Writing the Military Story: An Interview with Tracy Crow

Tracy Crow
Tracy Crow

(A version of this interview appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Practicing Writer.)

Tracy Crow and I are graduates of the same MFA program, but we did not overlap as students there. I’m sorry that we didn’t, because I’ve been a fan of her writing for so long.

Although I’ve never served in the military, “military stories” have meant a lot to me as a reader of fiction and history–and as a writer. Two of the short stories of mine that mean the most to me are “Lebensraum,” which was inspired by my paternal grandfather’s military service (you can find it in QUIET AMERICANS and online) and “Fidelis,” which NPR commissioned for its 2011 “Hanukkah Lights” 2011 (and re-broadcast in 2014), which evolved from a journalistic nugget I uncovered via historical research. So when I heard about Tracy’s new book, ON POINT: A GUIDE TO WRITING THE MILITARY STORY (Nebraska, 2015), I was instantly interested and reached out to the author at once.

Tracy Crow is a former assistant professor of journalism and creative writing, Marine Corps officer, and award-winning military journalist. Her essays and short stories have been published widely and been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the author of the award-winning memoir, EYES RIGHT: CONFESSIONS FROM A WOMAN MARINE (Nebraska, 2012); and the anthology RED, WHITE, AND TRUE: STORIES FROM VETERANS AND FAMILIES, WORLD WAR II TO PRESENT (Potomac Books, 2014).

Please welcome Tracy Crow!

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): The jacket copy for ON POINT notes that it “is the guide Crow wishes she’d had when she first began writing about her military experience.” It does seem striking–almost hard to believe, in fact–that a guide like ON POINT has been missing from the literary marketplace. What do you think accounts for this longtime gap, and when did you realize that you might be able to fill it?

TRACY CROW (TC): It is hard to believe. Alongside all the writing guides out there are a number of excellent specialized texts addressing how to write about grief, loss, addiction, and so forth. One explanation for the lack of a military writing guide could be that writing instructors–and few are military veterans–lean toward teaching that the same storytelling principles apply, regardless of premise.

Another potential factor: The list of veterans who became noted authors of military literature isn’t that long. The writers who immediately come to mind are probably [Ernest] Hemingway, [Joseph] Heller, [James] Salter, [Kurt] Vonnegut, [Michael] Herr, and [Tim] O’Brien. This short list only brings us up to the Vietnam War era–before the significant launch of college creative-writing programs and before the serious onset of college studies related to war in literature and film. Today’s list of veteran-authors is growing, inclusive of women, and equally impressive. I’m thinking of work from David Abrams, Kayla Williams, Anthony Swofford, Jane Blair, Kevin Powers, and Brian Turner, to name a few.

After the publication of my memoir in 2012, I received emails and Facebook messages from veterans seeking writing advice. About the same time, a friend and former Marine journalist killed himself. The realization that we’d lost his artful storytelling voice rattled me. That’s when I walked away from my full-time academic teaching position, stopped cutting and pasting my writing encouragement and how-to advice from one veteran email or Facebook message to another, and developed ON POINT instead.

ED: Please tell us a little more about how you define “the military story.”

TC: Two natural assumptions, I suppose, are that the military story is a war story and a story that belongs exclusively to a veteran-author. As readers will discover in ON POINT, even writers without military ties are drawn to the genre for a couple of reasons: They’re yearning for a deeper understanding of a world outside of their own life experience; or they’re mining the number of richly complicated internal and external conflicts typically associated within the military world for a compelling story.

But I developed ON POINT primarily because the military story is NOT always a war story–my memoir, for example, does not include combat–and because at the heart of all military stories lies the revelation of how one’s life has been affected by military service–by the long separations, military customs and traditions, combat or training deaths, survivor’s guilt–whether that service was rendered directly, or indirectly in the cases of spouses, significant others, parents, grandparents, friends, children, and grandchildren.

We’re just now beginning to fully comprehend the cross-generational impact of the U.S. military experience. I realized this firsthand while compiling and editing stories for my anthology. Some of the most compelling military stories in the anthology, for me anyway, are those written by the family members of veterans.

ED: Something I find especially refreshing in ON POINT is its gentle but insistent chipping away at “certain myths people have about writers.” You point out that such myths, “or stereotypes, if you will,” may be especially pernicious for new writers. What do you think explains the staying power of such myths? And if you could wave a magic wand and eliminate just one of these myths forever, which would it be (and why?) 

TC: As for the staying power of myths, I’d point to the mystique that surrounds a handful of writing legends. We’re fascinated with contradictions. If Hemingway, for example, was a bipolar alcoholic but a hugely successful writer, the myth of the tortured artist appears bolstered. The truth, however, is that Hemingway, as we know, was extremely disciplined about his writing. Yes, he knew how to have a good time in Cuba or Key West, but not until after his morning writing time.

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d eliminate the myth that writing can’t be taught. Writers or writing instructors who declare this infuriate me. What, they’re the only ones anointed with talent by writing gods?

Of course, writing can be taught just as any other art–painting, music, sculpting–can be taught. Scientists aren’t born scientists. Even if we were to learn someday they’re born with a higher level of curiosity than the rest of us, they still have to master a certain skill set.Unknown

The same applies to writers. Yes, some writers are better than others, and win literary awards. But many more bestselling writers have never won literary awards. Not every scientist wins the Nobel, yet plenty others make a huge difference in this world. I’ve often wished I could write magical realism, but my imagination seems rooted in realism. This doesn’t make me a lesser writer.

ED: What is your biggest hope for ON POINT as it meets readers?

TC: My biggest hope is for ON POINT to inspire a cross-generational sharing of the military experience–and where needed, a healing.

ED: Anything else you’d like us to know? (Or parting advice to share?)

TC: For ON POINT readers: Your military story matters! Your story has meaning to those who love and support you today, and your story will have meaning to the generations who follow. Please get started. You’re never too old or too young to write your military story.

To learn more about Tracy Crow and her books, including ON POINT, please visit www.tracycrow.comMy thanks to Tracy and her publisher for the complimentary advance reading copy.