Monday, June 4, 2012

Autopsy of Writing

One of the best things about being a writer is that when you are in the midst of writing you are transported to another place, the setting and experiences of whatever you are writing about.  For much of my non-fiction writing career, this has been a rather benign and pleasant process; I have been in Fenway Park at the moment of its birth, alongside Jackie Robinson on his first day in the major leagues, in the water with Trudy Ederle as she swam the English Channel and proved for all time that women were at least the physical equal of men.’

Yet it is not always pleasurable.  Sometimes the act of writing requires inhabiting experiences that can range from the merely uncomfortable to the truly unpleasant, disturbing and actually painful.  A number of years ago I had the good fortune to write a book with two construction workers, Charlie Vitchers and Bobby Gray, who helped spearhead the cleanup of the world trade center, resulting in the book Nine Months at Ground Zero.  Over the course of seventy-plus hours of interviews with these two men, and many times that going over the transcripts and crafting a narrative from their words, in some ways I spent my own nine months at Ground Zero.  By the end of that project I dreams of events I never personally witnessed dominated my nights, and I even developed a physical reaction to the stress of the experience that still occasionally afflicts me to this day.  But it was worth it.  Not only did I have the opportunity to translate that experience and deliver it to others, but I gained an insight and perspective about the experience that has been available to very few others who were not actually on site, and for that I will forever be grateful.  Any personal disturbance was more than worth it, and paled against the impact the experience had for those who were actually there

Almost four years ago, I was introduced to Dr. John Parrish, a veteran of the Vietnam War who spent 366 days in Vietnam serving as a doctor.  A few years after that experience, Doctor Parrish wrote a memorable and potent memoir, 12, 20 & 5, about his experience, still one of the most potent of all Vietnam memoirs.

But that was not the end of his story.  Over the next forty plus year, as Dr. Parrish reached the pinnacle of success in his field as one of the foremost dermatologists in the world, his Vietnam experience continued and affected every instant of his life.

I was introduced to John because of my experience working with the difficult material of Nine Months at Ground Zero and for the way I was able to connect with and communicate with my co-authors.  Since publishing his first book Dr. Parrish had been trying to re-write his first book, to try to better capture his experience.  Unfortunately he had been unable to escape the powerful vortex of his initial experience to translate or process the meaning of the ensuing forty years.

I met John through 400 pages of some of the most visceral writing I have ever read.  Over the next year we spoke and met many times and together we envisioned the book John wanted and needed to do NOW – a book that told the story of his war experience in the context of the remainder of this life, a book that showed that wars do not end but become a part of a soldiers’ ongoing life, sometimes re-emerging unwelcome and unexpectedly, with impacts that could not have been anticipated.    

Over the next two years I was given the task to help John turn those searing but diffuse pages of manuscript into a coherent narrative, using some of it, discarding other parts, determining where he need to reveal more, teasing and cajoling and sometimes dragging and prying those stories from him in ways that were not always pleasant or welcome, but were always recognized as necessary. Along the way, as in the Nine Months at Ground Zero, I was invited to experience a most intimate and private place, where John has lived for the past forty years, a place that is both painful and unpleasant, but also a place of redemption and release.  And like that earlier project, I have found myself taken to another world and another place and another time, in some ways experiencing a war I never fought.  It is my hope that some of this translated to the reader, but I realize that some of it is so profound and so much beyond words that will forever be mine alone

That book, John Parrish’s Autopsy of War, will be published on June 5.  Its’ focus, loosely speaking,  is John’s forty-year struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a subject with obvious resonance in an era in which our soldiers are sent on multiple combat tours and return home to little support.

Although John graciously refers to me as co-author in his acknowledgements, I do not share cover credit in the book.  It is very much his book, and his words, and not mine.  At best I served as a guide to the book writing process, providing the usually gentle organizing principle to his considerable energy and insight, and was privileged to have gained the trust he has withheld from so many others in his life.  The result, I think, is both unlike anything else I have ever read and so necessary to these times, because in Autopsy of War John Parrish tells a story that is both necessary and timely.  In an era in which soldiers return from war every day damaged in  ways that may not be apparent for decades, Doctor Parrish’s survival and testimony is more than essential; it is mandatory if we are ever to learn to understand and avoid the carnage that war entails, and evolve a more human reponse.

I urge you to read it.

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