Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writing as a Help to Healing with Art Elser

Guest post by Art Elser

The first serious poem I ever wrote was in 1993. I felt a strong need to express my grief over the death of my mother-in-law, a very special person in my life, and the joy I felt that she was finally free from the pain of her cancer. Then, in 1995, after dropping our daughter off at college in Philadelphia, we went to DC and I visited The Wall. Seeing the names of classmates, friends, and 58 thousand comrades in arms etched into that black marble, moved me to write a second poem.

In the late 90s my son was in college and would often ask about my role in the war, so in 1999, I decided to write a memoir about that year and the emotional trauma that resulted from it. That book, What's It All About, Alfie?—we called our son Alfie as he was growing up—brought up a lot of pain that I had to deal with. I worked a couple of hours almost every evening after dinner on the book. cried lots, and had lots of nightmares, daymares, and flashbacks. I also uncovered a lot of anger at politicians who lied to us and mismanaged that war.

Writing not only brought stuff I had repressed to the surface, but also seemed to help me deal with it. More and more seemed to surface after writing Alfie. I turned to poetry to tell about what I felt. I wrote a poem about a grunt who was suffering flashbacks, although I was not a grunt, but I supported them almost every day. My cousin suffered flashbacks and emotional problems for many years. Incidentally he read Alfie, and reading my story seemed to prod him to get help. Another poem I wrote is about a patrol being blown apart by a booby trap set off by a young boy, similar to an incident that happened to a patrol near one of my bases.

Since Alfie, I've written many poems about my experiences, some very recently. A sound, smell, sight, will trigger a memory or a flashback and a poem starts. My writing process begins with chewing over the memory in my head for days, sometimes weeks. I often journal about it and do free writing exercises to pin down memories and emotions. Those writings help get the poem into a draft.

I think writing about deep trauma helps because to write well, one must also revise well. When I revise I look for the right words, syntax, and structure. That means I have to look the memory right in the eye, think hard about it, and recognize the emotions it evokes. That, I believe, is how serious writing can promote healing. At least it seems to have helped me. I no longer have heart pounding flashbacks or nightmares that keep me terrified for days. I no longer wake up shaking and soaking with sweat at night from a dream I don't remember but do know terrified me.

The trauma never goes away, but it becomes easier to deal with. Or I could be a raving lunatic. After all, I am a poet.


Art Elser saw combat in Vietnam as a forward air controller. He has been published in Owen Wister Review, High Plains Register, Emerging Voices, Science Poetry, The Avocet, and Open Window Review. His chapbook, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, received the Colorado Authors' League Poetry award for 2014.

Susan chimes in...

Art was kind enough to send me both his book about his war experiences, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, and also The Healing journey -- Morning Haiku to Repair Hearts. The latter was a book of haiku co-authored with Christine Valentine when he was healing from another trauma -- a massive heart attack. The two exchanged haikus every day while Art worked his way back from the fog of illness. The chapbook contains poems selected from their exchanges. 

Art's poetry is compelling. Many of us have found healing in our writing; not all of us have shown that in the writing we've shared. Reading his work, I was able in a sense to take the journey with him, and I am  grateful for that gift.


  1. WOW! Thanks, Susan and Art for this excellent post. The National Endowment for the Arts sponsored a writing initiative for the veterans of our most recent wars and based on Art's experience, it stands to offer healing many. As the mother of an active duty Marine on his third tour in Afghanistan and of an Army veteran from the Iraq war, this issue is close to my heart. Thanks, again.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post. If you want to read his work, I strongly recommend his book, "We Leave the Safety of the Sea." He was honored by the Colorado Authors' League this year for it. http://writingwyoming.blogspot.com/2014/05/art-elsers-chapbook-2014-colorado.html (Link really is live if you click on it -- not showing up well!)

  2. peacemom, I would recommend to your sons that they at least journal about their experiences. It is too easy in the macho culture of the military to bottle stuff up rather than talk about it or deal with it. Journaling is a great way of privately releasing the frustrations and tensions of every day life. For combat experiences, it can be life saving.

    I flew virtually every day, often supporting Marines at Khe Sanh during the siege there or Army special forces patrols fromf five camps I flew support for every day for the last five months. I know how terrifying being under fire for long periods is--and anything over a minute is a long period--and how it is difficult to clarify the images, emotions, and terrors of those incidents. It took me almost 20 years to start to write about those experiences, and I still write about them. So, please, peacemom, have your sons be active in their own mental health. May they both be safe and happy. And you too.


  3. Peacemom,

    I'm Alfie. My dad is the most wise man I know, and as a man myself in my early forties I believe that's saying something indeed. Reading my dad's memoirs and poetry has brought me a sense of closeness to him that I can't possibly describe in a comment to a blog post. I suppose I feel compelled to post that in the hopes that you will take my dad's advice and encourage your son (sons?) to record his experiences in writing. My dad suggests it for your son's own mental health; I do for your grandchildren's. ;)

  4. I loved this post. Writing is definitely a source of healing. I wonder how much good could be done if someone worked with people in prison and people in rehab to help them write out their pain.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Chere! I don't know specifically of any programs in prisons, but I saw a program at the Wyoming Library Association on year where the library was working with juvenile offenders on a reading/writing program. It was sort of an alternative to lock-up for them, and it was a fairly intense process. They saw some good things come out of that.

    2. Chere - you are right to wonder. Fortunately, I have heard of a number of writing programs that work with incarcerated people. Also, I know that Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others, has worked for years with low income women to help them tell their stories.

      I lead the In Our Own Words writing group at the Chrysallis House, a residential substance abuse treatment center in Pine Bluffs. On my Bio page is a link to a This I Believe essay that I wrote about my experiences with this group. I have seen the impact that putting words on paper, about their feelings, memories, fears, has on the women of Chrysallis House. They write their pain, but also their love and hope. They inspire me always.

      Unfortunately, Chrysallis House is being threatened with closure, due to budget constraints. So sad, since I believe that it's the only treatment center in Wyoming that allows women to go through treatment and keep their children with them.

      Thanks for your comments.


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