by Michael Limner
The impetus for choosing writing as a hobby during my retirement came from my perception of inadequacy in others. Upon entering the Veterans Administration health care system, when it was suggested (repeatedly) that I be evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, I approached a veteran’s service officer about said evaluation. He had me write about incidents while in Vietnam that could be verified by the names of fatal casualties engraved on The Wall. There were only a couple of those fallen whom I knew their real names. We mostly used nicknames. I bore the nom de guerre of Mugs or Muggsy. When I am asked why, most often I tell people it is because I was good with a gat. This usually stops all inquiry. I didn’t carry a gat. The truth is that I had found myself in an unhappy state of affairs and seldom, if ever, smiled about it.
Thinking I had done reasonably well with the assessment writing I surrendered the completed task to the service officer, but he altered it into the babbling of an illiterate. When I questioned this with him, he told me that he was only following specified guidelines. I wanted to ask him if the VA assumed all veterans are illiterate. But did not want to insult him when he was providing a service for me. Returning to my original text I thought, “I can do better than that.”
During the rough drafting of these stories I found myself at times just sitting at my desk staring out the window. From visions darting among fluttering aspen leaves I relived those incidents through the characters of the people I had known there. At times I hugged myself and cried. At times I threw back my head and laughed. There were times when I only rocked back and forth in my desk chair. However, when I finished something I had been working on, I felt really good mentally and physically. It was a kind of endorphin high. I revised the originals and, with the muse upon me, continued to write. After exhausting that inspiration I decided that I somehow needed to free myself from this war reverie and compiled my writing into a book of stories.
Convention is that one writes in a continuum of a whole, that my stories should be branches of a main, but that’s not the way it turned out for me. Maybe I watched too many *Mash* episodes because the book rendered episodic. When asked about this divergence from modern literature, I gave the excuse that my intended audience had been conditioned since birth to garner their entertainment in small doses. That television, comic books, and video games had shortened their attention spans. Would that I could be as creative a writer as I am a liar.
Having organized my stories into a volume, I had previously finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, and been impressed by the watercolor graphics in the copy I possess. Several books I read had illustrations in them and I thought it would be a nice touch to include some in my book. [One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., has in one of his books a drawing of an asshole. And in another place a wide open beaver. Both drawings look suspiciously the same.] Not trusting my skills as an illustrator, I asked someone who is handy with a brush if they would do some drawings for me. They asked me to write descriptions of what I wanted. Thinking they would only produce a few, but wanting to give plenty of raw material, I wrote descriptions of desired drawings for each chapter of the book.
Several months went by and the illustrator never complied. Not wanting to fracture an already fragile relationship I did not press them on the matter. But I complained about their recalcitrance in a bitch session among other veterans. One of the group exclaimed, “Well hell, I can draw.” I gave him the list of ideas for drawings, thinking again that he would only do a few. He wanted to read the stories before attempting the illustrations so I emailed him each chapter of the book, along with my idea behind each illustration.
To my surprise, he did them all, and they were so very close to what I had envisioned it was uncanny. When I talked to him about this later, he said that the narration made it easy for him as an artist because it mentally placed him on the ground with me. I can think of no greater compliment for a writer. It was in that moment that I thought, “Maybe I have something here.” Not with the book necessarily, but in my pursuit of the art. I had long thought of the art of writing as that of painting with words, and try to bear that concept in mind when I write. Thinking back on why I had started the book in the first place I reasoned that I began this pursuit solely for myself, not imagining that anyone else would read it any more than any of my writing from the past. Now when I write I try to always remember to maintain that beginner’s mind while attempting to “paint” mental images within the written word.
The beginner’s mind dictates that I am not writing for mass approval, rather to please myself and my Muse. If any of it happens to meet with your approval, then we are both pleased. And that is a wonderful thing.