When Beck arrived at Clemson, one of the first things he did was to check around for a veterans writing group. He was surprised, given Clemson’s military history, that there wasn’t one.
Rather than complaining or asking someone else, he took it upon himself to start one. “I’m not under the illusion that writing is the end-all be-all cure-all for all vets,” he says, “but I think that artistic expression is what will help a lot of people. And If I can help one veteran at Clemson — help them overcome — then it’s a job well done.” Beginning last February, a group of five to six writers has gathered for an hour every week to focus on writing.
When he began looking for a spot for the group to meet, he went to Barbara Ramirez, a lecturer in the English department who is also director of the Class of ’41 Studio for Student Communication.
Ramirez immediately saw the natural fit for the group to meet in the Class of ’41 Studio. “The guys in the Class of ’41 knew where they were going when they graduated. They would love to have this [veterans writing group] meet here.”
Beck invited Ramirez to stick around and participate. “I’m not a veteran,” she said. “but my dad was in WWII.” He assured her the group was open to all, and she decided to give it a go. She has found the group to be congenial and varied.
Ramirez has found herself writing about her family and children, and about one of her best friends of 40 years who recently died, something still so painful she has struggled with even admitting it happened. “Anybody can come and write with this group,” she says. “We’ve all had stress and trauma in our lives, and writing is so good for getting some of those feelings out.”
“Our group is small,” says Beck, “averaging around five to six writers on any given week, and part of our focus is on getting the word out to other veterans in the area, both on and off campus, that this group exists.”
The group is casual and friendly, and it’s obvious they are comfortable with each other. Even though Beck is clearly the youngest, except for an undergraduate, he is comfortable taking the lead, and they are comfortable responding to him.
About half the group are veterans, the other half have been close to someone who served. It’s a mix of faculty and staff, grad students and undergrads, lecturers and professors.
A graduate of the Air Force Academy and currently a Clemson graduate student, Carol Gering first joined the group to network and meet people. “I do not consider myself a writer,” she says. Not one to journal or write poetry, she was initially uncomfortable and found herself writing as if someone were going to read what she had written. “When I confessed that to the group,” she says, “they earned my trust and encouraged me to write from the heart.”
Gering, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years as a pilot, flying combat and combat support missions in Iraq, says the writing has helped her to “process and think about things in a productive and helpful way” and gain a better understanding of how and why she feels the way she does. “Sometimes I view the weekly sessions as ‘forced journaling,’” she says, “not in a negative way — more like being on a good diet, sometimes not so fun, but in the end, good for you.”
But it’s not just the writing she enjoys, it’s also the shared experience with a group she describes as “diverse in thinking and experience.” “I look forward to reading and hearing what the other members have to say. It is nice to have encouragement and constructive feedback in a new realm.”
Carlie Kerechanin, an undergraduate performing arts major with no military connections, saw the flyer about the group and contacted Beck, who encouraged her to give it a shot. She wasn’t sure she would stick with it, but says she got “sucked in pretty quickly” by a very welcoming group that encourages her to write.
“The organization really isn’t a group of veterans writing about the war like I initially assumed it would be,” she says. “It’s a group of insanely diverse people writing about all kinds of things under the influence of their individual lives, some of which have been shaped by years in the service. Once you get to know everyone and hear their perspective on different topics or assignments, you really can’t leave — you owe them your side of the story.”
After retired professor and Cold War veteran Skip Eisminger learned about Beck’s ideas for the group over lunch last year, he couldn’t refuse. “In fact,” he says, “it’s become the highlight of my week.” He brought his 14-year-old grandson to a meeting who said it was the highlight of his week, too.
“I thought if I could do anything to help these vets be reabsorbed in the culture they left to defend, I wanted to do it. As a retired English teacher, I had the time,” says Eisminger.
Beck deliberately structured the group to be open to all, regardless of veteran status.
“After 14 years of our country being at war,” says Beck, “everyone is affected by it in some way. Everyone has served or knows someone who has served. One could argue that, to various degrees, we are all ‘veterans.’ We all have stories to tell, from the battle-hardened veteran to the incoming freshman who’s embarking on her own mysterious journey for the first time — we all have stories.”
Plus, he thinks while it’s good for veterans to connect with each other, it’s also good for them to connect with other students and faculty, to realize that we are all connected in more ways than just the military.
“Camaraderie,” he says, “shouldn’t be exclusive to the military.”
If you’d like more information about the Veterans Writing Group at Clemson or would like to attend, contact Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org.