February 20, 2015 marks a special occasion: bloggers around the world have committed to speaking out on compassion. #1000Speak. Voices unite. Words move mountains. Compassion is expressed.
Many will be writing today about topics, people and places they have compassion for. Some will write to share awareness. Some will tackle the daunting questions — what is compassion and how can we arouse it in others? Compassion is a deep well from which we can draw.
My take is literary compassion: how writing literature can be an exercise in finding compassion; how reading literature can be an entry point to developing compassion for people, places or causes; and how literary communities can be compassionate places to grow among other word artists.
Writing Literature: How to Find Compassion for a Soldier
My journey to write Miracle of Ducks was one to find compassion for my husband, a former US Army Ranger. Often we have compassion for war-torn places. We protest war. And we feel puzzled as to why anyone would volunteer to go to war.
Soldiers serve. I never really understood that about my husband because he signed up for the military and got out all before I knew him. I recall his mom saying how scared she was when she learned he was on a C130 headed to Grenada. In military history, “Operation Urgent Fury” was the shortest conflict that America ever fought. Many don’t even remember the event and other soldiers often scoff that it “wasn’t a war.” Even my husband minimized his experience until he went t a 20 year reunion for the event.
Thanks to a friend, I began to volunteer with soldiers in need of stress-relief. It opened my heart to my husband and understanding his experience. Soldiers are human. I began to feel compassion for those who have served so I began to think about a character who is trying to understand why her husband would suddenly want to go to Iraq 20 years after getting out of the service. My character, Danni Gordon, is left behind with her husband’s three hunting dogs. She even contemplates leaving him. But he doesn’t come home; he goes missing.
In this scene, Danni is coping with her grief by collecting the stories of war widows. She’s making an effort to understand why her husband Ike would have put himself in a war zone voluntarily.
From Miracle of Ducks by Charli Mills
“Okay, Genny. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, today. I want to let you know I am using audio equipment to fully record your stories.” Danni explained and listened to the ear piece to make sure her voice, as interviewer, was picking up.
“And I thought you were just draping me in newfangled techno-jewelry.” Genny joked, sitting upright on the studio stool.
Danni smiled. “Just required to state the obvious: you’re being recorded. As I mentioned to you on the phone, I am a historical archaeologist, meaning I collect both written and oral data that can be used to assist with the scientific recovery of data from the ground.”
“So, one day when they dig up the war zones of this century, there will be oral data to support it?”
“Something like that,” said Danni.
“Well, honestly, I don’t know how much light I can shed on war or military.”
“Actually, I’m here to collect your story as a war widow,” said Danni sitting down opposite Genny.
They were in a tiny studio at Northland College in Ashland. Danni was using her skills to collect these stories from war wives and widows. If Ike could serve, she’d find a way to serve, too. It was like the time when Danni had been a fellow on Baffin Island and she used audio equipment in the field to collect the disappearing oral traditions of the Inuit. Back then, nothing had surprised her more than to hear throat singing first hand. She wondered what would surprise her today.
“Why are you doing this,” asked Genny.
“I’ve interviewed a woman whose husband was a pilot in WWII and several women in our community whose husbands have or are serving in Iraq. I’ve even met other women who were married to Vietnam vets and one who is the war widow of the Korean conflict. They said no one ever asked for their stories before.”
“Why me,” asked Genny.
“My husband served with yours. After my husband went to Brad’s funeral, he enlisted with a private security company and tried to explain to me his need to serve. I’m trying to understand. I thought your story would be important to this collection.”
“You do know that Brad and I were divorced almost 10 years before he was killed,” Genny said.
“Married or divorced doesn’t matter. Your story can communicate what it is like to be a war widow. Ike said you were at Brad’s funeral.”
Genny was silent, poised on the stool in the studio. Then she asked, “I’ve heard through the grapevine that Ike went over to train for Watersand Security. He seemed to get the ‘brother fever’ at Brad’s funeral, but I never did hear what came of him. Are you a war widow?”
“I don’t know. Ike’s been missing for 15 months. Officially, Watersand Security called off the search.”
“I’m sorry,” said Genny.
“I’m doing this because I want to hear something different than ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m trying to understand. When Ike came back from Brad’s funeral, raving about how he was needed over there, I thought he was deranged. I thought it was a mid-life crisis. Why do they put themselves in danger?”
After I wrote the novel I felt more compassion for my husband, his army brothers and those who serve. Writing literature can be a powerful experience and can bring about the understanding necessary to feel compassion for something outside our own experiences.
Reading Literature: Getting Readers to Care About Something
My second novel is still a work in progress and its working title is Warm Like Melting Ice. I found Will Steger’s Global Warming 101 Expedition across Baffin Island (2007) so profound that I have wanted to write about the people of Baffin Island ever since. In 2008 I had the privilege of hosting a farm tour and dinner for the first ever cultural exchange of high school students from Baffin Island to Minnesota. I wanted others to know about this cultural group. I wanted others to develop compassion for their plight with melting ice.
Here’s a video that shares a story that moves me. Note the compassion that the Inuit guide expresses in his statement:
Literature can draw us into to stories we didn’t know about. We meet characters in situations we didn’t think existed. We finish the book and know about a new place. We get curious about those who live there and we learn that climate change is a big threat. Suddenly, a reader who once dismissed climate change, has a change of heart. She’s found compassion through literature.
The following stories are from 21 writers who all took on writing 99-words of literature using compassion as a prompt. What we find in reading these stories is a variety of situations, points of view and understanding we may not have had prior to reading. Think about it. A reader can feel compassion in 99 words. It’s a seed, a beginning, a turning point. Literature matters: Stories of Compassion.
Literary Communities: Places of Compassion
It’s not easy, walking the road to becoming a published author. Some writers are content to blog, others call their writing a hobby and some work at it t build a career. No matter, each writer communicates with an unknown world. Negative comments about quality of writing or content, bad reviews or the difficulty of finding an audience can break down a writer’s resolve. A community can form out of like-minded writers, fellow pilgrims on the path, to take the sting out of sore feet.
“When we offer more to others than what we ask of them in return, good things happen. When we work to benefit the greater good of our literary circles, everyone benefits.” Lori A, May, author of “Why Literary Citizenship Matters.”
What does compassion look like in literary communities? It’s writers who focus on building up other writers, who point out strengths, who create safe places for writers to express voice or practice craft without judgement. Compassion is found in acts of encouragement, sharing experiences, reading, commenting, sharing writing. Meet the Rough Writers who form a compassionate literary group at Carrot Ranch.
Please take time to read about compassion for the bloggers supporting #1000Speak. Use literature to express, encourage and explore compassion.
We are writing around the world in one big literary connection: