I’d never thought that someone prepared for war might be open to artistic endeavors until a writer friend of mine – a Vietnam veteran – put aside his inner demons and crafted amazing stories that offered a glimpse into the unthinkable. Of course, author and retired Air Force officer Donald Anderson knows of the power of soldiers’ creativity – he directs creative writing at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. Anderson’s award-winning fiction and essays have appeared in notable journals and in the 2008 The Best American Essays. Anderson also edits the international journal, War Literature & the Arts.
Lori: How important is creative writing to the students you teach at the air force academy?
Donald: Vitally important, I’d say. I suppose it is too easy to embrace a stereotype of my students going to their rooms at night to polish shell casings, but it’s just not true. Even though soldiers swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, I often point out to my students that what they’re defending is a culture that values the individual, a culture that provides the occasion to read and write books, to wear T-shirts or affix bumper stickers that criticize their government, and that in the long haul of history, this is a miracle. I tell them they’re defending libraries. Creative writing is, of course, a part of all that. It is also a part of intelligent leadership, and my students become military leaders. I want leaders—don’t we all?—who do more than react. I want leaders who read and think and can speak in paragraphs.
Your memoir Gathering Noise from My Life is set up as a series of vivid memories/snapshots. Did you set out to write your memoir in this style?
I set out to write linear, conventional passages that would be ordered by an ordinary chronology. What happened was that I kept finding myself sidetracked by things I’d encountered over half a century as a reader, student, soldier, and professor. I was surprised by what kept popping up as images and references that made sense of my life as I had experienced it. I think I say it in the memoir, but I do believe that our lives can be approached as history with a small “h” inside History with a big “H.” Moreover, a half dozen themes emerged in the writing—matters of war, race, religion, memory, illness, and family. These notions and structures took over the book. I make the statement that the cruelest deception would be amnesia, for to not know who we were is to not know who to be. I deeply believe that we are where we’ve been and what we’ve read. Reading has been the principle—reliable and abiding—pleasure of my life, and I find it unsurprising that, in the end, that reading informed and directed the construction of my book.
You include historic facts and statistics in your work. How are you at trivia?
Pretty good, though I would no doubt choke on JEOPARDY. My fullest memories tend to be visual. When I can “see” something, I then dredge up words (my own or others’) to describe it.
How does your own military experience influence your writing? Why put together an anthology such as Soldiers’ Accounts from the Civil War to Iraq?
War frames all our lives, soldier or not. Look ahead far enough or look behind and you’ll find war, or it’ll find you. My father had wanted to serve in WWII, but because of a damaged eye, could not. He’d wanted to sign up with his best friend, Sidney. The Navy was signing up pals for the same ships, same assignments. Had my father had his way, he would have signed up and served with Sidney. Sidney died at Pearl Harbor. Whatever would have happened to my father with Sidney aboard the U.S.S. Arizona would have happened more than four years before my birth. Seventy percent of the ship’s crew perished. Are my feelings about these facts and potentialities memory or imagination? Memory and Imagination are key to a human understanding of our past, present, and future. This notion is particularly pertinent to our understanding of war. I didn’t serve in Vietnam, but my nation did.
Because of my “memory” of what had happened—and was happening—to America and Vietnam, I made decisions. For one thing, I joined the Air Force to avoid the walking tour of Southeast Asia. I meant to beat the draft—it was not my imagination that more soldiers were being buried than airmen. I went on to serve for 22 years in the Air Force, but the point is my initial enlistment had everything to do with the war, and hardly would have surfaced as a career choice without the war. That I could imagine the war—its pointlessness borne out in time—was why I worked to avoid it. We have, each of us, factual histories and imagined histories, backfilling, always, when memory proves deficient, though “it’s a poor sort of memory,” Lewis Carroll’s Queen points out, “that only works backwards.” It gets complicated. What is remembered or imagined becomes reality. And: if we don’t create our personal versions of the past, someone else will do it for us. This is a frightening and political fact. How many books, for instance, seek to refute the fact of the Holocaust, complete with footnotes, et al? And who can forget the opening pages of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which describe a photograph from which a Party official has been airbrushed from history? Then there is Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl,” a strafing account of a death camp murder of a stick-limbed child. Though born in time to have been interned in a death camp, Cynthia Ozick wasn’t; she was, at the story’s fictional time, a cheerleader in high school in New Jersey. Memory and imagination are the what and how we have as artists and readers and citizens. To which we must cling, as if to luck or safety.
I would advise not determining the destination before the journey. Follow the scent, as it were. . .
What advice do you have for writers of memoir?
Well, if my case is pertinent or of value to other writers, I suppose I would advise not determining the destination before the journey. Follow the scent, as it were. . .
What project(s) are you working on now—writing or otherwise?
I try to live the way I try to read: alertly, expectantly, receptively. I don’t mean to sound like Jack Handey (one of my favorite writers!), but Whatever You Live Is Your Life, and we could all pay more attention, better attention. I suppose that’s what I love about the Haiku masters, they knew to pay attention, to focus. When I pay attention, projects arise. Recently, I’ve had to have several injections into my retina—yes, a needle in the eye! So, what am I thinking about except Oedipus, the Cyclops, the one-eyed man in the Kingdom of the Blind, The Clockwork Orange, my own father, Buñuel . . .? Because of these injections—three down, and I don’t know how many to go—the vision in my left eye has progressed from seeing the world as distorted as a Modigliani painting to an El Greco to eventually, I hope, a Mondrian. My guess is there’s an essay in this. . . .
When you’re not writing or teaching, what are your interests/hobbies? What inspires you?
What inspires me, aside from Nature with a capital “N,” are words, these miraculous little clots of ink or pixels, these puffs of air that emerge from our throats. What a thing it is to have language. I very much get my writing “starts” from the world—something I see or hear, or hear about. Newspapers. TV. Restaurants. Coffee Shops. Family Reunions. Bus Stops . . . a “trigger,” as Richard Hugo put it, arrives from anywhere, anytime, like meteors, fish bites, hail, or dawn. Sometimes it can be as simple as a word. Take sabotage, coming to us from sabot, the French word for wooden shoe. The first instances of sabotage were likely peasant revolts against oppressive landowners, peasants tossing sabots into machines with the intent to destroy the machines: a word turning into story.