Writing with Honesty

By Susanne Carter

As the genre of war literature continues to grow, the war fought on the homefront by members of military families has found a voice of its own. Even though women are now actively involved in combat zones, the mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives who are left on the homefront still wage their own kind of battle with “quiet valor.” As Sally Hayton-Keeva writes in the introduction to Valiant Women in War and Exile (2003): “War is not suspended in time, something outside a woman’s experience of life; it is part of life, woven into all the rest.”

In this blog, I discuss two recent books, Rachel Starnes’s 2016 memoir, The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), and Siobhan Fallon’s 2011 short story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Starnes and Fallon, both wives of soldiers who sought identities beyond that of “military wives,” take a very candid and sometimes disturbing look at what it is like to be wives left behind “when the men are gone.” In the Writers’ Notes, I share insight into the importance of writing with honesty.

Making The Strangeness Normal

“We think we know things about military families, glimpses we get from newspaper photos and television news,” writes reviewer Veronique de Turenne. “Soldiers saying goodbye to wives and husbands, holding tight to frightened children, looking so alike in their desert camouflage, in their determination to survive the leave-taking.”

It’s the things we don’t know, the things not shown on our television screens, that fascinate Starnes and Fallon.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Siobhan Fallon explains her motivation in writing short stories about the homefront experience:

An army base is a strange place. An army base in a time of war, especially after 4,000 men pack up their duffel bags, put on their uniforms, and leave their wives and children for an entire year. In You Know When the Men Are Gone, I attempt to show that world and the moments that lead up to the separation, the long and difficult absence, the return. Military families are wrenched apart and expected to piece themselves together again and again. Somehow, they manage. They improvise. They take the strangeness and make it normal.

The collection’s title story begins by describing the “strangeness” that characterizes the lives of military families when the soldiers deploy:

You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring. Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life. (p. 1)

The wives in Fallon’s stories live with constant uncertainty as they search the Internet each morning for proof their husbands are safe; eavesdrop on their neighbors’ conversations through shared apartment walls; survive their husbands’ deployments only to discover they may not be able to survive their homecomings; worry about their husbands’ fidelity; try to make sense of their husbands’ deaths; and feel they live “half lives” in the “long gray nothingness between departure and return” of their husbands.

In contrasting civilian and military lives, these stories, writes Fiction Writers Review reviewer and military wife Beth Garland, “illustrate the fear and grief, heroism and bitter disappointment, all happening just outside the city limits of those other American homes, the ones untouched by the tragedies and hardships of a decade-long war.”

Dependent or Independent?

In her memoir Starnes recounts the seesawing dependence-independence experience of being a military wife. In an interview with National Public Radio, she explains:

So it’s definitely a tremendous readjustment when your soldier leaves, and it’s almost as big of a readjustment when he returns because after a year, you’ve actually finally figured out how to be independent and do everything that you need to do for your child or for yourself.

And then your soldier returns, and suddenly you both have been so independent, and now you need to become dependent on each other.

Starnes talks candidly about the emotional strains experienced by military wives whose lives are as a series revolving doors involving deployments and relocations. She finds that friendships and careers are almost impossible to keep and maintain. The secret nature of many of her husband’s missions make him seem emotionally distant.

While her husband is deployed, Starnes suffers from “male-deprivation sickness,” crippling postpartum depression, and the sinking feeling that her husband doesn’t miss her nearly as much as she misses him. “I pictured myself on the little shelf by his bed, safely compartmentalized and set aside,” she writes, “our life together shelved and bookmarked and available for periodic reengagement in the rare moments when nothing else required his attention.” (pp. 113-114)

Trying to reconnect each time Starnes’s husband returns from the Middle East often proves awkward and ends in marital discord. “How is it possible to miss someone so much and then be covered in spikes when you finally see them again?” (p.116) she asks. “I don’t know how to fix this,” she confesses. “I don’t even know what’s broken.” (p. 117)

Writers’ Notes:

Both of these books have won critical acclaim, primarily for their accurate portrayal of the realities of the homefront experience. It is the raw honesty of these writers that sets them apart and gives their writing emotional substance and depth.

Writer Lee Martin describes writing as self-inquiry “into the dark corners and the fears and the shames, into the mysteries and human failings that make us all human. To write is to participate in your life,” he maintains. “To write is to question, to speculate through the art of whatever shape your chosen genre finds, to say the things that others are often afraid to admit.”

Both Fallon and Starnes have dared to peer into their own “dark corners” as military wives and found the courage to write about them. Their revelations undoubtedly represent the feelings of many military wives who maintain silence but nonetheless will find themselves represented in the pages of these books.  For those of us who are not military wives, these writings bridge the civilian and military worlds and give us an opportunity to vicariously experience a very different life through the power of literature.

The appeal of honest writing goes beyond the homefront experience of military wives. It is true for any writer who is exploring their personal experiences through self-inquiry. Readers like me feel a sense of comfort and connectivity when they find themselves reflected in writing that is honest and realistic. We are thrilled when we discover writers who dare to reveal things about themselves that many people would never admit. In her 1962 autobiographical novel, The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing points out that writers never write about themselves apart from others. Although they may write alone, they represent a collective voice. “Writing about oneself,” she states, “is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions–and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas–can’t be yours alone.” (xviii)

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How do you integrate honesty into your writing?