Veterans give advice on writing war memoirs

The question I always ask when I teach memoir writing is the following: For whom are you writing? And the next questions involve reasons for writing and the content that will best satisfy you as author as well as your intended audience.

Twice a month beginning on June 15, 2023, I have been meeting with Vietnam Era and Vietnam War veterans at the Miami Valley Veteran Museum in Troy, Ohio, to encourage them to write their military memoirs. I tell them that the length is totally up to them: two pages to whatever.

A student in that class, Stephen D. King (U.S. Navy 1966-1969) recently completed his book, 14 chapters, 100 plus pages, and dozens of photographs. King says, “I had never thought about writing it down. This spring when Vivian Blevins said she’d teach a class, my wife said, ‘I think you ought to do it.’”

He indicates that prior to this spring, he had kept military photographs, uniforms, medals and such on walls, in trunks, and tote bags, believing that if his children or grandchildren ever wanted to access the collection, they could. He says that they didn’t seem interested until they learned that he was writing a book, and they became very interested.

King indicates that he finished his book so quickly because his wife had saved all the letters he wrote her and had maintained ,in order, notebooks of news clipping. And , thus, he indicates, “ She deserves a lot of credit.”

King has advice for those who are interested in following his trail as he reflects upon his challenges and successes.

He notes that one challenge involved computer skills, and his daughter Cortney, his son-in-law Ben, and his daughter-in-law Brianna helped him address those issues such as getting his photos inserted into his document.

He concedes that some might begin this writing adventure with a yellow legal pad; however, had he not begun at a computer, “I would never have finished, but with a computer, I can reformat, revise, and move sections around easily.”

He praises the other students in the class for helping to motivate him.

“Knowing that other guys were doing the same thing helped, and Vivian taught me that not all of my readers will understand military language, and as an author I am responsible for communicating meaning in the text or in a glossary.”

When he had writer’s block, King says that he knew that all he had to do was look at photographs, and this triggered more memories, branching out at particular times with other incidents that belonged in the autobiography.

Another writer, Mel Shane (US. Army 1966-1969), says, “I’ve never been reluctant to talk about my Army experience, but the challenge for me is to get it all told and in a sequence. There is so much more now than I thought about when I started. One of my challenges is asking myself, Is this really important?”

Shane continues, “Although I’ve written lots, I don’t yet know who I’m writing for. Is there a bigger audience than family? The Vietnam War is serious stuff, and at times my story is entertaining, and at times I wonder about how to balance it.”

He acknowledges that he is “dredging up things I’ve forgotten about or pushed aside. I don’t know whether they are significant, but I’m telling them.”

Shane concludes with “I’m actually doing it. I thought it should be done, and I’m finally doing it- and I need someone to type it for me.”

Mark Bradley (U.S. Air Force 1966-1970) believes in a skill he learned decades ago, transcendental meditation. His advice to those who want to write their military story is to “go to a quiet place, release your stress, meditate, and transcend the everyday. With that process, you will discover what you want to tell, and you will be able to write much easier and more comprehensively than you imagined you were capable of doing.”

Nick Mott (U.S. Navy 1965-1969) has advice for would-be writers. “It is important to jog your memory and record particular people, places, and incidents. The writer’s next task is to examine those lists and determine what is important, what needs to be recorded.”

His second suggestion is “to make the story interesting,” and those who’ve served in the military know that there is no shortage of interesting material.

Mott also seeks clarity, clear communication, in his memoir. He takes care to select words and phrases that will bring his subjects into his perspective for his readers.

U.S. Marine Roger Jones entered military service in 1966 and served 29 months in combat in the Vietnam War. He believes that those who served in that war “worked to build the floor that today’s military stands on.” That Vietnam War veterans write their stories is critically important because, according to Jones, “most won’t understand what we went through.”

Each mid-September, Jones joins Vietnam veterans from around the country at a camp grounds, a group he is most comfortable with because they have a “comradery that is important to sustain.” This year he joined 800 plus at Howard County, Indiana.

In conclusion, I coach my students; I encourage them; I tell them to tell the truth of their military experiences as only they know and understand it. And if they desire, the Library of Congress Veterans History Project would like to archive their unpublished stories in Washington, D.C.

Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., teaches telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and works with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected].