Brian Castner | Writing Through the Tough Spots

Isn’t it funny how the experiences that drive you to write also seem to be the toughest to get down? At least, in a way that’s satisfying, that captures the essence, that feels right. Those key compelling moments when life could have gone either way, that were hard or dangerous, that shock the adrenaline, that made you run like you haven’t in years, that kept you up at night long afterward, that turned into family legends, that you’ve never told anyone else. This is the grist that turns so many of us into writers; we need to capture it exactly.

And yet, when we sit down with pen and paper, well, too often, it’s never quite the same, is it?

I’ve written two books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few years ago I covered the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, and last summer I canoed the entire Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories, from Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea. In all these stories, I found a familiar pattern: women and men struggling against something inhuman and far larger than themselves. Combat, disease, wilderness.

Roadblocks abound in getting our stories down in ways that feel true. We’ve all seen too many bad action movies, and few topics intimidate the writer like war. But our writing doesn’t have to be stuck in these opposing ruts, not if you believe, as I do, that no subject should be beyond a writer’s (or human’s) imagination or capacity for empathy.

I’ll be leading a workshop in Juneau on March 11, to help writers work on their own stories of struggle. There is no formula to extreme stories like these, not if you want to do it well. But there are a few consistent themes worth considering, some approaches that will help you avoid that feeling that your story “isn’t coming out right.”

First, forget every adventure movie you have ever seen and war book you have ever read. Especially Hemingway. Cliché is a hazard of all writing, but particularly so when stepping into the minefield of writing about combat and its consequences (see what I did there?). Fighting in a war is both an ancient human experience and an increasingly rare one—for Americans anyway—and so we naturally turn to movies and books to fill gaps, if only subconsciously. The same is true of stories set out on the land or the sea, we borrow the powerful imagery from a film instead of our own memories or imaginations. This shortcut, drawing on a well of images, from Saving Private Ryan or Into the Wild or For Whom the Bell Tolls, rarely ends well. At best, you simply repeat old sentimental tropes. At worst, this borrowing perpetuates false myths that do more harm than good and strip your work of truth.

Next, we can’t ignore that people get hurt. There is danger in the wilderness. I tried to find a war story that doesn’t involve violence or the threat of it and I couldn’t. It’s what makes a war a war. It’s no fun envisioning the untimely violent death of one of your own family members or a close friend. But this discomfort is also a first step in breaking through. The typical reaction from readers to these extreme stories is “I can’t imagine.” But this is exactly the barrier we’re trying to get past. Violence and grief are central, so we have to steep ourselves in it again. Now’s not the time for distance; we get enough impersonal statistics in the newspaper.

We also have to think about power. I have never felt smaller or less significant than on the enormous Mackenzie River, and that feeling has shaped all of my writing about the north. Chris Hedges wrote a book titled War is a Force That Gives us Meaning. But he could have stopped at War is a Force; it is bigger than any individual, a collective tragedy that everyone, soldier and civilian alike, is caught up in. When we write these extreme stories, there is a question of control and who is in charge. When a brother, sister, mother, father, best friend dies in a war or gets hurt out on the land, some react with fatalism: what will be will be. And others are beset by guilt, the feeling that they should have been able to prevent the death somehow.

Because, I realized eventually, that war and Ebola and the wilderness are not cancer or car accidents. If your friend dies at home of heart failure, that’s sad, but you don’t fear your own heart is next. But these impersonal forces work differently. What killed your loved one can kill you too. Or the other members of your family, or boat crew, or military unit. Fatalism and guilt are steeped in fear, and in all these cases, from The Iliad to A Perfect Storm, this threat is just the beginning of the story. ~

49 Writers presents author Brian Castner in Danger Close: Alaska in partnership with Alaska Humanities Forum, through their Duty Bound initiative. Brian Castner is a nonfiction writer, former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War. He is the bestselling author of All the Ways We Kill and Die, and the war memoir The Long Walk, which was adapted into an opera and named an Amazon Best Book for 2012. A contributing writer to VICE, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Wired, Foreign Policy, Outside, Buzzfeed, Boston Globe, Time, The Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and on National Public Radio. He has twice received grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to cover the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014, and to paddle the 1200 mile Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean in 2016. His latest project, a co-edited collection of short stories titled The Road Ahead, was published this month. His time in Alaska includes two programs in JNU and one public program in ANC:

1) Friday, March 10, 2017, 6 pm at the Mendenhall Valley Library’s Large Meeting Room (free), a Reading & Craft Talk Series event titled Who Owns The Story?” Joan Didion said that a writer is always selling somebody out. Brian Castner will talk about his new book, “All the Ways We Kill and Die,” the story of the death of a fellow soldier and search for the Afghan bomb-maker who killed him, and what nonfiction authors owe their subjects when writing about their innermost lives. FREE | Facebook event

2) Saturday, March 11, 2017, 10 am – 4 pm, location APK Building classroom, 395 Whittier Street, Juneau, Brian will lead a full-day nonfiction writing workshop open to everyone, including civilians, active duty and veterans. Brian Castner—an Iraq veteran who has written about war and crisis, from Africa to the Arctic—will guide this nonfiction workshop, focusing on stories of people in extraordinary situations. Crafting such stories in an authentic way can be an outsized challenge for writers. Former soldiers can struggle to tell their own story. Those without personal experience can be intimidated to even try; the hunt, the sea, the conflict, is not “what they know.” This class will break down those barriers by exploring what makes extreme stories still human and accessible. Open to every writer, we’ll read and do generative exercises to get at the heart of a true war story, whether out in a combat zone or a rescue in the Alaskan bush. All military — active duty or veterans — plus 49 Writers members are invited to register at the member rate of $90. Regular price is $115. Two full scholarships are available to military personnel — email to inquire about a scholarship. To register or learn more, click here and scroll down

3) Sunday, March 12, 2017, doors 6:30, starts at 7Don Rearden, Brian Castner, and Matthew Komatsu Crosscurrents event, 49th State Brewing Co., Anchorage. Story ownership continues to be a contested issue within the literary community. Brian Castner (The Long Walk and All the Ways We Kill and Die) and Don Rearden (The Raven’s Gift and the co-authored Never Quit) will discuss how they navigated these waters not only in the telling of war stories, but also as writers challenged with conveying Arctic and indigenous narratives against the backdrop of a warming planet. Join us for a night of lively discussion moderated by Matthew Komatsu. Facebook event. $5 for 49 Writers or any military member or veteran. $10 otherwise. Advanced ticket sales suggested by clicking here; door sales accepted while space lasts.

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