PVDVETS and Tending the Creative Garden

The majority of my program planning and writing instruction has been with the Providence Clemente Veterans’ Initiative (PCVI) over the past few years. The PCVI is an extraordinary humanities program open to veterans. It is put on by a top-notch group of department chairs, directors, and leaders in the veterans’ space. Somehow, I ended up in the mix. I suppose it makes a lot of sense how my path ended up here, and why I’m doing what I’m doing, but it remains humbling to be part of such of an amazing and effective effort.

One of the skills and modes of writing I teach veterans in the PCVI is developmental creative writing. In this mode of writing, you pick an explicit personal development goal you’d like to accomplish by writing the piece. When I say personal development, I don’t mean, I’d like this article to get 100 likes on Facebook, either. It needs to go much deeper than that. Something like, “I’d like to explore my relationship with my father before he died.” In one of my assignments for veterans, “Letter to My Past Self,” that’s exactly the type of deep introspective writing I have them do. Developmental creative writing can produce excellent results in terms of processing experiences and producing substantial emotional release.

My developmental goal with this blog post is to examine the journey to my latest creative project, PVDVETS.org. The sketch for this site began in early 2020 with my first program plan and grant proposal for the Summer Writing Seminar. Of course, the inspiration and path to this project extends far beyond 2020.

Let’s set this up by outlining the current state of PVDVETS. On its face, the site is the home of the PCVI. This is where prospective students can learn about the program, sign up for classes, and the public can donate to the cause. These are important functions. PVDVETS has been funded by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) for the past 2 years, and hopefully, for years to come. That’s because from my angle, PVDVETS is a community art project.

The site was proposed and built as a home for veterans’ stories from the Summer Writing Seminar. After leading more workshops in the PCVI that first year, I began receiving other poems and pieces of writing from veterans in the program. The work was having a compounding effect. One veteran’s creative work would inspire another veteran to produce something, and in the unbelievably intellectual and emotional framework that the PCVI was providing, the grounds were bursting with potential.

For the second proposal to RISCA, I expanded the scope of the project beyond the Summer Writing Seminar to include not just that programming, but the “Letter to My Past Self,” “Name it To Tame It,” and “Commencement Speech” activities. I called the program the “PCVI Creative and Expressive Arts Series.” I work closely with veterans during these projects to help them dig deep emotionally and produce work they can be proud of. After doing so, I encourage veterans to allow me to post their work on PVDVETS and add to our collection.

Here’s how I described it in the proposal:

“The PCVI Creative and Expressive Arts Series supports the PCVI’s mission by engaging veterans in art making. The activities are designed to harness the narratives of veterans and allow them to pursue deep healing and reflection in a way that can only be achieved through art. Veterans engaged with expressive and creative activities in the PCVI commonly report they access and make sense of experiences that happened 10, 20, and even 40 years prior.

The impact of this art extends far beyond the individual. For the tight-knit group of veterans enrolled in the PCVI, lessons and reflections transcend across generations, inform and liberate the consciousness of those that have served. Younger generations of vets can learn from those that have gone before them. Veterans that have felt isolated can embark on a collaborative journey of meaning making and healing.

The civilian public can benefit from this work, too. If a veteran-scholar from the PCVI chooses to do so, they can include their work on PVDVETS.org. The drawings, poetry, stories, photos, and music of veterans can teach the public about unique challenges that our veterans face. They can provide valuable points of understanding and bridge the gap between veterans and civilians.”

And it’s happening. Our collection is continuing to grow, and as it does, I will find new ways to leverage it. I recently gave a presentation about veteran culture to social workers at Community Care Alliance. In that presentation I outlined themes many veterans that I’ve worked with have discussed in their work. The backbone of that presentation was comprised of videos I recorded from the commencement speeches in spring 2021, which you guessed it, are housed on PVDVETS, and I worked with veterans to write. Trinity Rep held a Veteran Voices public reading on November 6, 2021, as part of the Green Light Ghost Light Project. A number of our veterans read speeches they wrote for their commencement. I’m excited to see what other opportunities emerge.

So how did I get here and become a part of all this? A good starting point for this story is shortly after I got out of the active-duty Marine Corps in late 2009. I had managed to enroll at the local community college in San Marcos, CA, but I was in a bad way. I had returned from a deployment in 2009, my relationship with my girlfriend and co-owner of my business, a hair salon (terrible idea), had dissolved, and I was desperately trying to find meaning in my new life. I was stricken with sudden and severe migraines with physical nausea to the point where I’d have to run out of the classroom and drive home before I was incapacitated. I was paranoid and on edge. The VA was scanning me for brain tumors. Fortunately, for me, I didn’t have brain cancer, but there was something deeply wrong.

Getting a ride

I was enjoying my college classes at that time, especially my English and history classes. This was a pleasant surprise, especially for a guy that had performed dismally in high school, had actually been kicked out of school for a span of time, and had no plans for college going into the military. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a theater in boot camp, receiving a presentation about the GI Bill “Kicker,” where you’d put extra money into your GI Bill account (you don’t have to do this anymore), and a drill instructor putting his knife hand to my throat and telling me, “Sit the fuck up, and fucking sign up for this shit.” That’s the kind of guidance I needed. With one master’s degree under my belt, and another one on the way, I can say I will be forever grateful for that advice. As far as I know, I was the first male in my father’s immediate family to graduate high school. He went on to obtain his GED after I left for the Marines. It’s funny how contagious education can be.

I decided I needed to go back to Wisconsin to continue my education. I enrolled at Edgewood College in Madison, WI, and began my journey there. It was during my orientation at Edgewood that I met an influential character in my story, Brent Gerlach. He was sitting in my assigned seat, and after we got that sorted out, we hit it off. Brent had all these incredible ideas about this artist collective he was putting together, Geswerk. He was a dynamic personality that had an uncanny ability to bring the very best creative people under one cause, and I wanted to be a part of that. We moved in together and talked about these ideas constantly as we went through our literature and philosophy studies at Edgewood. Our minds were on fire.

Now, looking back, I can see that something else had brought us together. Brent’s stepfather, a Marine, had recently succumbed to suicide, and it was having a massive impact on both him and his mother. Here I was, a Marine, desperately digging through and processing my experiences, swinging into deep periods of depression, living under the same roof. I will never forget how Brent would take me aside each day and tell me, “You’re a brilliant man.” I will forever be grateful for those words, and the care and courage it took for him to say them. And to not give up. Brent is a beautiful human being.

After many ideas for Geswerk, we came up with the Windows of Worlds project. This was my first introduction to community art, and there is a clear lineage to PVDVETS. In this project, we would produce wooden picture frames and distribute them to schools, classes, art centers, and anyone that wanted to adorn them with unique designs. We’d then collect the frames and hang them from trees with fishing line on the Edgewood campus. The idea was that when you looked through someone’s frame at the campus behind it, you were getting a glimpse or window into their world. We produced hundreds of these frames, and they had a truly transformative effect on the campus. As the project progressed, we took it on the road, and put it up at the Electric Forest music festival in Rothbury, Michigan, where tens of thousands of people interacted with it.

I began taking creative writing classes at Edgewood. I didn’t know it at the time, but my brain was gravitating toward the processing benefits of writing. I absolutely unloaded onto the page. I would be assigned a short story writing assignment that was around 10 pages and would produce 60 pages. I couldn’t stop. I still have those pages, and perhaps I will build something out of them in the future, but one story that I plucked out of it was Traffic Control Point 3. Looking back, I can see I was trying to process the complex relationship we had with the Iraqi people. There was so much nuance happening each day, much more than I had signed up for, and much more than my culture had prepared me to navigate.

My next stop on the community arts train was in Beijing, China. Random, right? While I was at Edgewood, I was able to travel to China and visit a number of major Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Suzhou. As I was preparing to graduate, I applied for a scholarship for a 1-month work experience in Beijing. I won the scholarship and joined other students from around the world. Many of them had internships at engineering firms, law offices, and hospitals. My internship was in the 798 Art District in Beijing under David Ben Kay, at his studio there. David, an American with a long history in China, was one of the founders of the 798 Art District, a huge complex of old ammunition factories that had been converted into art studios.

One of the many sculptures in the 798 Art District

I remember when my handler from the internship organization dropped me off at the studio, Yuanfen Flow. He’d actually gotten lost trying to find the place and walked in with me to make sure everything was okay. David was standing there, shirtless, probably having just gotten out of the massive, 50-foot, suspended, glass-bottomed, pool that he had installed above the main floor of the studio. The handler looked perplexed, and David rolled his eyes and waved me in.

I got a lot out of this one-month internship. He was the guy everyone in the 798 wanted to talk to and work with. He was brilliant and didn’t put up with bullshit. If he came up with an idea, he didn’t want questions about how, he wanted you to figure it out, but critically, he gave you the freedom to make it happen. David gave guidance when it was needed and didn’t want to be bothered when it wasn’t. He understood the power of inspiration and growth and liked the underdog. He knew what kind of capabilities I had in terms of multimedia for the studio. Basically, nothing. I had downloaded some Adobe Apps and read a book one month before leaving. He threw me on the website, had me take pictures for events, and had me create videos for the multitudes of televisions throughout the studio (which electrocuted me several times as I was setting them up). It was an amazing on-the-job learning experience.

One day when I came into the studio, David instructed me to cover all the tables with drawing paper. Yuanfen Flow was a multipurpose space and hub for many activities. As part of the business incubator side, executives would come in to receive consultation from David in his large glass office on the second floor. As an art space, we hosted an operatic production while I was there. The main day-to-day operations consisted of Chinese tourists coming in to “see” the place. Many of these tourists were merely curious, but some were aspiring artists. The idea behind the paper was for guests to sit down and draw a picture and to express themselves creatively. I’d then take pictures of the art and find something to do with them. Our guests generally didn’t engage in this type of activity. They’d come in, look at some of the art on the walls or maybe watch David swim laps in the pool when he needed to think. I’m sure that was a bit of an amusing sideshow, as I’d frequently have to slam my laptop shut as he swam, and water splashed down on me. Of course, as David had predicted, it didn’t take much time for guests to begin drawing. I took pictures and began cataloging them.

We decided we’d display a loop of the pictures on one of the screens for other guests to see. When someone would come in and draw, they were adding to the collection. In their small way, they were contributing to this majestic space and the overall experience. It was fascinating to watch, and it reminded me of the quote from Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” In fact, I came to realize, that’s what the entire studio was. David had built it, as crazy as the ideas were, element by element, and invited others to contribute in their small way. He tended to the garden, trimmed here and there, and capitalized on opportunities as they came. One of the artists that drew a picture that day, Abby Qin, became a friend. She created a design that I adapted for a massive 12-foot canvas frame I created for Windows of Worlds back in the States.

After returning from that fruitful internship, I was ready to continue my creative writing work. I had started working on the podcast, the Red Eye Report, with friends while in college, so I was fascinated by what could be done with audio. What started out as submission document to get into a creative writing MFA program, evolved into a fully featured audio drama called Inner Harsh. It had music, sound effects, and was narrated by my good friend, Larry Anderson. I was getting my writing chops in at the time. I was also doing a lot of the critical processing work through writing that I had started while in college.

Inner Harsh is a strange beast. It has elements of fantasy, sci-fi, military, and music. I told myself it was my first foray into a longer-form fiction piece, which it was, but I actively denied how I was processing my feelings from my military experiences. That processing is quite evident to me now when I listen to it, but after finishing Inner Harsh, I wanted to distance myself from it. It was too close. I was forging a new identity as an English teacher in Suzhou, China, and somehow these parts of my past didn’t fit. Of course, I was wrong, and I would suffer in different ways by denying that past in the future.

In Suzhou, at a place called the Bookworm, I met a poet/environmental scientist that was traveling through, Carolyn. We’re to be married in June 2022. A lot happened while I was teaching in Suzhou. I once again found myself in a creative hub filled with musicians and other artists. I created the fun podcast Worm Island with my friend Napoleon, played some music, rode my bicycle and e-bike around all corners of the city, and decided I’d rather teach adults for a living!

Hanging out at the Bookwork. Henry is playing the piano as he often did.

As part of the music and podcast activities, I had picked up a Zoom H5 recorder. I began recording ambient sounds toward the end of my year-and-a-half stint in Suzhou, with the idea I’d create an audio bank. I needed a specific sound for Worm Island, which had audio skits that led up to original music that we featured. We had done skits in the Red Eye Report, and of course, Inner Harsh used hundreds of sound effects. I thought having a bank of sounds would be useful for future projects and fun to collect. It turns out I was right on both fronts.

A picture of Endless Beautiful’s mascot, EB. I snapped this at the bird park in Kuala Lumpur.

When I left Suzhou to join Carolyn in Rhode Island, I didn’t have a job for a few weeks. It was during this time that we created Endless Beautiful. We wanted to create a writing prompt. I had a small collection of ambient audio files, and we had the recorder, so we went out and recorded a few more sounds. I stitched the audio together into the very first session, Beaches. Carolyn and I sat down to write while listening to it, and it was a very productive writing session. We kept on building on the Endless Beautiful Method and our capacity to bring it to others. We had a podcast where others would do it with us. Friends, writers, painters, musicians, and scientists joined us. We collaborated with other websites and hosted writing contests that brought in entries from around the world. We even had a little internship program of our own called the EB Community Keepers. I didn’t have a giant suspended pool to swim in, but I was able to give the interns a lot of freedom to create, just like David had done for me. We bought a PA system, chairs, tables, and headphones, so we could take it to other venues. And it worked every time.

I’ve been tending to that section of my creative garden ever since. One thing that struck me while we were running these workshops was just how emotionally vulnerable participants were willing to be. We had created the Endless Beautiful Method as a catalyst for creative work. What we were discovering was that it served as a powerful facilitator for emotional work. A few years down the line, I met Mark Santow, the director of the Providence Clemente Veterans’ Initiative while tabling an event at PVDFest for Frequency Writers. Carolyn and I had run a few workshops for Frequency at that point.

Mark decided that running an EB workshop for veterans in his program would be a good idea. I agreed. I went to an early class to introduce myself, and oh boy, did it open up an emotional can of worms for me. You have to remember, after writing Inner Harsh, I was very specifically avoiding associating myself with my military past. Most people in the new life I was building in Rhode Island had no idea I had served. This was by design. Now, I found myself surrounded by the most veterans I had ever been in a room with, maybe 15, reading “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien and being introduced to the concept of moral injury. Mark couldn’t get rid of me after that point, but I had a considerable amount of unraveling to do, and so did the other veterans in that classroom.

The personal transformation for me was rapid (and is ongoing). Around that New Year’s Day, so as of this writing, almost 2 years ago, I pitched the Summer Writing Seminar and PVDVETS to Mark. The PCVI was allowing me to understand why I was so compelled to write after returning home. I had experienced significant moral injury during my time in service, and there were many other vets feeling the same way. For the first time, I didn’t feel alone with these thoughts, and I had the power to help other veterans use writing to further their healing. I also understood the benefits of leveraging the collective power of what they created. A new section of my creative garden was planted, and yes, I’ve been tending to it since.

I was attending the Masters of Adult Education program at the University of Rhode Island while I was beginning my journey with the PCVI. This was extremely useful. Not only did I learn how to methodically design complex educational programming, but I was able to study what other writing programs around the country had been doing with veterans, and how different writing modes such as expressive writing and developmental creative writing can be utilized to help veterans. That work, combined with the experience I had brought with me proved to be a powerful combination.

At the top of this post, I said I wanted to examine the path that has brought me to this point in PVDVETS. I think I’ve done that, but I’d like extrapolate some words of wisdom and guidance for myself going forward. So here goes:

  • Build the garden you want to tend. Invite others to build it with you, but remember, you are the caretaker. Create something you are willing to accept the responsibility for. Set boundaries on what you can and cannot do. Be methodical. Think about the long game. Be strategic and choose your opportunities wisely. If you create something that is sustainable and responsive, you and all those involved will be able to carry the work on for many years to come. If you do not, it might all come crashing down into splinters, even with the best of intentions.
  • Be as emotionally open and transparent as possible. Not to the world, but to those around you that matter. If you’re hurting, let them know.
  • Embrace the work that happens out of view. You, and the project, will gain strength from this. Put in the work, and it will pay off. Don’t let others define what “paying off” means. Make sure your motivations are your own. Remember to pace yourself. A successful project is one that has reached an equilibrium, one that doesn’t need you constantly at the wheel. Build in that space and the capacity to put it down for however long you need before picking it up and continuing your work.
  • You’ve been blessed with extraordinary people in your life. Enjoy their company and learn from them.
  • Take a look back occasionally, and reflect on how you got here. There are important insights to be found.