Last year, at the age of 37, I began the UAA MFA program with not a little trepidation. Things I worried about: Discovering my potential as a writer was much lower than I hoped. How well-read everyone else would be by comparison. But really, what kept me up was the idea of being the lone serving veteran in the bunch. We’re an ill-understood creature in any modern landscape. Once, farmers and shopkeepers set aside their scythes and registers to answer the call. Now, we are an all-volunteer force who answer the call of the full-time profession of arms. Once, warriors came home and beat their swords into ploughshares; now we redeploy and await the next run into the breach. There’s a divide between the military and civilians as a result. It’s an experiential barrier to understanding that leaves us to regard each other from a distance.
At best I thought I might receive the “automaton” stereotype; at worst, “goose-stepping fascist.” But as it turned out, my fears were entirely misplaced. Labels fell away quickly under the clear light of the workshop process and the demands of craft refinement. After a few days, the most important thing we knew about each other was that each of us was a writer. And that we needed each other to get better.
I don’t want to gush, but my experience at my MFA workshop was absolutely formative, and it got me thinking about Alaska, war writing, veterans, and the war writing workshops that have sprung up throughout the Lower 48 through organizations like Words After War and Veterans Writing Project. Curious, I looked into the demographics of the state. According to a 2010 VA factsheet, there were 76,000 veterans in the state. Crunch the numbers: that’s 10% of the state. Then I asked Linda Ketchum, the former 49 Writers Executive Director, if there had ever been a veterans writing workshop in Alaska. Not to her knowledge. See, here’s the kicker: in the lower 48, a workshop is potentially a cheap plane ticket away. In Alaska, we’re an entire country away from access to that kind of thing.
A crazy idea lodged in my noggin: why not put one on in Anchorage?
So that’s what I’m going to do, with a slight twist inspired by the Words After War model of uniting civilians and veterans interested in writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that in some way address war. 49 Writers and Words After War have agreed to work with me to make it happen in February of 2016. The plan: find six civilians and six veterans who want to spend two days getting after the craft of writing about war, with the hope of creating stronger bonds across the civil-military divide through the production of high-quality literature. I’m recruiting faculty and figuring out the fundraising right now, and I hope to have more news in the months to come.
I’ve enjoyed sharing some thoughts with you all this month, and I hope this is just the beginning of a much longer conversation in the months and years to come. Thanks for stopping by, and circle next February on your calendar. I hope to see you then.
Matthew Komatsu is an author and currently serving veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014, he enrolled in the University of Alaska-Anchorage's MFA in Creative Writing program as a nonfiction candidate. He has published essays in The New York Times, War, Literature and the Arts; and on stage at Anchorage's Arctic Entries. WLA nominated his memoir-essay, "31 North 64 East" for a Pushcart Prize. He also has a flash essay upcoming in the September 2015 issue of Brevity. You can follow him on Twitter @matthew_komatsu.