New Nonfiction by David Chrisinger: “Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma”

The Wrath-Bearing Tree
By David Chrisinger
05 Jul 21

The following is an excerpt from David Chrisinger’s new book, Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing About Trauma (Johns Hopkins University Press, July 2021). In this section, Chrisinger has embarked on a canoe trip with author, veteran, and EOD specialist Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk, All the Ways We Kill and Die, Disappointment River, and Stampede!: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike.

Brian’s goal for day four was to snake through a series of small islands to where the Mackenzie River widened into Mills Lake. According to the guidebook, it wasn’t uncommon for canoeists to get stranded on Mills Lake for a day or two. The lake is so shallow that when the wind picks up just a little, whitecaps can whip up and make it impossible to keep going.

Much to our surprise and delight, the water in Mills Lake was flat and calm, not a whitecap to be seen. The sky was a brilliant blue, so blue in fact that could I have dipped my hand into it, my gloved fingers would have come back wet with paint. I’m not much of a churchgoer, but the landscape that day stirred something spiritual in me. To the north there no longer seemed to be any sort of horizon. There was only a majestic blue panorama of sky and water, a near-perfect mirror that reflected all that was beautiful and calming about this place. Instead of stopping for the day as Brian had originally planned, we skirted the southern shore without any trouble from wind or waves, feeling fortunate for the first time all week. From the back of the canoe, I steered us from point to point along the shore, careful not to get too far from land.

Brian’s back was starting to bother him, he said, and his shoulders were stiff and sore from all the paddling. Each time he pinched his shoulder blades together or arched the small of his back, I could hear the pops and groans of his battered body. I was then suddenly aware of Brian’s intense need for dedicated quiet, a quiet I don’t think I’ve ever experienced with another human being. I became self-conscious of all the questions I had been asking him about writing and being an author and whatever else my curiosity suggested.

For the first time all week, I went nearly an hour in the canoe without saying a word. Before too long, the pent-up anxiety, now released, paired with general exhaustion, the rhythmic nature of my paddle stroke, and the sound of the canoe cutting through the water all resulted in a meditative calm that eventually ended with my head slumping forward and then suddenly jerking back. Not wanting to fall fast asleep and go over the side of the canoe, I did the only thing I thought would keep me awake: I talked. Because Brian had cut me off the last time I brought it up, I started with my trip to Okinawa, not caring if Brian was listening or not. Simply saying my thoughts out loud, I convinced myself, would help me make sense of them. If Brian added his two cents, that would simply be icing on the cake. I talked about what a strange place Okinawa was and how commercial and developed it had become. Brian said he was surprised I had brought Ashley with me. He said that he’d never thought to include his wife on a research or writing trip but that she would probably be overjoyed to be asked. “My wife’s love language is quality time,” I said, citing the insights of The Five Love Languages. “Mine, too,” Brian said in a soft, contemplative tone.

As though I had rehearsed what I would say if finally given the opportunity to speak, I found a nice, unstrained rhythm of play-by-play recounting. The highlight of the trip, I told Brian, was the second-to- last day, when Ashley and I met up with American expat Jack Letscher, who worked in his spare time as a battlefield historian. The morning we met him at our hotel, he handed me a short stack of photocopied topographical maps that were divided into neat grids and further divided into smaller squares. Certain squares on each page were highlighted, and he explained that he’d taken records of my grandfather’s company and traced the routes the men had taken and the places they had fought onto the copies of the battlefield maps I now held in my hand. For the next eight hours or so, he took us along the same routes in the same order that my grandfather’s company had once traversed. Brian listened without interrupting or asking questions. Then I told him about my father and what a difficult relationship I had with him and how my journey to uncover the truth and write a book about his father was a sort of pilgrimage I had created for myself to bring my father some peace.

“Like Field of Dreams,” Brian said.

“Yeah, I guess. I never thought about it like that,” I said, thinking of the 1989 movie starring Kevin Costner in which a farmer in Iowa builds a baseball field at the edge of his cornfield to ease his long-dead father’s pain.

“You know, though,” Brian continued, “it wasn’t his father who needed peace. It was Costner.”

“That’s true.”

“Do you want some advice?” he asked, as if he had finally realized that is all I wanted all along. “You need to figure out what peace you were looking for,” he said.

“Okay,” I said and thought for a moment. “I guess I don’t know exactly.”

“Figure that out, and you’ll have yourself a book,” Brian said with a candid authority for which I held a respectful appreciation.

Finally I was getting what I wanted, what I had been waiting for. Yes, I’d sat on a plane for two days and flew 4,000 miles from home to the Arctic to escape some of the drama of my life and recharge whatever batteries I had left, and, yes, I’d thought I would be able to help a hero of mine in a time of need, but really what I was looking for was his advice.

I thought for a moment about what peace I was looking for. Then Brian interjected another thought: “Unless you know what you, as the writer and as one of the main characters, actually wants, all you’re going to have is a bunch of pages where a bunch of stuff happens, but none of it matters because that’s all it is—just a bunch of stuff a reader has no particular reason to care about.”

Then he asked me something I hadn’t anticipated: “Why do you want to be a full-time author anyway? You’ve put out a couple books already. Clearly your job isn’t so demanding that you don’t have the time or energy to work on stuff that’s important to you. Plus, I bet your pay and benefits are good.”

“And I have a pension,” I added.

“Shit,” he said, adjusting the brim of his hat between paddle strokes. “If I had flexibility and time and a salary and benefits and a pension, I wouldn’t be out here for 40 days—away from my wife and kids—trying to scrape up enough material to fill a book no one’s going to remember after I’m dead and gone.”

“How can you say that?” I asked incredulously.

“Tell me this,” he continued, ignoring my question. “Why do you really want to write this book? You writing a book isn’t going to bring your father any peace; you could just tell him what you found if that’s all you want.”

“I suppose it’s like what Twain said. If you want to be remembered, you either have to write a book or do something worth writing a book about.”

“Unless your last name is Washington or Lincoln,” Brian replied, “no one’s going to remember you a generation or two after you’re gone. No book is going to change that.” He continued, “This life ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Believe me.”

“Well,” I said, “if you think what I have is so great, you should apply. We’re trying to fill like six of my positions.”

Later that day, over peanut butter and honey wraps and fruit, Brian confided in me that his first book had sold for big money. He said that he was almost embarrassed by how much and that he was never going to make back the advance he received. His second book, however, was rejected by the publisher who had bought his first one. The editor he worked with on The Long Walk told Brian that maybe he had only one book in him. “He said that Michael Herr only wrote one book too— Dispatches—and that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself,” Brian said.

“Man, what a dick,” I replied with a mouth full of food.

“Yeah, but then that same guy is my editor for this book, so . . .” To sell his second book, Brian had completely restructured it.

Twice. I started to wonder whether Brian’s experience with his second book was making him a better teacher of writing and whether he was practicing his chops on me. I’ve learned through my dealings in the writing world that good writers aren’t always good teachers. Often the opposite is true because most people are better at teaching something they’ve learned through experience, through trial and error, than they are at teaching something they somehow innately know. When someone like Brian knows in his bones how to tell an intimate, vulnerable personal story, it can be easy to assume anyone can do the same. The person just has to want it badly enough. Write a better book. It’s that simple. The cognitive unconscious of natural writers has a knack for offering up beautiful prose in story form, affording them the rare ability to write automatically—so automatically that it’s easy to believe that’s the nature of writing itself, rather than simply their nature.

Natural storytellers aren’t normally equipped with the tools to deconstruct what they’ve done or to pinpoint what it is that a reader will respond to—not until they get knocked on their ass and are forced to figure it out for themselves. Their debut books are beautiful and haunting and stick with you for days after you finish them. But because they can’t put their finger on what made it so captivating, their second books can oftentimes fall flat in comparison.

The next available campsite was another 8 or 10 miles down the river, on the northern shore. There we found a perfect camping spot with plenty of breeze and very few mosquitos. The shore was sandy and full of seashells. Seagulls chatted in the background. The scenery reminded me of pictures I have seen of Alaska, the wide and long valleys that were carved out by glaciers and are now dotted with rocks and low bushes, a land teeming with wildlife. To the north of us, dark purple clouds fluffed by. An occasional lighting strike diverted my attention from the camp chores. They were close enough to see but far enough away not to worry about. To the west, the sun kissed the tops of the distant trees. Brian sat on a flat rock with his legs crossed, jotting notes in his journal as I pitched the tent and filled up our water bottles.

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