Tag Archives: #vietnam

“Live more. Be less afraid.” #BHBW author @jmcgarra Jim McGarrah answers 25 Q #authorspotlight

JimPrincetonJim McGarrah:  Marine, social worker, carpet layer, janitor, bartender, race horse trainer, and college professor, McGarrah now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia.  Jim McGarrah’s poems, essays, appear frequently in literary journals such as The American Poetry Journal, Bayou Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, and North American Review.  He is an award-winning poet and author of four books of poetry: Running the Voodoo Down (Elixir Press, 2003); When the Stars Go Dark (Main Street Rag, 2009); Breakfast at Denny’s (Ink Brush Press, 2013) and the Truth About Mangoes (Lamar University Press, 2016).  His memoir of war, A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007) won the national Eric Hoffer Legacy Non-Fiction Award, and the sequel, The End of an Era, was published in 2011. He is editor, along with Tom Watson, of the anthology Home Again: Essays and Memoirs from Indiana and the former managing editor of Southern Indiana Review. His memoirs Off Track and Midemeanor Outlaw were published by Blue Heron Book Works.   

  1. Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Writing does both things, especially if you feel like you’re writing well. The energy that generates my creativity is often very emotionally intense and when that energy is spent, I’m drained emotionally for a time. I had a mentor in grad school years ago, a very highly respected poet, who cautioned me that the type of writing I did would cannibalize my emotions and I would need to rest from time to time and replenish that autobiographical material. I’m one of those people who live to write and write to live. This isn’t my job. It’s me.

  1. Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

No. That would defeat my purpose, I think. My identity is at the core of my writing.

  1. Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers and the audience what they want?

This requires balance. Solomon said in Proverbs that there was nothing new under the sun. And, there was an Egyptian writer whose name I can’t remember and couldn’t pronounce even if I did who wrote about his battle 4,000 years ago to say something that hadn’t already been said. So, the struggle for originality lies in the “way” we say things, not the themes we reflect on. To answer the question, I want to be original in how I write and connect with my audience in what I say. But, for me that requires a certain honesty that means I can’t always give the audience what they want to hear. As a poet and an essayist, I think my function is more related to describing what it means to be human, which isn’t always pleasant and doesn’t always have a happy ending. I want what I write to be true and in a way that is accessible to others both.

  1. Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly? 

Certainly. The emotionally depth of what is written depends on context. A writer of a brilliant technical instructional book does not have to be emotional invested in the information to communicate it. On the other hand, literary writers are most assuredly and deeply connected to plot, character development, and themes in their material. And in telling a story or writing a poem, the writer needs to communicate that emotional connectivity to a reader. Literature we understand, but don’t necessarily feel, tends to be a huge sleep aid.

  1. What other authors and creative people are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I have a fairly large network of writers and poets that I stay in touch with, some whose names you would recognize instantly, and some who are better writers that you’ve never heard of and probably never will. I have two or three close friends that I rely on for “first” readings of my material because they are excellent editors as well as writers and they’re honest with me. If something isn’t working they have no qualms about saying, “Jim, this sucks.” That forces me to re-evaluate, revise, and reflect on what I’m doing and why. But, I don’t limit my association to writers. That seems a good way to limit rather than expand your thinking.

  1. What sort of projects are you working on now? 

I’m in the process now of putting together a “New and Selected” volume of my poetry from over the past twenty years for a university press. Also, I’m trying to help sell copies of my newest nonfiction work from Blue Heron Book Works – Misdemeanor Outlaw. Unfortunately for my editor Bathsheba Monk, I’m a terrible business person.

  1. Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

Each of my ten books so far does stand alone, but although I’m not attempting to make connections, they are inherently connected because I’m an autobiographical-type of writer. Most of my work is based, in some way, on my life experiences.

  1. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Live more. Be less afraid.

  1. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

Fifteen years ago I won a national book competition with my first full-length collection of poems. One of those good writers and friends we were talking about earlier, Victoria Redel, laughed and said over a celebratory drink, “Enjoy yourself tonight because tomorrow you’ll wake up and find that the world is the same. Nothing has really changed. You just go back to work.” She was correct.

  1. Is there any one author that influenced you somehow?

I’d have to say Hemingway and Mark Twain in how to tell a story, Dylan Thomas in the use of language, Bruce Weigel and Tim O’Brien in how to write about the hard things in my life. But, I’d hope that everything I read teaches me something.

  1. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos

  1. As an artist, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

I’m going to answer that with a poem from my latest collection of poems The Truth About Mangoes (Lamar University Press, 2016)

How to Find the Animal Inside

 

Today I took a quiz,

one of those internet pseudo-scientific lists

that some fool thought up while snorting bath salts,

and found out my past life was spent roaming

among trees and rivers in the American West.

No, I was neither cowboy nor Indian.

As it turns out my personality evolved

from Canis lupus in various tell-tale ways.

I am swift, agile, and cunning. Well,

at least I’m a cunning linguist.

If you ignore the bad knees and arthritic hip,

one out of three ain’t bad.

I value my family’s well-being above all else.

That’s true, but they refuse to believe it if I’m driving.

As far as being master of both day and night,

I nap well in darkness and light.

This quiz states that the wolf has a fiery temper,

which may explain my multiple marriages and a face

remodeled several times by knuckles. To be fair,

my father compared me more often to a catfish than a wolf.

He said, “You’re all mouth and no brains.”

Of all the answers given that prove my swap

from wolf to human, the most accurate is “not very social.”

Ask a friend of mine, if you find one. I’d like to say

this self-examination, like my last testicular one, found no

abnormality or tragedy,

but the wolf may not agree.

 

  1. How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

Three

  1. What does literary success look like to you?

A better brand of bourbon

  1. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Most of my research comes from living as vividly as I can. I will do some historical research, especially news media, when writing nonfiction (names, dates, places, etc.)

  1. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

I’m not really sure what this question means. I’ve always believed that fiction (i.e. the writing and telling of imaginative stories) is an art form that far surpasses the recording of history itself in what it reveals about the society and culture that creates it because it allows the reader into the minds of the characters. I guess some would argue that since its conception of an actually form called the novel, probably somewhere around Cervantes and Don Quixhote, novels have entertained and educated us in ways no other genre has done. And, some would argue that the form of the novel has become stagnant since Barthelme and post-modernism, that it has reached the outermost limit of its evolution. I can see both sides. My favorite period in fiction runs from Conrad and Joyce through Hemingway and Faulkner. I guess critics call that the Modernist period. Certainly, the current darlings of the critics like Jonathan Franzen bore me to death. But, I still see really good stuff, especially in historical fiction, because written well it speaks to contemporary issues as your own The Master and The Maid speaks to present roles of women in our society, how they’ve changed and how they still need to change even more.

  1. Do you read your reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

Sure. Even the negative ones give the book free publicity. I deal with them like I deal with writing workshops. I listen. What improves my writing I incorporate, what doesn’t or is personal, I ignore.

  1. Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Not really secrets. I deal with nonfiction-memoir events that really happened to me personally and how I remember them, so I do often change the names to keep from embarrassing the innocent and the not so innocent. Maybe in that way, I hide certain things.

  1. What was your hardest scene to write?

I think the scene of combat in which I lost a very close friend and my violent reaction afterward in the book A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007)

  1. Do you Google yourself?

Sure, when I’m drunk. It helps me remember that I’m only a legend in my own mind.

  1. What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?

I don’t have the slightest idea since it is so tied with my own identity, my self as it were.

  1. What is your favorite childhood book?

As a pre and early teen I was fascinated by the romantic adventures written by authors like Alexander Dumas (The Three Musketeers) and Raphael Sabatini (Scaramouche) and Stevenson (Treasure Island) and the biographies of famous 20th century baseball players like Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and others. One I especially enjoyed was the story of Jim Thorpe, the great Native American athlete.

  1. If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

I haven’t the slightest idea.

  1. How long on average does it take you to write a book?

I’ve written ten books, twelve if you count two not good enough or ready to be published, in the last 15 years. Sometimes, I’ve worked on two at simultaneously. But, I’m seventy years old and slowing down somewhat.

  1. Do you believe in writer’s block? 

Not as most people believe in it. There is a difference between writing and writing well. There are no periods when we can’t write, but there are certainly periods when we don’t write well. I’ve learned to adjust to those periods by labeling them hot and cold in my mind. Although my shrink tells me that most writers have to deal with some bi-polar traits, I simply call them my times of writing new stuff (hot) and my times of revising old stuff (cold). My doing that, I stay busy and don’t get bogged down by inertia or existential dread.

 

 

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Misdemeanor Outlaw: #BHBW Author Jim McGarrah releases new #memoir #vietnam @jmcgarra

This article and book excerpt appeared in the Princeton Daily Clarion on May 28, 2017.

JimMisdemOutl

Misdemeanor Outlaw: Princeton native’s 10th book published in June

(PDClarion) Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Princeton native Jim McGarrah’s newest book, Misdemeanor Outlaw, a nonfiction account of growing up in Princeton and his life in the counterculture after the Vietnam War. The book (was) released by Blue Heron Book Works in early June (2017). McGarrah is the author of ten books and has received various honors for his nonfiction writing as well as poetry. In 2005, McGarrah returned to Vietnam to receive recognition for his writing and his work toward peace from The Ministry of Arts and Literature. In 2010, he was presented with a national Eric Hoffer Award for his memoir of the war entitled A Temporary Sort of Peace.

I was lucky. I came to believe the Vietnam War had been a criminal act by my government almost immediately on my return. That belief allowed me to return to the role I felt most comfortable in as a misdemeanor outlaw. Rebelling against the Establishment gave me the opportunity to perform a sort of penance and relieve some of my guilt. Oh, I had problems for many years but not nearly as severe as friends my age who tried their best to justify the war and integrate back into society as our fathers had done in World War II. It took decades for some of them to understand the true cost of these foreign policy adventures urged on by corrupt politicians and controlled by corporate interest. Many Americans ignore this cost still because we have an all-volunteer army to pay it for them.

The true cost of war is measured by intimate knowledge of blood and fire, lifting seared flesh and unattached limbs from the broken rubble of homes and schools, digging graves for mothers and babies still warm in the womb. However, the true crime of war is quantified not by death or money only but through the misery of its living participants after the fact—the emotional turmoil, the survivor’s guilt, the grief, the nightmares, the pathological dysfunction of homeless Veterans, the missing arms and legs, and the vacant souls. The families of veterans often end up broken as well, expecting their returned hero to be the same man or woman who left them for war.

JimPrinceton

I’m a story teller by trade and by spirit. Let me tell you a story. I have a very close friend, a good man, a family man, an intelligent man who paid a dear cost for his service to his country. As a matter of fact, he is paying still. You don’t know my friend and I will not embarrass him by disclosing his name, even though if I did you probably still wouldn’t know him. My friend was a great athlete and might have gone on to some serious university team if he had been blessed with no conscience. But, we were all from Southern Indiana, a place where God was good in 1968 and commies were the spawn of Satan. They hid under every rock. They lurked in every shadow. Like many of us, my friend watched a lot of John Wayne movies and from them developed a celluloid sense of duty. By that, I mean he built an emotional construct based on Hollywood rather than reality. Good guys never died, they just rode off into the sunset with a beautiful submissive woman draped across the saddle.

Believing what he had been taught from infancy forward, my friend fulfilled his responsibility and enlisted in the service. He became an outstanding helicopter pilot in Vietnam, a treetop flyer, skimming over the jungle and bravely out maneuvering the .50 caliber machine guns of the Viet Cong. He had one job, carrying young boys into battle and ferrying their torn, lifeless bodies from the battlefield back to some rear area morgue. Oh sorry, two jobs. Then, he had to flush the blood out of his helicopter with a water hose. Week after week, month after month, his life evolved into days of loading and unloading dead boys and nights of drinking whiskey to forget the days. He never killed anybody that I know of. He simply stacked up men who were already dead like he threw hay bales into the barn loft on those Indiana summer days between semesters of high school.

Coming home, he did what many others did and carried on the illusion of normalcy. He went back to college, got a job, got married, and started a beautiful family. Most of that went on during the day. His nights were given over to the dead and to the one thing that buried the dead for him in Vietnam, alcohol. Years went by; bottle after bottle was drained dry and still the dead refused to stay buried. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t exist anywhere in the 1970s except in the minds of Vietnam veterans. The government refused to acknowledge it and the VA doctors blamed the nightmares, the rage, the substance abuse and fear of intimacy, the inability to focus, the clinical depression and flashbacks on other non-military causes. It was cheaper that way. My friend didn’t have a problem with his memories of war, not really. He simply couldn’t handle the stresses of his job and his marriage. Stuff happens, right?

Eventually, he drank enough vodka and scotch that leaving for work in the morning was no guarantee for his family that he would return home in the evening. Sometimes, he stopped for a quick cocktail and woke up in a different town three or four days later with no knowledge of where he was or how he got there. Then his liver began to fail. This probably saved his life. By the time he ended up in a VA hospital, various government bureaucrats and medical people had begun to admit that maybe, just maybe, war might create residual problems for those who lived through it. Maybe the mind wasn’t meant to look at what extreme and random violence forced it to see.

I was lucky, as I mentioned earlier. I went back to school but joined anti-war organizations. I became a social activist and then a drug-addled dropout. Something in my brain finally clicked and I took flight in my mind. After years of struggle, I received a bachelor of arts degree and in two more years I completed two graduate programs and began writing books and teaching. My friend, not so much. He was, he is, smarter than me and in many ways a better person than me. But, his PTSD will sometimes not allow him to finish he starts. I don’t know why. No one can answer that, no doctors or preachers or even my friend. He went back to college in mid-life, as I did. He sat in a classroom and made A’s till the last couple of weeks of the semester and then withdrew from classes. It wasn’t a matter of work interfering. He kept too busy thinking about questions that have no answers. How did he live through war when so many men didn’t? Why did he deserve happiness and success? What made him any better than all those bodies he still carries in his mind? This is called survivor’s guilt and it’s part of the cost combat veterans who continue to live must continue to pay. It’s the modern-day result of criminal behavior by cowardly politicians.

I haven’t seen my buddy in several years, but the last time I saw him I was in some Midwest town signing copies of a new book. I met him at a bar. Yes, he was drinking again after ten years of sobriety, but he assured me only an occasional cocktail before dinner and maybe just one or two after. Everything was under control. The kids had survived adolescence and gone to various colleges to form lives of their own. Now that he could rattle around an empty house, putter in the garden, and read books without interruption, he felt well enough in his mind to handle drinking again. This is what he said, but both of us knew the truth. In the absence of the daily chaos involved with raising children and simply living, the dead were beginning to seep back into his consciousness, resurrected by loneliness.

Don’t get me wrong. This seems like a very sad story, but it has good elements along the way. My friend is making it and he’s a pretty happy guy all things considered. This is just a simple analogy on behalf of a new generation of young Americans who have been fighting in wars longer than any military in our history.

Sent into battle by a new generation of politicians, most of whom evaded the Vietnam War draft with phony ailments or by the political influence of their fathers, these young men and women serve multiple deployments in fierce, mind-altering, situations. If they live to return home, they face demons that only other combat veterans can truly understand — the highest suicide rate in military history, an unemployment rate double the national average, overcrowded psychiatric services and unsure treatment methods for PTSD, families that now see them as dangerous strangers, a public almost completely indifferent to their struggles, and a political system unafraid to use them for personal and corporateagendas. This is what real crime looks like, and it is not a misdemeanor. So, by all means, enjoy your Holiday, but please don’t forget that the flame and smoke from your Memorial Day barbeque grill or the pop and crackle of your fireworks signifies something far more important than parades and hot dogs for some.

Jim’s Website: http://jim-mcgarrah.squarespace.com

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