Not Quitting Now, and Neither Should You: Veteran-Writer Jerri Bell

I am so happy to have veteran-writer Jerri Bell here with me today!

I met Jerri last month at the AWP writers’ conference in Minneapolis. I’d seen her at all the veterans’ and war-writing panels and knew she was with 0-Dark-Thirty and the Veterans Writing Project, both of which I wanted to learn more about, and I knew she was herself a veteran. Finally, on the last day of AWP, I managed to snag her after the final panel I’d attended. AWP, for those who have been, is an intense four days, and by that point my brain felt like cotton candy. I was about to make the drive back out to the ‘burbs, where I was staying with family, but I would have kicked myself if I’d left without talking to her.

So I waved Jerri over, and she (surely as tired as I was) came gamely over to talk. Stupidly, I blanked out and could only manage: “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for four days! Wait……..tell me about what you do.”

She could have made me feel like the dummy I was — with her rank, and her expertise in veteran writing circles — so if she’d politely said she had somewhere to be, I would have understood. Instead, she warmly reminded me of her role with 0-Dark-Thirty and the Veterans Writing Project, and within minutes had me in stitches with her tales about life within an occasionally neanderthal Navy (of which we are both, for the most part, fond).

Turns out she’s of West Virginia stock, like my Grandpa Williams, and has the wry humor and self-sufficient bearing of people I have known for many years. I liked her at once and told her I hoped she’d participate with my blog sometime in the future.

So here Jerri is, kindly sharing her time and knowledge with me yet again. She knows an incredible amount about the history of women in the armed forces, what they have so far published, what they are writing now. Her passion for the subject is genuine and her research impeccable. Her blog about women veterans and their writing, Presumption and Folly, is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject.

I hope you’ll enjoy what Jerri has to say about women veterans, the writing and editing life, and the Navy recruiter who took her to see Rambo III more than 20 years ago : “He lasted one date — but the Navy lasted twenty years.”

Welcome, Jerri!

Jerri Bell: Thank you for the invitation, Andria! I’m honored to be here. And I’ve really enjoyed reading through the posts on The Military Spouse Book Review – I’ve learned about writing by some women veterans whose work I hadn’t come across in any of my previous searches. But now I’m terrified that my Christmas “reading wish list” is about to grow exponentially, and that the to-be-read pile will collapse my nightstand. Your reviews are inspiring some serious book lust.

1. Reviews are my game, book lust is my aim. Thank you!

So, Jerri, can you tell my readers a little about yourself? Where you’re from, what took you into the Navy, some of the places you were stationed? I know that you were in the Navy during the Tailhook scandal and through a time that was even less friendly to female service members than, perhaps, today. How did you stick with it, and how do you feel about your service now that you have retired?

I grew up in West Virginia, the state with the highest percentage of veterans per capita in its population. (I had not known that, but it does not surprise me! – Editor) My dad and both of his brothers did four-year enlistments in the Navy in the 1950s; one of my great-uncles was a prisoner of war in Germany from 1943 to 1945. Dad’s sea stories, which often started with “Now, don’t tell your mother, but…” (just to be clear, Mom met Dad after he’d left the service), made me long for my own life of travel and adventure. So I left West Virginia for college, and never made it back home.Jerri_Bell_1

“Daddy, I think I want to write a collection of stories set around a woman’s perspective within the Navy. Just steady my arms, here.”

After I graduated, I bummed around New York City working various entry-level jobs for a few years. My roommate and I saw Top Gun when it hit the theaters, and suddenly he wanted to be a Navy fighter pilot. But he was working long hours, so when the recruiter called to follow up I was the one who took the calls. The recruiter flirted and sounded kind of cute, so I went down to the recruiting station to ask him out. He lasted one date – but the Navy lasted twenty years. (The recruiter took me to see Rambo III in a theater in Brooklyn. The Navy took me to the Azores Islands in the North Atlantic; Ascension Island in the South Atlantic; Iceland; England and Wales; France, Spain, and Italy; Dakar, Senegal; Japan; Bahrain; California and Hawaii; and all over Russia, from Murmansk to Novorossiysk and from Kaliningrad to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.)

I got my commission almost three years before the Tailhook scandal, and my first assignment was to an aviation unit: the Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Center in Lajes, Azores. The first colleague I met – a Limited Duty Officer ensign with twelve years’ enlisted time to his credit – welcomed me with a firm handshake and the question, “Are you going to be like our last female intel officer, and sleep with the commanding officer of every squadron that comes through?” Two days later, when I met the first P-3C plane crew I’d be working with, the plane commander (a pilot) asked, “Are you like our intel officer? She only sleeps with O-4s and up.” Complaining about that kind of thing back then was the kiss of death for a military woman’s career. You had two choices: you could ignore it altogether, or you could turn it into a joke. I made it clear to everyone in my first duty station that I was in the Azores to work – not to get lucky or to rise to the rank of Mrs. – and within a month the guys in the unit were like my big brothers. Like, thirty big brothers. I couldn’t have gotten a date they considered acceptable if I’d tried. It was a long two years!

As for sticking with it: Maybe I’m a bit unenlightened, but I honestly didn’t mind the harassment and repartee as long as I was allowed to give as good as I got, and to be as foul-mouthed as the guys. And as long as I could expect to be taken seriously if I did file a complaint about sexual assault or rape. That was never a concern for me in any assignment in my twenty years: I never served under an officer, male or female, whom I would not have trusted to take a sexual harassment or assault complaint seriously. While the behavior of some of the attendees at Tailhook crossed a line into the inexcusable, mishandling of the investigation caused a level of mistrust between men and women in the Navy that was never completely overcome by the time I retired in 2008. It drove a lot of the harassment and assault (and it does happen, far too often) underground, and at least for a time it left women in the Navy with fewer options for responding to a shipmate’s inappropriate behavior.

Jerri_Bell_2Jerri (center) in an RAF uniform during a 1994 deployment on the HMS Sheffield.

2. When did you start writing?

I made up a bad little poem about daisies when I was maybe three years old. (I still remember three lines of it, and no, I’m not sharing them. I will never be a poet.) My bestie and I wrote our own Nancy Drew-type mysteries in fourth grade, and in middle school we wrote kissy purple-prose romances whose heroes always had an uncanny resemblance to one member or another of the school football team. By the time I was fifteen, I had resolved to write and publish at least one novel before I died.

3. What are you writing now?

I’m finally writing honestly about the Navy of the mid-1990s. I went into the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins planning to write the Great Navy Novel (cue hysterical laughter – of course that manuscript is now in File Thirteen). The fiction advisor read my first workshop submission and said, “You should be writing this stuff from a woman’s perspective.” I got hot under the collar: a good fiction writer should be able to imagine her way into anyone’s head.

He said that wasn’t the problem; he felt that the themes coming out in my writing would be more powerful if the story was told from a woman’s point of view. At that time I was still on active duty, and I was horrified. I told him that military women never wrote the truth about the service – it was too risky. Those of us serving during the Tailhook scandal saw Paula Coughlin go down in flames for telling the truth, and we also knew that if we made waves in any way, we would make life more difficult for other military women. The goal of my generation of servicewomen was to establish professional credibility so that when we demanded opportunities to go to sea on combatant ships, or to do support jobs in a combat zone, the barriers might finally come down – no matter what silence cost us personally. I finished the thesis with chapters of my “Navy novel,” and then stopped writing about the Navy altogether for five years.

It took joining the Veterans Writing Project to convince me that those Navy stories needed to be written, and that they needed to be told from the perspectives of women. I’ve chosen the short story form this time. Four of the finished pieces are out looking for good homes and have collected a few of the obligatory rejections, two more are in revision, and I have notes or rough outlines for another six or seven. I’d love to publish them as a collection when they’re fit for public consumption.

4. That sounds absolutely fascinating – I cannot wait to read these stories.

You’re also a writing instructor for the Veterans Writing Project. Can you tell me a little about that and how you got involved?

I was lying in bed with an issue of The Writer one winter night in 2012 or 2013 – you know, on one of those nights when it’s easier to read about writing than it is to make yourself actually write anything. There was a little article about the Veterans Writing Project, and I realized that I’d been hearing rumors about it through the Johns Hopkins writing program alumni network. (Ron Capps, the director, and all the other members of the editorial board are also graduates of the Johns Hopkins Writing Program.) I jumped out of bed, read every page of the VWP web site, and immediately e-mailed Ron Capps to ask how I could get involved.

As it turned out, Ron had been looking for a Navy veteran and a woman to round out the staff. One of his first assignments for me was to adapt the VWP writing seminar curriculum for a women veterans’-only group. VWP offers writing seminars free of charge to active duty, veterans, and family members, and Ron had noticed that women veterans who attended weren’t speaking up or sharing as much as the men. He wanted to create a “safe space” for women veterans to find their voices. We finally found a sponsor for the women veterans’-only seminar in 2014: we partnered with the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC and ran a fourteen-week course in the fall. It was an honor to work with the participants, and I couldn’t be prouder of their accomplishments. Everyone wrote – a lot. One participant even published an essay anonymously in Army Magazine this spring. We’ll be offering that seminar again this fall at the VA Medical Center in DC, and once more in 2016.

5. Can you tell me about O-Dark-Thirty and your role with the journal?

The Veterans Writing Project publishes O-Dark-Thirty, our literary journal, quarterly in print and usually two or three times a week online. We accept fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and short plays written by active duty servicemembers, veterans, and family members.

I call myself the Chief Button-Smasher and Cat-Herder. When submissions come in to our Submittable queue, I check to make sure that the author is from our target demographic and that the work meets our submission criteria. Then I forward it to the appropriate editor without comment on the content or quality, even though I usually read everything that comes in before forwarding. If the editor is on the fence with a decision, I weigh in and recommend the publication venue, or acceptance/rejection.

When it’s time to publish the print journal, I collect all the accepted work into a single document and copyedit it with our contributing editor, Carmelinda Blagg. We do at least three rounds of copyediting on every issue: we want the authors’ work to shine, and sometimes bits of format get “eaten” when the file is transferred among Submittable, MS Word, and the program that our production manager uses for layout. I usually spend about two weeks every quarter wandering the house in a daze muttering things about semicolons and em-dashes! Then I “herd the cats” – round up postal addresses for contributors’ copies, that sort of thing.

After every issue comes out, I feel a little bit like I’ve just given birth again. Fortunately, the journal neither cries at night nor wants me to feed it.

6. Well, thank God! 😉

As if all that were not enough, you also write a blog called Presumption and Folly, dedicated to promoting and curating the writing of female veterans. The title of the blog refers to a quote attributed to Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to join the Continental Army in the late 1700s. “My companions taxed me with presumption and folly,” the quote goes, “but I was determined, then and always, not to be a coward.”

What motivated you personally to start this blog? What do you hope it will add to the conversation about women veterans’ writing?

The VWP seminar curriculum, Writing War, is craft-based. But it differs from other craft books in that Ron Capps illustrates every aspect of the writing craft with examples of great writing by veterans, from Leo Tolstoy to Tobias Wolff. In it, Ron only included two short quotes from one woman veteran: Vera Brittain, a nurse’s aide in British field hospitals in World War I. So when he asked me to adapt the seminar for women, the first thing I did was to start looking for examples of writing by women veterans. I curated a fairly extensive bibliography, some of which I’ve posted on a “Bibliography” page of Presumption and Folly.

Yeah, it’s tremendous. I scanned through for ages and was introduced to writers I should have known about.

When I started reading the works in the bibliography, I realized that there were wonderful stories behind things that women veterans had written – more information than I could use in the seminar. I love lit-blogging: writing posts about literature is a way of processing what I think about what I’ve read. I hope that I’m creating a “home” for women veterans who write: examples, information about events, resources, and inspiration. We need to start telling our stories. To start speaking up. To end the self-imposed silence.

7. On your blog, you mention that you set out to find female veterans’ writing and that it was harder than you anticipated. Why do you think that is? Who are the women veterans we should be reading?

When you look at the historical record, you see that women veterans in America mostly wrote for private consumption – diaries and letters, for example – until the 1980s. The editors of the anthology In the Words of Women: The Revolutionary War and the Birth of the Nation, 1765-1799 note that “…too often women were viewed as incidental to the men who dominated the course of momentous occurrences and affected their lives.”

This is also true of America’s view of its women veterans. The mother lode of our writing is still hidden away in university or museum libraries, or in private collections of papers. The writing of women, even those who played important historical roles or had unique and useful perspectives, was not considered “serious” historical source material until the second half of the 20th century. And until recently, many women veterans themselves were apologetic about their military service altogether (see my post on Deborah Sampson for a prime example), or they downplayed their accomplishments because women have traditionally been expected to be modest.

Search engines only bring up parts of the whole when you enter “women-veterans-writing.” It’s sort of like the old proverb about four blind men who touch an elephant, each thinking that it’s something different because he can only touch a small part. I worry that society is going to jump to conclusions about women veterans and their writing based on an incomplete understanding of the record.

As for contemporary writing by women veterans: I’ll leave the question of whether or not it gets the same public attention and critical acclaim as that of our male counterparts for next year. Kayla Williams, Lauren Halloran, and I have proposed a panel for the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference called “Unsung Epics: Women Veterans’ Voices.” We’ve lined up a group of women veteran writers diverse in branch and era of service, genre of writing, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation to discuss that question and others. We hope that AWP will approve the panel proposal!

That sounds fantastic — the AWP board would be nuts not to accept it. I’ll be there!

Here are a few recommendations for your readers:

Nonfiction/memoir: Kayla Williams’ latest book Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War is a mature, thoughtful memoir that offers something for women veterans, military spouses, and caregivers of traumatic brain injury patients alike. Best of all, Kayla’s unique voice – her wry observations and irreverent wit – runs through the entire narrative.

Marine Corps veteran Tracy Crow’s memoir Eyes Right: Confessions of a Woman Marine is another favorite of mine. She’s brutally honest about the challenges women faced in trying to break glass ceilings in the 1980s. And she refuses to either assign blame or wallow in self-pity when she writes about the sexual politics that ended her otherwise-successful career at the halfway mark. I also recommend Teresa Fazio’s posts on the New York Times At War blog: she looks beyond her military experience, but retains a kind of military sensibility when she’s writing about current events. And of course I’m anxiously awaiting Lauren Halloran’s memoir!

Me, too! (Readers: look for an interview with veteran-writer Teresa Fazio coming up next week. Lauren Halloran contributed a review of Ross Ritchell’s The Knife earlier this week, and is interviewed on this blog here.)

Poetry: I just finished the collection Visions of War, Dreams of Peace: Writings of Women in the Vietnam War, edited by Lynda Van Devanter and Joan Furey – poems from American military nurses, civilian aid workers, and Vietnamese women who were on the front lines in some capacity. Farzana Marie, the nom-de-plume of a former Air Force officer, has published Afghan women’s poems translated from Dari and writes her own poetry as well. You can read some of her work in O-Dark-Thirty.

Very cool. Now, what about fiction? I feel like I see much less fiction from women veterans than from the men.

Women veterans are indeed writing fiction! And we’re not afraid to branch out into different subgenres. Navy veteran Valerie Ormond writes young adult fiction; former Army pilot Lynda Meeks and Air Force veteran Graciela Tiscareño-Sato have written children’s books. M. L. Doyle’s Master Sergeant Harper mystery series and Carver Greene’s An Unlawful Order are tightly-plotted, fun mystery/suspense novels that feature women veterans. (Doyle is an Army veteran who also co-authored biographies of American POW Shoshana Johnson and Brigadier General Julia Jeter Cleckley, and Carver Greene is Tracy Crow’s fiction nom-de-plume.)

We aren’t publishing literary fiction as often as memoir, though. There could be a number of reasons for that. Vietnam veteran Susan O’Neill has published a collection of short stories, Don’t Mean Nothing, and Michelle Wilmot has published the novel Quixote in Ramadi: An Indigenous Account of Imperialism.

Watch for literary novels by veterans Mariette Kalinowski and Kristen Rouse – both excellent writers whose web sites say they have novels in progress.

You are a treasure trove of information. Thank you for this phenomenal list. I’d heard of Tracy Crow and her Carver Greene novels, but now I see that I (shamefully) never linked her here. I’ll fix that now!

So — anything else I should know about?

I think that writing by women veterans offers a unique opportunity for bridging the military-civilian divide that we talk about so often in the wake of OEF/OIF. Through writing, I think that we can connect with our civilian counterparts as women: the concerns and interests and experiences of military and civilian women who are struggling to balance family and career, or who are aiming to break the next glass ceiling, transcend the military experience that divides us.

For women – military or civilian – who are struggling to find their voices, to tell their own stories, I would say: go at the writing like a Navy SEAL. It is said that the candidates who graduate the SEALs’ Basic Underwater Demolition School are not the strongest, or the smartest: they’re simply the ones who DON’T QUIT. It took me nine years to get my first published story from first draft to print. That’s a little discouraging: I’m not exactly taking the literary world by storm. But I’m not going to quit now, and neither should you.

I love that. DON’T QUIT!

Thank you so much, Jerri, for your time, and for sharing your expertise (and good humor).

Readers interested in Jerri Bell’s own writing can check out her blog, Presumption and Folly, as well as “My First Cinderella Writing Moment” on The Quivering Pen and an interview about editing on “The Road Less Written.” I, for one, can not wait to read the collection of Navy short stories she’s working on! I’m looking forward to much more from Jerri Bell.

3 thoughts on “Not Quitting Now, and Neither Should You: Veteran-Writer Jerri Bell

  1. I don’t know why, but I didn’t think this interview would be my cup of tea. But it totally was! (What was I thinking?) Jerri has such fascinating insight. It’s so simple, but I needed the “don’t quit” reminder. I’ve gone back to my “normal” job as a teacher, and my writing has fallen by the wayside. I don’t want to quit, so I won’t. Thanks for the pep talk. 🙂

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