Tuesday, November 12, 2019

My First Time: Katey Schultz

The First Time I Read My Story to a Veteran

I’d been in Sitka, Alaska all of twenty-four hours and had already fallen in love with its deep, dark winter—the way the snowpack held the moon’s reflection and the old growth spruce draped their boughs like the tired arms of towering women. I would live on this island in the North Pacific for five weeks and to kick-off my writing residency through The Island Institute, I was asked to read from my work-in-progress at the public library.

By this point in my career, I’d had a handful of short stories published, won a few flash contests, and read in front of fewer than ten audiences. I didn’t have a book out, and very few people knew that they’d come to see a civilian woman writing about military culture. My characters, often speaking in first person point of view, donned burqas or hefted AKs. They complained about broken NVGs and POS you-name-its. They used the language of the Global War on Terror fluently: haji, raghead, infidel, militant, freedom, patriot, terrorist. But they also used the universal language of humanity: “Since my brother died, I cannot taste my tea. Since my brother died, I cannot taste anything;” or, “My brothers, my fellow Marines, the way the moon cast a blue light across their bodies. It made them look holy. More than anything, it made them look dead.”

About thirty seconds before start time, the director of the residency whispered in my ear. “Oh good,” she said. “He’s here.”

I looked around. Almost forty folks had shown up and for those of you who know Alaskan culture, let me just say no one was wearing heels. These were my kind of people! But wait, what had the director just said?

“Who’s here?” I asked.

“Brian. He just got home from Iraq three days ago.”

I gulped. So this was how I would go down, in The Last Frontier at a public library, wearing long johns underneath my Levi’s.

But before I continue I should pause to tell you this: it wasn’t the content or point of view in my stories that worried me. I knew my stories were about the tiny moments and impossible decisions that make us human—regardless of ethnicity, gender, politics, or experience. What worried me was getting the facts right. I didn’t know a single veteran, I’d never served, never been to the Middle East, and I wasn’t from a military family. I’d researched to the best of my ability, but this would be the first time I read my fiction in front of anyone as close to the current conflicts as Brian.

It probably would have been easier for me to write fiction putting penguins on Mars, but I didn’t care about penguins on Mars. What I cared about were the men, women, and children fighting battles and enduring hardships in wars that somehow had little day-to-day impact on my own life, “back home.” How could that be possible? And what did it feel like to be put into a situation where you could do everything right, but still be wrong? Where following orders or cultural customs could cost you your life? Where not following them could, too?

“Are you ready?” the director asked. “We need to get started.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Just one thing. Where’s Brian sitting?” She pointed him out. A tall, late-twenties-something, man with dark hair and molasses brown eyes. He sat dead center, four rows back, alert.

The reading itself went smoothly. I was in the zone. No needling voices of doubt or tongue-twister flub-ups slowed me down. And after thirty-five minutes, the director seamlessly guided the audience into Q&A. Brian was the first to raise his hand. I was all nerves and pounding heart and syllables by then, but nodded in his direction, inviting him to speak.

“I just got back from Iraq, and I was wondering where you served?”

I exhaled. “I didn’t,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for showing this so believably. It’s like you were there. You had me completely convinced.”

And from that moment on, I never looked back.

Brian’s acceptance would later grow into what I now lovingly refer to as “my war lit family.” Writers like Matt Gallagher, Teresa Fazio, Kayla Williams, James Moad, Jesse Goolsby, Shannon Huffman Polson, David Abrams, Charlie Sherpa (aka Randy Brown), Andria Williams, Pete Molin, Brian Turner, Helen Benedict, and Ben Busch (to name only a few) have welcomed me into their fold, helped me complete a second book, and refused to put up walls where so many could have been built. The United States Air Force Academy opened its classrooms to me and its cadets opened their minds to my work. The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War & Social Consequences let me Skype in to a classroom of veterans. TOLO News translated my interview live, in Dari, and broadcast it in Jalalabad and beyond, as I spoke to them from a classroom thousands of miles away.

But before all that, was Brian, whose comment was the highest compliment I could have received.

Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, the Doris Betts Fiction Prize, IndieFab Book of the Year, a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America, four Pushcart nominations, and writing fellowships in eight states. Her fiction set in Afghanistan and Iraq has been studied by university students and literary organizations from Germany to the United States Air Force Academy. She lives in Celo, North Carolina and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

No comments:

Post a Comment