In 2012, I headed to Afghanistan to be an independent contractor for the military—I’d train soldiers on radiation safety. I’d never been in the military and what I knew about the war in Afghanistan was covered by two-minute snippets every once in a great while.
So when my plane landed in Afghanistan, I was unprepared to say the least. Learning military culture, navigating a foreign land and pulling myself out of crippling homesickness was my full time job.
The transition was tough. I was assigned to jump from base to base, week to week. I carried 240 lbs of equipment on me. But when it was quiet, when I didn’t have a class to teach, the day was mine.
And I attempted to spend the most of the time writing.
Writing in the Midst of Struggle
I attempted to write fantasy or sci-fi but because I was in such a foreign land, but it was hard to drum up another world when I was already one.
I attempted to write my memoirs while in Afghanistan, but I was reliving my stressful, tattered life, and it became hard to write about how homesick I was and then actually be homesick.
I wrote a blog, but that was to keep people aware that I was doing just fine. Then I started writing haikus on my blog. You know, the ol’ 5-7-5 syllable structure.
People loved them and soon it grew into something. I could write a haiku that expressed the struggle of this war. They were simple but packed a lot of meaning:
I hold your letter
Like a young boy holds
The hand of one who loves him
The greater distance
between you and I is found
between our sunsets.
Every day a plane goes—
To find someone, to take them.
Here, there or to God.
These small pieces of poetry forced me to tightly confine the tragedy I saw all around me. They helped me process the brutal parts of war: the violence, loneliness, and isolation.
Sure, I could journal about them, but I found my writing to turn into either explaining what I saw or just listing my feelings. It didn’t make for good writing at all.
Constructing a haiku helped me reach the meaning of what I was feeling faster.
Poetry Expresses Tragedy
The Psalms rarely have a joyous tone, but instead are full of laments and regret:
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
You may want to try writing a poem around the tragedies that have crashed into your heart. Journaling about them is great, but a poem, no matter how awkward it might feel to write, taps into our what our heart is feeling at the smallest and deepest level.
My mother recently passed unexpectedly while I was working in China for three months. In my journal over the following weeks I wrote:
We sit on the bench, you and I.
You tell me how much you would have loved the fountain, the spray on your face.
The sunset soon behind it, splitting it slowly, a smooth carved stone being cleaved.
I pat you on the hand, and let you sit there awhile.
I let you stay and I walk on to the bus, and soon to the plane home.
And I wonder if the others will see your graceful outline sitting down, watching the water.
I wonder if you will ask them where they are from.
And when I need you again I will summon you with the clench of my fist, the warmth of my heart,
An incantation only I can mutter.
After I tell you my secret, my longing, my missing you, I’ll leave you in another place where the air is warm
and you can watch the water again.
I returned to that work, over and over, fine tuning it, and soon it said what I needed, what my prose couldn’t express well at all.
Beginning a Poetic Journey
I hear you, reader: what if you’ve never written poetry? What if this is new territory, a brave new world?
I suggest the following:
They don’t have to be perfect. They can be clunky and awkward like a freshman at a senior prom (see what I did there?). Similes help your fiction and nonfiction writing as well as yourself because you are artfully articulating what something feels like, bringing something known into the unknown.
Here are some examples of how to start thinking about creating similes around tragedy:
What is it like to lose a parent?
It’s like living in a house with no floor.
It’s like having the road end before you.
It’s like a storm that never ends.
What it is like when a loved one gets cancer?
It’s like a car door slammed on your hand.
It’s like falling in an wild ocean.
It’s like a hot poker on your heart.
None of these are perfect, but the practice of thinking about what tragedy feels like and constructing a simile helps you start your own poetry.
Similes to Poetry
Once you start writing similes, let your writing flow into a poem. Have it be free form, not locked into a form (like a villanelle) just yet.
You’ll find your writing will be honed and at best, your heart will be a little lighter.
How has writing helped you through hard times? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to begin writing poetry that captures emotion. Write three similes around the following situations that help the reader know how you (or your character) feel.
When your spouse yells the word “divorce,” it feels like:
When your kid is three hours late to her curfew, it feels like:
When you get laid off from your job and you have to tell your family, it feels like:
When you’re done, share your writing in the comments—I’d love to see what you write. And be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, too.