Letter Writing Assignment for Veterans

As an educator and instructional designer, I find it extremely useful to write about lessons and projects after I’ve completed them. It codifies what I’ve done. I’m often working on several projects, teaching various subjects to groups, or learning about education as a student, and honestly, these activities can blend together. By conducting a written reflection, I’m able to establish clear boundaries, better evaluate what happened, learn from it, and improve the process for next time.

So much good work happens in this world that makes an impact. And then…it’s gone. It lives in the memories of those that carried it out, and those memories fade over time. As someone who is very much interested in the process of how things are built, I find this to be a bit troubling. Valuable lessons can be learned from the process. I love learning how successful businesses, social movements, and other projects were put together.

This blog post is a reflection on the latest creative writing unit that I conducted with the Providence Clemente Veterans’ Initiative. It took place over 2 weeks. We met on Monday and Thursday nights via Zoom for 2 hours. This group came from diverse backgrounds. There were 10 veteran participants—3 women and 7 men. The veteran scholars’ ages ranged from 21 to 77. Their military service ranged from Vietnam to the post 9/11 wars. Many members of the group had college degrees, with one having a PhD.

The Providence Clemente Veterans’ Initiative experimented with adding creative writing to their curriculum during the Spring ’20 semester. For our first writing session, I ran an Endless Beautiful expressive writing workshop. During the second session, I challenged students to create an expressive piece of art without using writing. The sessions went well enough, but the one-off classes seemed to lack momentum in terms of producing work that was especially meaningful. Students were engaged, but I knew with more time, I could teach them how to get more out of their writing both emotionally and artistically.

I ran the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar a few months later. It was 5 weeks of intensive writing instruction that aggressively pursued artistic goals. I used what I call an experience-based short story as a vehicle to guide students through various craft writing exercises. At the end of the 5 weeks, after students had shared their work, we discussed how the class went. Many of the students reported experiencing a helpful emotional release through writing. This was not surprising to me, as I too have experienced emotional perks from writing, and the cathartic benefits of writing are well-documented. Qualitative data collected from students that completed the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar 2020 via questionnaires and a focus group further uncovered a theme of processing complex emotional experiences, despite the focus on writing craft during the course. I did not explicitly discuss emotional benefits with students. Perhaps if I did, maybe more students could tap into those crucial benefits?

My recent research at URI has been based on delivering effective writing programming to military veterans. As part of a research proposal that I put together during the Fall 2020 semester, I conducted a literature review on veteran-focused writing programming. As a result, I learned a lot about expressive writing, creative writing, developmental creative writing, challenges that veterans face in today’s landscape, and existing writing programming for veterans. Having enhanced knowledge in these domains significantly boosted my confidence in running writing programming for veterans and armed me with valuable tools.

The director of PCVI, Mark Santow, brought up the idea of a letter writing assignment during the pre-semester planning stage this fall. I did some research on ideas for such an assignment and looked at notable letters from history. A few letters that I enjoyed greatly and got me moving in the right direction were a letter from Maya Angelou to her former self “Don’t Let Anybody Raise You—You’ve Been Raised” and a letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother days before his death “There is No Danger Down Here.” I eventually settled on tasking students with writing a letter to their past self. The past self needed to be at least 3 years in the past. The letter needed to include advice to the former self and weave in at least one takeaway from the PCVI semester. This assignment would be the capstone for the PCVI semester. It would be a perfect opportunity for students to synthesize and demonstrate what they had learned.

About a month before my creative writing classes began with students, I took a look at written work that was being submitted on Google Classroom. Unless if materials were being emailed outside of Google Classroom, written assignments didn’t appear to be a huge priority for many of the students. Of course with creative writing instruction, the most important thing you need to do is write! I would address this in two ways. First, I would lean heavily into the emotional domain. This would boost the intrinsic motivation of students by attaching their histories and identities to the assignment. Second, I would build writing time into our class sessions. We would take 20 minutes to write and have a discussion about what we had come up with. This would model productive writing practices and leverage the many benefits of social constructivism—or communicating and learning as a group. Leading up to the class, I had students read the Angelou and Owen letters along with “Brown is as Pretty as White” by W.E.B. DuBois, “Tell Him About His Father” by Luz Long, and “This, Sir, Is My Resignation” by William Faulkner.

For our first class, I took more time to share my background with students than I did the previous year. I discussed my military service years and shared the first few minutes of the 2011 documentary about Windows of Worlds. This allowed me to showcase my work developing expressive arts projects over the past decade and introduce students to my good friend and head of that project, Brent Gerlach. These days, Brent is running a creative consultancy agency, BG Creative, and I want to bring him in for a PCVI session in the spring. I provided some links to Inner Harsh and other writing along with projects such as Endless Beautiful and Call Me Positive. The setup took less than 10 minutes, and honestly I think it went a long way in establishing a clearer picture of what I was bringing to the table for students. I’ve found that describing Endless Beautiful by saying “it’s a randomized stream of sounds that I’ve recorded, and you expressively write to it” makes me sound like a weirdo more than anything. Also, the other instructors in PCVI are professors with 25+ years of teaching experience. They are heads of departments and college deans. I’m the new kid by a country mile. A little work showing the students this isn’t my first rodeo can go a long way in terms of credibility.

Before I explained the parameters of the letter writing assignment, I introduced students to 3 modes of writing: expressive writing, creative writing, and developmental creative writing. In expressive writing, you use a prompt, and write continuously for 15 – 20 minutes. This writing mode can be great for generating ideas and exploring emotionally tough topics. You generally do not consider an audience when you are conducting an expressive writing session. Creative writing does not have a prescribed time where activities take place and the finished product is meant to be engaged with by an audience. When conducting developmental creative writing, you explicitly establish a personal development goal to be accomplished through your writing. For example, when writing an essay about your relationship with your father, you can set a development goal of: I want to better understand my relationship with my father. Setting this type of goal might seem redundant, but questioning the text and yourself along the way can yield a bountiful harvest of insight—and one that is clearly demarcated and ready for further personal analysis.

Clearly defining expressive, creative, and developmental creative writing established a solid framework for students moving forward. Remember, I built writing time into the lessons. These writing sessions were going to be expressive in nature. Instead of wasting time explaining why we were expressively writing, I could give students the prompt and we could get moving. Students also had a better understanding of their relationship with writing and the role that an audience played in the process. Students could ask more of their writing, and explore it with deeper emotional intentions. They could ask themselves, why am I afraid to write about this? Or what am I learning here? as they worked.

Mid-way through the first class, we launched into an expressive writing session. I asked students to recall a time that was emotionally significant from their past. I asked them to choose a time when they could have used advice—perhaps a major turning point in their lives. After answering a few questions from students, I set the timer, put on some light study music, and hoped for the best. The worry in the back of my mind was, “What if these guys weren’t ready to share, or even worse, dig into this emotionally significant time in their lives?” There was only one way to find out. After 20 minutes, I asked them to come back to the main Zoom session. I asked if anyone wished to share portions of what they had written with our group.

I’ve learned over the past 4 years of running EB workshops that you need to wait a few beats after you ask the group to share what they have written. As the workshop leader, you’re not specifically putting anyone on the spot, but you might be asking a lot of them. You don’t know what they have written until they share it. It might have been extremely difficult for them to engage with this stuff. Additionally, there is a good chance that many of the participants in my workshops have never engaged with an expressive writing exercise before. You might be saying, “I thought you said expressive writing wasn’t meant for an audience?” This is true. The writing is not meant to go outside of the workshop. Having participants share in a small group setting of peers can go a long way in terms of community-building, affirmation, and emotional release. As an expressive workshop leader, you don’t force participation, but including a balanced sharing component can greatly increase the benefits for participants.

So after 2 beats, my fears about lack of engagement in the PCVI session soon melted away. It was clear that students had fully committed themselves to the task at hand and were clearly ready to be open and honest. I could tell this was going to be an excellent group to work with.

The PCVI students surprised me during the second expressive writing session. I was steering students toward more academic synthesis during this class period, but the magnetic pull toward emotional exploration was clearly evident. When we emerged from the expressive writing session, and students began sharing, they were really opening up. By the end of the class, most of the group had shed some tears. I assured them that this meant the work being done was important, and that they should consistently reflect on their process—why were they feeling the way they were feeling? The real beauty of the letter to your past self assignment is that it forces you to think about your past while simultaneously thinking about your present. You’re not stuck in the past. There’s always a lifeline to the present.

A lot of transformational learning seems to happen during the drafting process for students. It is critical that students have a way to get drafts to me and receive detailed feedback. PCVI switched to Google Classroom as a learning management system (LMS) this year, and it facilitated an excellent editing dialogue. My edit suggestions generally straddle the line between line edits (suggesting ways to improve readability) and copyedits (spelling, grammar, and syntax). Each student will have different needs, but it seems as though for many students, especially those that do not identify as strong writers, copyedits serve as a big confidence booster. Providing all of this feedback is intensive and time consuming, but I find it to be extremely rewarding. It allows me to join the students on their personal journey. Some of the students sent me several versions of drafts with minor changes and comments. I try to be as responsive as possible, as I know this stage to be critical for their learning.

By the time we reached our final creative writing class, I wanted to honor the effort that students had put into their letters. All of the PCVI instructors were in attendance. I read the following words before students began sharing their letters.

Last Thursday, after we finished our class around 8:10 or so, I shot up out of my chair. I felt energized. 

My fiancé was sitting in our office, working on her own computer work, and when I walked up to her, she saw how charged up I was and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk—like I was the family dog deviously eyeing up the Christmas tree. I tried to tell her why I was so excited, but the words were coming too fast, all at once; they were getting jammed up in my mouth, and the few that tumbled out didn’t come close to representing what I was feeling. 

As the veterans in this class will probably tell you, it meant that I should try writing about it. 

When I was a young teen, growing up in rural Wisconsin, my family went through spats of attending a small, country Lutheran church every Sunday for a few months. We would do this every few years—go to church for a bit, until well, we didn’t. The church was on the line of Jackson and Wood counties in a place called City Point. Across the highway from the church was a billboard for the Ho-Chunk Casino 30 miles west. It was flanked by two bars, a double-wide trailer, and a corrugated tin lean-to.

My church-going experience was pleasant enough. Families from the surrounding area, many of whom lived and worked on cranberry marshes, crammed into the church’s two dozen wooden pews and listened to Pastor Pete deliver his sermon. I’ll admit, I wasn’t necessarily interested in God or religious pursuits. I didn’t give a damn about singing hymns. The meals after the service were good. The awkward conversations with older folk around those meals, not so much. 

Surely, the highlight for me, and I suspect for many others packed into the pews, was Pastor Pete’s stories from the Bible. The man knew how to tell a story—come Christmas, Pastor Pete would have church-goers on the edge of their seats as he told the story of the Three Kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Eventually, Pastor Pete moved on, and so did my family’s interest in attending church. By the time I joined the Marines at 22, I was almost altogether divorced from religion. I went to church during boot camp to get out of the squad bay. Later on in my career, when I was on training ops, I’d go off to small services led by the battalion chaplain. It was better than spending an hour throwing rocks into an MRE box. 

By the time I made it to Iraq, I had an even more bizarre relationship with religion. It seemed as if almost every guy in the battalion received a Bible in the mail. None of us could stand the thought of throwing the Bibles into the burn pit, so the rest of the Marines left them with me. I was the book guy. I’d come back to my rack to find a stack of two or three bibles. I didn’t know what to do with them either. So I threw them in a sea bag, which traveled around Western Iraq with me in the back of a Light Armored Vehicle, until finally, I couldn’t stand lugging the bag around anymore, and I left it in an empty shipping container in Al Asad. 

I might not be religious, but I recognize when a moment is sacred. I never find it exactly where I think it should be. In China, I think I found it while kicking an old basketball around with some kids in a dusty alleyway. In Iraq, it was in a traditional place—a temple, atop Mount Sinjar. But the sacred only came when a guard lit a lone candle in the dark and hundreds, perhaps thousands of bits of fabric lit up above us. I didn’t understand what it meant. I just knew that it was important, and for me, sacred.

The feeling I had after class last Thursday was undeniable and drawn from sacred moments. It’s hard to describe because it’s something profound and complex, borne from your midnight emails about drafts. And it’s made of lives well-lived and branching paths, turmoil, deep pain and triumph. It’s hopeful. It looks deep within and seeks to understand and uplift others. 

The letters we’re about to hear are windows which reveal a vast, yet finite collection of memories. A constellation of beautiful subtlety. Through these portals we see a recognition of self, a reckoning with the past, and a path forward into the future. And I would argue, we see sacred moments. 

These stories are yours, and only you can tell them. Thank you for giving me a glimpse. None of this would have worked without you. 

Lucas Pralle, letter to my past self reading session ’20

So what are my big takeaways from this assignment? It’s a good assignment that is worth refining. It provides a completely natural means to tie students’ emotional selves into a reflection on PCVI coursework. Going forward with this assignment, I might lead a discussion about PCVI coursework prior to having students drill down into their past selves. Many of the students did a great job incorporating PCVI lessons into their letters, but for some, it seemed like they were locked into personal lessons and experiences outside of material covered in the class. Switching the order might allow them to have more academic synthesis floating around in their heads before they launch into the emotional work.

One thing that is important to note here is that this unit of creative writing work for PCVI students happened at the end of the semester. The other PCVI instructors had developed an excellent community of learning within the group. Rapport amongst the students was outstanding by the time I got them—so much so, I felt like I was cheating a bit! If possible, this type of project should really be carried out once the group feels comfortable working together. That being said, I’ve witnessed extraordinary discussions in community Endless Beautiful workshops between complete strangers.

For the second expressive writing session, I will not shy away from engaging with more intense emotional work. Students will be ready to rock and roll with expressive writing, so this a good opportunity to take a deep dive.

As far as readings go: The letters read prior to our first class did the trick. We had an excellent discussion about them. “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott is always a hit. I’ll keep that reading. I had a few other readings, “Writing Myself to Sleep” by Matt Condon, which is included in the excellent Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. That reading seemed good, although I want to ask better questions about the structure of what the author is talking about in his essay next time around. We read a section from Louise Desalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives in class about keeping a process journal. The book is fantastic, and I want to incorporate it the next go around, but I can choose some more bite-sized and applicable material for students.

I sent a questionnaire out to collect some qualitative data from students after they completed the creative writing session. I asked students 3 questions:

  • Was this exercise and instruction meaningful and helpful? How so?
  • What was your favorite aspect?
  • What was your least favorite aspect?

I’m still receiving responses, but so far students are responding that the edit suggestions were especially helpful. One of the students said their favorite part was the integration of connections to PCVI curriculum. As far as least favorite goes, it was the act of writing, specifically lack of confidence with punctuation and grammar. This confirms my suspicions of the importance of drafting and the back and forth of edit suggestions.

The “Letter to My Past Self” assignment serves as an excellent structure from which to build meaningful writing programming. It enables students to tap into their personal experiences and be emotionally invested in the work—while still leaving room for authentic academic reflection. The assignment comes with a critical “release valve” in that participants must reflect on potentially difficult times from their past along with their present self. All of this introspective work from students will cultivate fertile ground for learning and emotional growth.