In the spring of 2017, I was working as a Veterans Treatment Court Coordinator in Montana. I’d heard about groups that used creative writing as a form of therapy for veterans but hadn’t heard of any in Great Falls. So, I worked with the local Vet Center to start a group called The Sword and the Pen. Initially, we met every other Thursday and by October of 2017, prior to my moving to DC to pursue a graduate degree, we were meeting every week, rain or shine.
I was passionate about starting this group because writing is cathartic. I’ve always felt this way, which is what prompted me to pursue a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing. For me, reading about, and being able to create, different worlds helped get me through and better understand the difficult times in my life — including being diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury. Even today, writing helps me to be introspective and yet look beyond myself.
Understanding how writing helped me to process and be open about my trauma led me to consider how it could be useful to others as well. If approached in the right way, writing can be extremely personal and be tailored to fit individual needs, even needs that change over time. My own writing style has slowly morphed from escapist fantasy to self-baring poetry.
As a group leader, my role was to facilitate and teach writing techniques. I aimed to provide the veterans with the tools that would enable them to tell whatever stories coursed through their minds. Such techniques included: how to brainstorm, how to write dialogue, how to write believable characters, and how to delve into the darkness of heroic characters and the hidden goodness of villains.
Hemingway said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
I always encouraged the group members to tell their authentic stories. For readers to recognize themselves in a character, the author must be open and vulnerable. At first, this was difficult and terrifying work and required the group to be completely accepting of each other’s work. Nothing was taboo, and for that hour-and-a-half, anything could be said without judgment. In that safe space, we were all able to be honest with each other, and with ourselves.
However, the group’s work wasn’t always so formidable; jokes and witty banter flowed easily through our conversations. At The Sword and the Pen, each veteran wanted something different out of the class. One veteran enjoyed bringing comedy to life in his short stories, saying that there was enough sadness in the world without him adding to it. Another man liked to write sweeping historical war-time sagas that helped tell the story of his time in Iraq. A woman in the group preferred to incorporate memories of a rough childhood into her stories and discuss ways for her character to deal with those difficulties. It was an iterative process of growing and learning, of reaching within ourselves to find whatever it was that needed to be brought into the light, and of exposing whatever it was that needed to be shared.
Acceptance, I think, is one of the core reasons that creative writing can be so effective as a form of therapy. Instead of storing memories and hiding fears in the back of your mind, you can bring them into the light and give them form. You control the pen that gives them life, and you control the same pen that conquers them. In this way, I think writing helps veterans to be able to confront their demons on their own terms and to deal with them in their own ways. It takes control away from the past and gives it to the veteran instead.
There is an old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. While it may have originally referred to the idea that writing and diplomacy were more effective than violence, I believe it has a new meaning for veterans creative writing groups. In this context, the pen offers freedom from the pain carried by those that have wielded the sword (or machine gun, in the more modern context). It allows creative writing to be an essential form of homecoming or a “debriefing” of wartime experiences.
My experiences have led me to become a strong advocate for the formation of creative writing groups for veterans across the United States. Creative writing is a form of expression that can be added to an existing therapeutic regimen and become a positive life-long hobby. Best of all, the practice of creative writing can offer our veterans a sense of freedom that they both desire and deserve.
Elizabeth Brandeberry is a student research fellow at the Justice Programs Office and works on the Veterans Justice and Mental Health Newsletter and other projects. She is a former veterans treatment court coordinator and a current graduate student working on a master’s in international development. She also holds a master’s of science from the University of Oxford, where she studied the effects of virtual reality therapy on combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.