Writer at her Work
MOLLY LARSON COOK, Nov. 9, 2012
Words worth fighting for
In a couple of days, we’ll celebrate Veteran’s Day, which began as Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I, a grim and costly battle for liberty, the War to End All Wars. Since then, of course, we’ve seen more wars than we’d like to remember, all in the name of liberty.
For writers and readers, that liberty includes the freedom to write and read what we choose. Among our choices are stories about the wars themselves recounted by those who were there or those who waited at home for loved ones to return. My list of the best war stories is headed by Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam novel, “The Things They Carried,” and by his nonfiction account, “If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.” Close behind are Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient,” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Hemingway famously told an interviewer that he rewrote the ending to “A Farewell to Arms” 39 times. When the interviewer asked what the problem was, Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.”
For any author, “getting the words right” is always the problem. Serious writers work hard at that task.
Although the novels I mentioned are favorites, and although the list of good war novels is long, the one that most affected me was Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” Trumbo was a screenwriter who was inspired to write the novel after reading about a soldier who had been so badly injured in World War I that his only means of communication was to tap out Morse code on his pillow. The anti-war novel was published in 1939 and won the National Book Award, although Trumbo was later blacklisted by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.
Our literary freedoms do not come easily. But we keep writing and telling the truths of our lives and history.
Writers often look for prompts to get the juices going in their own work. I suggest this one in honor of Veteran’s Day and all it means. Consider the impact of war, any war, on your life. Maybe you missed the draft for Vietnam. Maybe you didn’t miss it and went to war in the 60s. Maybe your dad or grandfather fought in Europe or the Pacific in the 40s. Maybe you were a kid who understood about rationing and saving tinfoil during that same war. Maybe you or someone you loved went to Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or stayed home to keep the home fires burning. Maybe a loved one died on a battlefield on one continent or another, and the hole in your heart will never be healed. Write about it. Let it come and see where it takes you.
It took Karl Marlantes almost 40 years to write his opus, “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” but it’s a masterpiece. My own Vietnam novel is still a work-in-progress and might always be.
Writing is a way of coming to terms, and I’m still trying.
The Freeland Library will sponsor Book-It Repertory Theatre’s presentation, “Danger: Books!” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island (20103 Highway 525, 2 miles north of Freeland.)
“Danger: Books!” is an ongoing series of readings from books that have been banned or challenged in the United States. Professional actors will present selections from “Brave New World,” “All But Alice,” and others.
Molly Larson Cook is a recent Whidbey Island ex-pat who lives in Bellevue, Wash. She is a novelist, writing coach and editor, who teaches writing through her Skylark Writing Studio. She is a prolific websketcher at Good Golly Miss Molly, a blog about everything, and at The Flowered Cow, which focuses on the craft of writing.
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