Hard and Heavy Questions

a-hard-and-heavy-thing-9781440591877_hr

A Review of A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti

 

Sometimes, as a kid, I asked my dad for advice. Should I pick path A or B?

He usually said this cryptic line: “Life is full of choices.”

I used to think, What the hell does that mean? Thanks a lot, old man.

Now I realize it was a gift. He forced me to focus on the question, not the answer. A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti is like that. His book raises tough questions from the point of view of the three main characters: Levi, Nick, and Eris. Once you understand how the narration jumps back and forth in time, all you care about is the three characters. You feel the difficulty these young people have reintegrating into “normal life” after their turn at the Forever Wars.

Two parts of the book struck me. The book hinges on a combat scenario that involves Levi and Nick. Levi reaches a certain mental state after that fight:

He slept little and ate less, but he soldiered on. In the meantime, he allowed himself no respite from the work of keeping his squad alive. No longer did he think of himself. No longer did he allow his ego or romanticism or grand ideas to keep him from performing in the way he knew he should. He stopped thinking about the merits of the war. If war was bad, it didn’t change his mission to keep his brothers alive. If war was good, it was only because it taught you how to survive; it taught you how to endure; it taught you how to wait; it taught you how to abide.

Later in the book, Nick, drunk and frustrated with his friend yells this at Levi:

You can’t change anything, Levi. I can’t change anything. The past is done. It’s over.

I read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes last year. Like its namesake mountain, it’s a towering novel that takes place in Vietnam. The two passages with Levi and Nick are about how the character deals with the horror of their circumstances and the merciless way that the arrow of time only goes in one direction. Hefti’s characters reminded me of one paragraph that Marlantes wrote in Matterhorn when the protagonist Mellas deals with the same topics:

He hid behind a blasted stump and he tried to think about meaning. He knew that there could be no meaning to someone who was dead. Meaning came out of living. Meaning could come only from his choices and actions. Meaning was made, not discovered. He saw that he alone could make Hawke’s death meaningful by choosing what Hawke had chosen, the company. The things he’d wanted before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless. What he did and thought in the present would give him the answer, so he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful. The dead are dead forever.

Characters in both novels arrive at the solution to focus on the choices they make in the present. Characters in both novels acknowledge the fact that the past is cemented and permanent. Cannot be undone. Hefti does a good job addressing fate and luck in the book, too, which is part of that unforgiving arrow of time. You can’t go back and change fate.

Marlantes wrote a single punch to my gut. Hefti’s book was a series of jabs and hooks, but cumulatively powerful at the end of the fight. A Hard and Heavy Thing includes a Readers’ Group Guide at the back of the book. It’s a series of questions. There are no answers in the guide. You have to figure it out for yourself.

Advertisements
Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Shmo’s 2017 Writing Review

Jerri Bell and me at AWP 17. Photo Credit: Andria Williams, Author of The Longest Night

“What’s the point of keeping it inside?” — Benjamin Busch (Author of Dust to Dust)

He said this to me after I commented that a lot of military writers were “really putting it all out there.” That was in February, 2017 in Washington, D.C. at the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Randy Brown (AKA “Charlie Sherpa” of Red Bull Rising blog and FOB Haiku fame) invited me to go to this conference to be part of a panel called Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap. I ran my mouth about poetry. Got a few laughs. But Busch’s comment stuck with me. It was motivational and somewhat prophetic. Plus, he’s got the hair of a prophet.

With a little distance, I now realize that my writing life (so far) hinges on that conference. BC: Before Conference and AC: After Conference. I met dozens of writers, many working on military themes.

The people I met at that conference are responsible for a lot of cool things that happened this year. They either directly helped me or provided me the motivation that I needed. My local crew at Lake Superior Writers is essential, too. Thank you to Randy Brown and all the writers in my life.

The cool things:

– Published my first book of poetry: Hugging This Rock.

– My first book sits on the shelf of an actual bookstore. (Bookstore at Fitger’s, followed soon after by Zenith Bookstore and the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center)

– Short story “The Heart Under the Lake” published in the Going Coastal anthology put out by Lake Superior Writers.

– Winner – Poetry – 2017 Col Darron L. Wright Award for “Air Born” via Line of Advance literary journal

– Winner – Nonfiction category – Veterans Day Edition of Columbia Journal, for the story “The Big Red One” selected by guest editor Brian Castner (author of All The Ways We Kill and Die)

– Awarded a grant by the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council to fund the Bridging the Gap Writing Workshop in Duluth, June 2018. This workshop is my attempt to mend the civil-military gap by helping writers publish stories about military life.

– Attended the Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conference in Duluth in June. Another conference but this time with my local heroes from Northern Wilds (Shawn Perich, Breana Roy, Amber Pratt, Kelsey Roseth, etc.) who have supported my outdoor writing for a decade.

– Working with an editor to shape Outside Duluth e-book into a print volume with the University of MN Press.

– First invitation to sit on a local writer’s panel. (Topic: Getting published in literary journals)

– First invitation to talk to a book club. (Topic: the Going Coastal anthology story)

When I look at the last year using a writing filter, I feel like I could happily spend the rest of my days writing and reading. And thinking and talking about both. I’d throw in some skiing and other outdoor stuff during the breaks.

The rest of this is interesting only to me. Also true of the words prior to this line, I imagine. Here’s the part where I “break it down.”

2017 Writing Goals:

  1. Finish first draft of memoir and complete editing.
  2. Establish weekly and monthly goals to support #1.
  3. Begin work on a writing workshop for veterans to take place in Duluth in late spring 2018.
  4. Submit Outside Duluth and poetry manuscripts to other publishers.

I didn’t do #1 and #2. Simple. But #3 is a reality that will happen in June of 2018. #4 happened. Outside Duluth has interest from an editor at a publishing house. And that darn poetry manuscript is now a book. Not too shabby at the bottom of the list.

Simplicity may be helpful when it comes to this year’s writing goals, so here we go:

2018 Writing Goals:

  1. Finish draft of Outside Duluth for publisher
  2. Finish draft of memoir.

Piece of cake.

I have some other items that are already tentatively on the calendar for 2018.

– First up on 1 March, I’m going to be reading some of my poetry and giving a talk about my military life at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wisconsin. I start flapping my gums at 6:30 that night.

– Another possibility is a trip to the US Air Force Academy in April to talk to a classmate’s history class about my Iraq and Afghanistan experiences.

– In June, Bridging the Gap happens. Pretty excited about this one.

– In September, possibly part of a panel at the 2018 War, Literature & the Arts Conference at the US Air Force Academy.

 

Most Popular Shmotown Posts of 2017:

(1, 5, and 6 published in 2017; other posts published in previous years. Some weirdo somewhere clicks on #2 and #3 almost every single day…)

  1. I’ve Got Heritage, Too (Most popular all-time, too)
  2. General Spaatz Advice to Robin Olds near the end of WWII
  3. Fremont Peak of the Wind River Range
  4. Cross-Country in the City: Beginner-Friendly Ski Trails in Duluth
  5. Disappointment Cleaver
  6. Guts, Generosity, and Gratitude: AWP 17 Highlights

 

1 Book Published:

Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War (Middle West Press, 2017)

 

24 Pieces Published:

5 poems:

– 2 in print journals

– 2 in online journals

– 1 in anthology

Topics: 3 military flying, 1 outdoors, 1 both

 

2 fiction:

– 1 in online journal

– 1 in anthology

Topics: 1 Lake Superior, 1 military

 

17 non-fiction:

– 1 in online journal

– 1 in newspaper

– 15 in magazines

Topics: 15 outdoors, 2 military

 

11 publishers in 2017:

7 print publishers:

– 2 magazines

Northern Wilds

Silent Sports

– 3 book publishers

Middle West Press (Hugging This Rock)

North Star Press (Going Coastal anthology)

Southeast Missouri State Univ Press (Proud to Be anthology)

– 1 literary journal

The Deadly Writers Patrol

– 1 newspaper

Duluth News Tribune

 

4 online publishers:

– 4 literary journals

Columbia Journal

Grey Sparrow Journal

Line of Advance

O-Dark-Thirty

 

2017 Reading List:

19 books this year, better than the usual pace of about one/month

For the full list, visit my Goodreads bookshelves.

Highlights: (because, other than Marlantes, I’ve met these authors and editors, and that thrills me)

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Granola, MN by Susanne Aspley

The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Writing War by Ron Capps

See Me For Who I Am edited by David Chrisinger

The Road Ahead edited by Adrian Bonenberger

Uniform by Lisa Stice

In the Sun Out of the Wind by Louis Jenkins

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

What I Took for Granted: A Review of Uniform by Lisa Stice

My wife and I met while we were both stationed at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. There were a million things I didn’t have to explain to her because she was in the Air Force like me. After reading the book Uniform by Lisa Stice, I realize that I took too much for granted. Stice’s poetry made me feel what it was like to be isolated, confused, and worried as a spouse of someone in the military. I bet my wife felt a lot of the same emotions when I went downrange, even though she had time in uniform.

Much of Stice’s book is familiar to me and would be to anybody who served. The love-hate thing with Uncle Sam. The cycles of training and deployment. I find myself nodding in familiarity, but seeing it from a whole different perspective. A new perspective that should’ve been apparent to me for 20 years, but wasn’t until now.

In “Memo to the Wives” and “Corps Value” there’s a line that says childcare will not be provided. Events happen that should be a good deal to attend, but you can’t go because nobody can watch the kids. Nothing says service more than a Catch-22.

Stice writes “Where are you?” in a couple poems when hearing about accidents and injuries, hoping that her husband isn’t involved. “In Training” and “The Pit Opened Up” brought this up well. I’m not sure I understood how terrifying it is to just not know.

“Family Readiness”: I wrote a letter to my family to be opened upon my death. This poem made me realize what it must be like to know the letter exists and prepare for the possibility that it might be needed.

“Family Day”: Attendance not mandatory / but expected. Mandatory fun is definitely part of military life.

There’s a one-two punch in the book that had the biggest impact on me. In “Deployment Notices” Stice shares some platitudes that people say like, Some time we’ll have to / have you over for dinner. Sure, people say things that are well meaning, but when they don’t follow through, it sucks. My favorite poem in the book is “Words From Friends.” It’s the knockout punch of this combo. The last line is just killer. Your friends probably aren’t being intentionally mean when they say things, but that doesn’t matter. When you’re a raw nerve, unthinking comments have the same effect as malice. Buy the book. I’d buy it just for “Words From Friends.”

In “The Night Before Deployment,” Stice talks about her need to trust in the training her husband has received as he leaves. Then she laments, but where was my training? She had on-the-job training, I suppose. But you can learn from Lisa Stice. Call it your own training. Call it what you want. Just go read Uniform.

Posted in Writing | 5 Comments