“Either you control the memory, or the memory controls you,” author and Veteran Ron Capps shared his philosophy and his expertise with seven Veterans at the Washington DC VA Medical Center.
Capps, a former senior military intelligence and State Department Foreign Service officer, and author of Seriously Not Alright: Five Wars in Ten Years, is leading a 13-week creative writing workshop at the medical center. The workshop is helping Veterans gain a measure of control over their painful memories and giving them the tools and confidence to tell their own stories.
Capps founded the Veterans Writing Project, a nonprofit organization which conducts no-cost writing workshops and seminars for Veterans, active duty and family members, after experiencing firsthand the therapeutic benefits of writing.
During his service in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Darfur and Rwanda, Capps survived combat and was a witness to war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. As a result, he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was driven to the brink of suicide. He uses writing as a way of gaining control over the trauma. “Healing is a process, and for me writing is a huge part of that,” he said.
“Writing allows us to concretize our memories—to move them from something festering in the back of the mind to something physical, words on a page that the writer can shape and control,” Capps said. Writing helps Veterans make sense of what happened to them.
Capps uses a curriculum he wrote called Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story in his workshops, but each class is different with its own dynamic. The professional level workshops are conducted by established writers with advanced degrees. All of the workshop leaders are Veterans themselves.
The workshops begin by asking the participants to explore the challenges that writers face when trying to describe their military experience. Capps said that for this class at the medical center, he is providing a scripted set of writing “prompts” to get them started.
He encourages the Veterans to write and share their work among the group to get peer feedback as well as notes from the workshop leader. The environment is one of mutual trust and respect. It’s very interactive.
He explains the workshops actually have three purposes: literary, to preserve the stories for future generations; social, to bridge the gap between Veterans and civilians; and therapeutic, to help the Veterans develop the skills and confidence to tell their story and perhaps lessen the effects of depression and PTSD. Chaplain Cheryl Jones, a member of the medical center’s chaplain service, attends each session ready to offer one-on-one counseling if needed.
Some of the Veterans’ work may be published in the organization’s quarterly literary review, O-Dark Thirty.
“If the Veterans want to submit their work to our literary platform, that’s fantastic. Or if they simply want to put it in a box for their grandkids to read later, that’s fine too,” Capps said.
The writing workshop at the Washington DC VA Medical Center meets every Monday at 1 p.m. in the medical center’s Freedom Auditorium conference room. It is open to Veterans of all eras, regardless of whether or not they saw combat. Capps said it is preferable that Veterans attend the entire program to get the most benefit, but welcomes participants to drop in at any point. To workshop size is limited to 12 persons.
Two more workshops are planned for the fall, one will be specifically for women. For more information about the Veterans Writing Project workshops or to sign up for the next workshop, please contact the chaplain service at 202-745-8000, ext. 58143.
Sarah Cox is a public affairs specialist at the Washington DC VA Medical Center.