.
I wonder how I’ll feel tomorrow when I hold the actual book in my hands. In my mind, my “book” is still a 2-inch thick, 269-page manuscript printed on copy paper and bound together with a rubber band.
Writers often compare pregnancy and childbirth to the conception and publication of a book. As cliche’ as it sounds, tomorrow I will hold my “baby” for the first time. And tonight I will lie awake wondering–and dreaming–about how my life will change after this.
Though I always dreamed of becoming a writer, I never planned on writing about my own life. Other people’s lives seemed far more interesting, and frankly, I was never convinced that a girl from the mountains of Honaker, Virginia, who had barely been outside her hometown, would have anything worthwhile to say. I escaped the Appalachian Mountains as soon as I could, and spent the next few years traveling and trying to find my story–the one I knew I was supposed to write someday. I traveled all over the U.S. and India in search of my muse, but the story I so desperately sought eluded me.
Seasoned writers and editors advised me to write what I knew, so I made it a point to become as educated as I could, as adventuresome as I could, and to push myself to have experiences far outside the realm with which I was familiar. I was convinced this kind of exposure was the only way I’d “know” something worth writing about. But still, I did not find my story.