Ron Capps: Everyone should tell about the war from where they are, from their point of truth


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Many do not return from war: some die physically, while others do not find a place in the new world. But Ron Capps is one of those who are described by the word “survivor”. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, he not only returned home, but wrote a series of books about his experiences that became bestsellers and won national awards. Capps went further and decided to help other veterans: this is how the Veterans Writing Project was born – free creative writing courses for military personnel and their families.

Recently, Capps’ book “Writing War” was translated into Ukrainian by Olha Pohynayko (Smoloskyp Publishing House). Capps believes in literature, and even more he believes in our victory. Chytomo spoke with Ron about how each new war appears through other media, about ways to preserve the testimony of our war for future generations and the existence of taboo topics in literature.  


— You founded the Veterans Writing Project, where veterans can attend creative writing workshops. Please tell me more about the veterans who come to these workshops. Have any of them got their book published? Or is it therapy through creativity in the first place for them?

— We have had more than 3600 participants in our workshops, and yes, some have had books published since they came through. One went on to establish an award-winning military news organization called The War Horse, and one established his own writing program for veterans in New York City called Words After War.


We discourage people from thinking about our workshops as therapy. We’re writers, not therapists. That said, we have worked with creative arts therapists and we’ve developed a writing program for the U.S. military that we ran at Walter Reed military hospital for seven years.

Photo: Bisi Cameron Yee, LCN

— You write a lot about PTSD among veterans and the need to ask for help, including psychotherapy, when needed. In Ukraine, unfortunately, psychotherapy is still often stigmatized, it is perceived as a “choice for the weak” or people with serious mental problems. It is also about the silencing of these topics in the army, which you are writing a lot about in your books. What are the possible ways of overcoming this stigma?

— Seeking therapy is still stigmatized in the U.S. as well. I think the most important thing we can do is to discuss all forms of health care equally. We make a point of talking about health care and mental health care, when we should simply call it all health care. I would also like to see more senior military and civilian leaders come forward to talk about their health care in order to help reduce the stigma.

— Please tell us a little more about the process of working with complex topics. Are there any forbidden areas or topics which one should better avoid?

— This is a very interesting question. It offers the opportunity to say potantially contradictory things in one answer. There should be no forbidden topics. We, as artists, should interrogate the world as it exists, not as we wish it existed. But, and this is where I might say something that seems contradictory, there are things that I think we must approach with caution and be quite deliberate about our methodology and our sensibilities.


For example, race and ethnicity in the United States are very difficult topics to discuss. Slavery has been called America’s original sin. And I would say that institutional racism is the child of that sin.


So, we live with a legacy of slavery and with the existence of institutional racism and we absolutely must interrogate them. But it is hard to do this appropriately and different audiences will have wildly varied reactions to the same story. And so I think many people refuse to write about certain topics—they self-censor—because they fear the blowback of their work. I don’t think this is cowardly, I think it is simply a self-protection mechanism.

— How are the ideas of your stories formed? Is there anything like “pitching” ideas in your head, when you’re trying to find the best one? Are there texts that you wrote but didn’t publish and now you don’t even want to?

— I love the idea of “pitching” ideas in your head. And, yes, I do this all the time. I am constantly hearing or reading something and immediately asking myself, “Is there something here for me?” In almost every case, the answer is no. Sometimes it’s because I don’t have the requisite skill to properly handle the material: Maybe it’s something that would be best handled as a movie for example. And sometimes, it’s just not something I think I have anything interesting to say about. There are lots of half-started ideas in the files on my laptop and a few partially or mostly complete works, too. Some of these are things I’d like to come back to, and some are just failures.

There is an axiom in America, I think it got started during our Apollo space program, that says, “Failure is not an option.” That’s silly. Failure is always an option and should be. We learn from our failures, and I embrace mine fully. I don’t delete or destroy failures. I keep them in various files on my computer (…and my back-ups…always back-up your work!…). Sometimes I go back and read them to see what I’ve learned from them.

— Has writing become an opportunity for you to regain control over the situation, to organize your own thoughts? Or is it something else, for example, the opportunity to express yourself freely, without pressure and control?

— Writing has been a road home from war for me. I was medically evacuated from Darfur and went into therapy for my PTSD. The therapy wasn’t working well enough, I thought, but I noticed that I writing helped me to get control over traumatic memories. I wrote, then, more or less in a stream-of-consciousness style without stopping to think about what was coming out, or worrying about things like punctuation or spelling. I just let the words come out and worried later about fixing any problems. I put a sign up on my wall that said, “either you control the memories, or the memories control you.” It turned out that I completed the manuscript for my memoir (Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, Schaffner Press, 2014) that way. I’ve been home from war for almost 15 years now and I’m still using the creative arts (I’ve since added music and theater to my prescription) to help me manage my PTSD symptoms. 

— Do American writers reflect the war in Ukraine today in their texts? I mean not only articles in the media, but mostly essays and fiction. Is there anxiety in the country, especially among artists? After all, it is known that artists often react more sharply than others to social change and tragedy.

— Yes, but in small numbers, I think. I know of two independent presses (The Aiming Circle and River Paw Press) that have begun collecting works for publication. I know of two individual authors who are working on manuscripts that specifically discuss the war in Ukraine. In the UK, there have been a number of poets who have already written about the war (including Simon Armitage and Carole Bromley).

— We are experiencing a full-scale war in Ukraine. For example, I am writing this question by candlelight, because the Russians damage our energy system every day. There were missiles this morning again. This situation cannot be explained, it can only be experienced. How is it possible to find the right words to describe to the world what this war is? How to convey the truth and not look weak or hysterical?

— There is a scene in The Odyssey where the narrator just stops telling the story and seems to look right at the reader. He says, “How can I tell it all; It would take a god to tell this tale.” I think that’s one of the best descriptions of war writing from the writer’s perspective I’ve ever heard. We have to paint pictures with words. But the pictures of war aren’t pretty. So, we have to use ugly, pain-filled words. We have to use words to describe things that we as human beings aren’t programmed to see or to live through. How to convey the truth? Each of has to tell the war story from where we are, from our truth.

We have to tell the story we see and know and feel—even if we’re writing fiction. And if that truth includes some weakness or some hysteria, I think that’s all right. It is the truth about war. How do we as writers get there? How do we get to our truth? I can only tell you about my experience and what I’ve witnessed among my friends, the other writers I know: We each did it differently. Some of us felt the need to get the story outside of us as quickly as we could. Some of us haven’t started writing our truths, yet.

— One of the most powerful Ukrainian writers, Sofia Andruhovych, wrote the novel Amadoka a few years ago. It has become one of the central texts in modern Ukrainian literature. This is a story of the main character losing his memory and connection with the past due to the war. Themes of memory, forgetting, and displacement are obviously important to literature about war. How do you work with these topics? What writing techniques and mechanisms seem important to you?

— I’m working on a play right now called Trying to Catch Amnesia. It follows two families through the deployment and return of a soldier from war and accusations that he is responsible for the death of his comrade. The surviving soldier is dealing with PTSD and combat wounds plus addiction—which sounds like a lot, and it is, but it’s not an unusual situation. His family and the dead soldier’s family are dealing with the aftermath as well.


The idea behind the title is that some survivors want to be freed from their memories and some don’t, but none of us will be.


But there is no such thing as Alexander Pope’s “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.” Memories are permanent. I work with these themes in prose, on stage, and in song. (The play Trying to Catch Amnesia is a musical and the finale is a song with the same title. If you’re interested you can listen to it on my Bandcamp site. Writers who chose to work on these themes might think about the character’s wishes. Does the character see the memories as making her life unlivable? Or does the character believe that each memory makes her who she is and any forgetting or removal might alter that result.

— How should we work with the memory and testimonies of the war right now, in particular in books, in order to preserve as many stories as possible for the future?

— I think you have to capture work across the spectrum of writers, not just of the fighters but everyone whose life is touched by the war: Widows, orphans, the displaced, the gravediggers, the medical teams, the technicians and engineers who keep the lights on, the train crews, the people who work and live around Zaporizhzhia or on the Crimean Peninsula, Black Sea sailors, even the Russians (as much as you won’t want to). All of these stories will be of value to you and to the generations that follow you. They might not make sense to you today, but capture your words and preserve them. There will come a time when they do make sense and you will lean heavily upon them.

— I know that you are writing a novel about the events in Sudan in 1916. Could you tell me more about working with factage when it is not a non-fiction book, but a novel? What should the writer pay attention to?

— I think that with historical fiction we have a responsibility to seek truth in the details of the world we’re writing about just as we seek to expose larger truths through our story. I try to look for details that serve multiple purposes, things that might show what life was like in whatever period we’re writing about and the larger societal aspects of that phenomenon or object. For example, think about women’s clothing in 18th or 19th century Europe and North America. The hoop skirts and huge bustles, the bone corsets— all designed by men, of course—made it impossible for women of the classes that wore them to actually do physical labor. This fit in with the mores and ideals of the era. Or the Chinese practice of breaking girls’ feet in order to alter their shape, which was an example of violence against women in the name of making them more beautiful (to whom?) objects. These historical anomalies are artifacts of oppression. Detailing them in a story should expose them as what they truly were, who benefitted and who suffered from their imposition, and the context then and now in which we view them.

— Is it possible to turn every powerful story, a story that impresses, into a book?

— Probably, but I think some stories are better suited for other media. In the same way that not every great book can be made into a great movie, not every story should be made into a book. Some stories are better suited to plays or movies or opera, I think.

— War often gives rise to powerful texts. However, so does any strong trauma experienced by the people. From your experience, when should we expect an explosion of strong texts about the war? Can it happen before our final victory? And can we hope not only for non-fiction, but also for great novels?

— I hope that the first great novel about this war in Ukraine is already being written. And the first of many great poems and memoirs and plays, too. In 20th Century literature, I think, each war has had a specific media that followed it. World War One was a poet’s war. World War Two was a novelist’s war. Vietnam was a film-maker’s war, and so on. Some of the best American war novels from World War Two were published in the 1960s, so 15 to 25 years after the end of the war. But lots of great writing came out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars themselves. So, I think you can look forward to powerful writing about this war now and well into the future. Part of that is because war is such a compelling topic from any perspective. And part of that is because we all process trauma differently.


The material was created and published within the project “MC2C (Media City to City): Creating city-to-city media connections for local and Ukrainian diaspora audience needs”. It is implemented by Lviv Media Forum in partnership with Thomson Media and with the support of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.


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