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Military vets can explore creative side at annual writing workshop

Do you ever wonder if you have a book, movie or play inside you? During the slow hours of a long deployment, have you ever thought back to an experience from before you enlisted and felt it might contain a story worth telling? Or have you lived through events while in the service — in country, perhaps even in combat — that you sense really need to be shared?

If so, an interesting program, sponsored by America’s screenwriters, might be able to help.

The Writers Guild Foundation, a community service group affiliated with the Writers Guild of America (the people who write movies and television, including television news), started a writing workshop a couple of years ago for former and current members of the armed forces interested in writing.

The program was so successful that it has become an annual event.

Vets — and some who are still serving — meet in Los Angeles for an intense weekend of focus on the craft of writing. The fifty or so vets are divided into smaller groups, each with about half a dozen members, which are then teamed with a pair of experienced writer-mentors. The form of the workshop varies depending on the mentors.

In one recent workshop in which the author of this article participated as a mentor, the five aspiring writers were from all branches of the service, and they managed to comprise, within that tiny random sample, a quintessentially American cross section of ethnicity, gender and even age.

The youngest, Eddie, was 23, in his last weeks in the service.

The oldest, Michael, was 74 years old, a former Korean war paratrooper. His son had served in the military, and a granddaughter was on her way to Afghanistan.

What quickly became obvious to the professional writers in the program was that the quality of men and women who serve in our armed forces is exceptionally high.

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The group’s other writer-mentor was Ben Garant, a co-creator of television’s “Reno 911” and a co-writer of the movie “Night at the Museum.” He is intelligent and funny, and he generously shared his knowledge and insights.

Although the two mentors had never met before the workshop and had worked in different genres, they shared the same basic approach to the craft of writing. One of the first points Ben made was that it was important for writers to finish things. If you are writing a screenplay, Ben told the group, get to the end of it, then write another one, then finish a third — then go back and revisit the first one. You will see it with new eyes and heightened skill.

Since most of the participants in the group came with stories they wanted to tell, the group decided to create, for the two days of the workshop, a “writers room.” This is a uniquely Hollywood phenomenon, most often a part of the process in developing scripts for television series, in which writers collaborate and help each other with their scripts.

Within less than ten minutes, the group felt like a team. The military training of the vets probably contributed to the ability of a handful of strangers to blend into a cohesive unit.

The stories, novels and movie scripts the participants were working on are proprietary, including the screenplay and TV series pitch former Army Staff Sgt. Thom Tran was developing. But Tran’s own story is worth sharing. In the first few days of his posting to Iraq, Tran’s best friend was killed. Within the first week. Tran was shot. Through the head.

For a year, he didn’t smile. He wanted to return to the front, but the doctors wouldn’t allow it. Before he left for Iraq, Tran already had ambitions to write, to act — and to do stand-up comedy. Previously a naturally upbeat person, he was going through a very black time.

Tran had a camera with him on patrol the day he was wounded in Iraq. The video has footage of the vehicle in front, which halts as it starts to take fire.

You hear the sound of gunfire, then the shouts when Tran gets hit. Then the camera is turned, and you see the moment when Tran discovers that the back of his head is covered in blood.

On Memorial Day weekend (appropriately enough), Tran appeared at the Improv on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood to do his new stand-up routine.

Szymon from the workshop attended also. Tran used a clip of the Iraq shooting video in his sketch. The audience was riveted, then as Tran worked in his punchline, they gave him the biggest laugh of the night. In the comic, not military, sense of the term — he killed.

Craig Mullaney, a decorated former infantry officer, wrote “The Unforgiving Minute,” a book about his experiences with PTSD. Mullaney has spoken of the importance for warriors to find ways to communicate about what they have been through. Mullaney also talks of the appreciation he has received from many other soldiers, who, although they themselves didn’t have the gift for putting feelings into words, were grateful for his having done so.

Service in the armed forces can involve taking risks. Writing, at its most interesting, is also about taking risks, and workshop participants Michael, Eddie, Thom, Szymon and Becky had the courage to face both kinds of risks. Thom had transformed a wrenching military experience into, of all things, stand-up comedy. And he is not alone. This past year he toured with a stand-up group consisting entirely of vets from all branches of the service. They call themselves “GIs of Comedy.”

The vets in this workshop all felt they had learned something useful from the time they invested with a couple of experienced Hollywood pros. The two mentors had no doubt that they learned even more from the vet participants.

 

KNOW & GO

Want to give writing a try? The next Veterans writing retreat will take place April 12-13, 2013, in Los Angeles.

Parking and meals are provided, and limited accommodations are available for out-of-town guests

The retreat is limited to 60 veterans.

Application information will be available in February. Sign up for email updates at wgfoundation.org.

 

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