Wordcommandos:  Encouraging veterans to write and submit their works
Aug 04, 2020 12:00 PM
Robert Morgan Fisher
Wordcommandos: Encouraging veterans to write and submit their works

Robert Morgan Fisher won the 2018 Chester Himes Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 John Steinbeck Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals including Pleiades, Storyscape Journal, Teach. Write., The Wild Word, The Arkansas Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, Dime Show Review, 0-Dark-Thirty, The Huffington Post, Psychopomp, The Seattle Review, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, The Journal of Microliterature, Spindrift, The Rumpus, Bluerailroad and many other publications. He’s written for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently on the teaching faculty of Antioch University in several capacities.

Since 2016, Robert has led the UCLA Wordcommandos, an acclaimed twice-weekly writing workshop for veterans with PTSD. Twice per week, Fisher meets with veterans for two hours in a VA conference room. He calls them “Wordcommandos,” and they call him “Gunny,” Marine Corps slang for drill instructor. Six students came to his first class in 2016 – since then, he’s had nearly 40 veterans participate, with more than 10 attending every session. Fisher is dedicated to teaching both creative techniques and professional skills – he supports writing in all genres, teaches editing and shows veterans how to send out work for publication. He has also created a classroom library for students and organizes literary outings; recently, they’ve attended a tribute to Langston Hughes and a reading by Tim O’Brien. During the current COVID-19 shutdown, Fisher has continued the program through Zoom classrooms.  He says there has actually been an increase in the number of veterans and military personal participating the program, some joining from as far away as Georgia.  Fisher is now exploring the way to expand the program to other VA locations throughout the country.

Writing has therapeutic significance for veterans with PTSD, be it factual or expressive. Fisher says “There’s something about articulating on a page what you’re feeling or what you went through, even indirectly. PTSD impacts self-confidence and confidence in the world,” When Fisher goes for meals with students outside of class, they will never sit with their backs to the door; he remarks on how they constantly monitor their environment. “Somehow through the writing, Veterans are able to manage all this better – although it never goes away. You learn how to cope with it. It’s a great coping strategy to be creative. There’s an old Jewish saying – it is certainly good when your hands can do what your eyes can see and your mind understands.”

One therapeutic approach to PTSD, exposure therapy, is naturally related to writing, whereby the patient revisits and retells a traumatic memory to strip it of power. As Travis L. Martin, founder of Military Experience & the Arts, observed in the New York Times, “traumatic memories are fragmented. They appear in flashes of intensity…If you can put those emotions and the traumatic event in a narrative that makes sense to you,” said Martin, “it makes the trauma tangible. If it is tangible, it is malleable. And if it is malleable, you can do something with it.” What people can’t talk about, they may be willing to write down, but this can take time. Fisher refers to a student in his class who didn’t write a word for six months, though he always showed up. Fisher gave him books to read, like On the Road and Gravity’s Rainbow – the veteran was especially moved by The Things They Carried and it motivated him to finally begin sharing last fall.

As Fisher recalls, “this was highly emotional. I didn’t know what he had been through but I found out that he was special forces, an ex-green beret. He came in with an anecdote he had written. It was so funny and smart. I showed him how to send it out.”  Fisher asserts that submitting work is an empowering and significant experience for veterans.  “Most first short stories take a long time to get published but this got snapped up in two weeks by a really good journal… He immediately followed this with two more ready-to-be-accepted stories. He wouldn’t even talk about those things but now he’s writing about them. It’s giving him power over this trauma,” said Fisher.

Come learn more about this incredible program helping veterans suffering from PTSD (including a sizable group of homeless vets).