In October of 2008, shortly after their Columbus, Ohio Workshops, The Writers Guild Initiative invited Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) to advise them on working with veterans. As WGI board member Lulie Haddad recalls, “We had a like-minded approach to veterans. Both of us wanted to create a space where people could feel safe enough to be creative.”
The workshops in Columbus introduced a format that is in use, and evolving, to the present day. The WGI focuses on exploring the tools of storytelling (character, dialogue, scene description, conflict, etc.), which enables participants to express themselves.
As a byproduct of that, Haddad says, “What the writers choose to write about is self directed and not always related to their military service or the events that may have brought them to WWP in the first place.” Writers in the workshop tackle genres as varied as mystery, science fiction and memoir.
While the WGI had developed a format for their workshops in Columbus, they incorporated WWP’s advice during their San Antonio workshops. During the discussion, WWP brought up the idea of using the workshops for families, particularly caregivers, attending to veterans with long-term needs.
“We didn’t know what they’d think,” recalls Jeremy Chwat, chief strategy officer with WWP, “But we got lucky. They bit.
“We were wrapping our minds around the needs of caregivers,” he continues. “They needed an outlet, and they needed something that they could do in the small bit of free time that they had. Writing is perfect, it fits into the pockets of ‘found time’ that the caregivers have.”
While the WGI’s initial impulse had been to work with veterans, the group quickly took to working with caregivers. “The amazing thing is the WGI is willing to meet them where they are, with no expectations, nothing but the desire to work with them as writing peers,” says Anna Frese, a WWP teammate and herself a caregiver.
“The addition of family members and caregivers to their mission was a brave thing for the WGI,” says Chwat. “It wasn’t what they originally planned. But their recognized that this was a group that was crying out for a voice. And they stepped up.”
The first caregiver’s workshops were held in November of 2011. An account of that workshop and a video can be found here. (link to page on the website)
“We heard amazing stories,” Anna says, “Stories of resilience and healing, stories of the incredible skills and abilities that caregivers develop to cope.
“The emotions they bring may be tied to the injuries they are treating,” she continues, “but as they write, those emotions blossom into so much more. Suddenly, they see that the stories and emotions can open up to so much more in life.”
“So many people in Wounded Warrior Project have so much to say,” adds Cathy Holte, outreach coordinator with WWP. “And sometimes it will only come out in the writing. We have people who come away from these workshops saying ‘I had no idea I could write… and I had no idea what was in there.’”
The buzz around the caregiver workshops soon spread. According to Cathy Holte, “People began contacting each other, spreading the news on Facebook.” Soon, the list of volunteers for the workshops grew.
“It was important that we communicated to everyone that this was a serious weekend,” Holte continues. “They should come prepared to work. The Writer’s Guild brings a team of passionate, committed professionals to these workshops. We wanted the caregivers to know that if they had in an interest in developing as a writer, being mentored, and getting honest feedback and critiques, this was the place for them.”
A few months after the first caregiver’s workshop, WWP and the WGI began talking about yet another group of military people who needed to tell their stories: the medical personnel who treat the wounded directly from the battlefield.
“We were approached by Command at the Military Hospital at Landstuhl, German,” says Jeremy Chwat. “They asked if we could provide programming that would help with the compassion fatigue suffered by their personnel. They see the worst of the worst there — but what they don’t see is the recovery. They deal with the injuries, and then send the soldiers home. They needed a way to process what they were going through.”
The Landstuhl workshops were held in May, 2011. The impulse behind these workshops was the same as for veterans and caregivers: to give people the ability to express themselves and tell their stories. An account of the workshop can be found here. (link to web page)
Since Landstuhl and New York, workshops have been held in Denver, San Antonio, and Chicago (as well as additional workshops in New York).
“There’s an enormous validation that comes with sitting with a professional writer,” says Anna Frese. “First off, they learn that their writing doesn’t have to be perfect. They learn to go with what they’ve got. And once they feel safe, the passion and emotion and energy just flow. They leave these weekends recharged and passionate about this new thing in their lives.”
Another factor that makes the workshops “work” is that they are held on two separate weekends, six months apart. “The writers are not just dropping in,” Jeremy Chwat says. “This isn’t a one-off. These are world-class writers, who are committed to working with veterans and caregivers, who in turn know there’s someone waiting to read their work.”
What’s up for the future? Jeremy Chwat says that “Arts support for the military is essential” to WWP, and the workshops they hold with the WGI are a classic example of the kind of artistic programs veterans need.
From the WGI perspective, the future will hopefully hold many more programs with WWP. If you’re a caregiver or a veteran interested in participating, you can find information here. If you’re a member of the Writers Guild who would like to volunteer, contact us here.