Our fall nonfiction issue, which just went live this week, features Ron Capps’ haunting piece “Yellow.” Nonfiction editor Dario DiBattista caught up with Ron Capps, military veteran and author, and founder of The Veterans Writing Project.
Dario DiBattista: What is the Veterans Writing Project (VWP)?
Ron Capps: Formally, the VWP is a nonprofit organization that we set up to provide no-cost writing workshops and seminars for veterans for active service members and their family members. Less formally, I think of it as a team of writers who were all veterans or veteran’s family members, those of us who are working writers, who give away what we’ve learned in our work or in our graduate writing programs to people who are just getting started at writing. We work with veterans who’ve already started writing, and we’re starting to work with those who have no idea of what they need to do to write a story. My aspiration for the program is that it becomes a group of people linked by the common experience of having served in the military and writing. I’d like the organization to become, metaphorically, a place where veterans and their family members can all come to learn the craft of writing, to share their work with other veterans and other family members and, hopefully, more broadly, anyone who is interested. I see the project becoming not just a teaching or learning organization but an umbrella or clearing house for other writing groups that are built around the military experience.
DD: Why did you decide to start VWP?
RC: Well, there are two main reasons. First is that writing really helped me get control of my PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after Afghanistan. In the frozen years between 1996 and 2008 I was in wars in Central Africa, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur. And I came away really pretty badly damaged emotionally, and I was treated for PTSD in Afghanistan, and I struggled with it afterwards in Iraq and even when I was back home. Things got really bad for me for a while. Especially when I was a peacekeeper in Darfur and I came close to killing myself. As a way of managing those memories, to try to try and get control of them, I started writing about what I saw and what I participated in, and through that experience I was able to get control of my mind.
Second, I wanted to share with others what I’ve learned as a working writing and a graduate student. I was coming from class home one night and it struck me that it was kind of shameful that everything I was learning in school was only really benefiting me. And that lead me to the idea that, in giving away this knowledge of the skills I’ve learned school, if we can just help one person get through the night a little better, and help them control their PTSD through therapeutic writing, that’s even better
DD: What is the sign that you have hanging in your office?
RC: I wrote a little paper sign I put up of over my wall, and it says, “Either you control the story or the story controls you.” It really helps me stay focused on what I’m doing with my writing. Part of the struggle with PTSD, is that you have these memories and images that come in your head that you can’t control. One of the therapies is to just tell the story over and over again until you have full control, until the story doesn’t traumatize you anymore. That’s really what I started doing, was writing down my story. I probably needed to write more than I needed to talk, and I’m kind of introverted I suppose, like most writers, so writing helped.
DD: In addition to the VWP, when you do get your fancy degree from Hopkins with your dual concentration, what are your own goals with your own personal writing?
RC: I want to tell stories well. I’ve really been focused on storytelling for past couple of years. I started writing nonfiction at Johns Hopkins, and I was trying to put those essays into a memoir, but I also started writing fiction. I’ve found that’s its liberating to not have to write in the constraint of facts. You can just make it up, which is kind of cool. So I’m working on a historical novel that takes place in the Sudan in 1916. It’s all about storytelling.
DD: And now the important stuff. Ron, why, oh why, do you not drink bourbon?
RC: Because I drink whisky!
DD: I think scotch tastes like stinky feet. Tell me why I’m wrong.
RC: Because it tastes wonderful! The scotch that I drink is from a little island off the coast and it tastes like seaweed and peat and the ocean. It’s not a sweet corn flavor like most bourbons are.
DD: I actually haven’t tried a lot because I’m poor writer.
RC: Next time we meet I’ll pour you a few fingers then.
Ron Capps was a soldier and Foreign Service officer in places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur. He is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project, a 501(c)3 non-profit that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, active duty service members, and military family members. Ron lives and writes in Washington, DC.