Battle-Ax(ioms) for Writing and for Life
“I have not yet begun to fight!” John Paul Jones
I’m currently reading Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge. It’s a book about one of the most iconic, and one of the most deadly, conflicts in World War II. And while the story is horrific and insensible given the loss of life and suffering of the soldiers and civilians involved, it is history, and as such is important to study, to scrutinize, and to search for meaning. As the philosopher George Santayana warned: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
Yet here we are, early into 2023, almost 80 years since the Battle of the Bulge, and war, and the threat of war, is still a crushing constant in our world. And while the methods of waging armed conflicts have changed immensely over the past eight decades, what has not wavered in regard to war is its catastrophic physical and emotional impact on present and future generations.
And so, while reading this excellent book by Antony Beevor, my mind has vacillated between the macro and the micro: from existential questions about the human propensity for war, the psychological (and often subconscious) drives and desires that fuel geopolitical clashes, to the more concrete and the more demonstrable occurrences in this singular but seismic clash — details that led to the only outcome that ever matters when it comes to “winning and losing” on the battlefield: survival.
To this last point, two aspects of the fighting in the Ardennes gave me pause to “study, to scrutinize, and to search for meaning.” Both entail new soldiers, reinforcements thrown into the fracas straight from training, or was often the case, with minimal training. Unprepared and inexperienced, their mortality rates were much higher than veterans. Even days mattered. As stated in the book, “…only if a replacement was still alive after forty-eight hours at the front, did he stand a hope of surviving a little longer.”
A contributing factor to the high mortality rate for replacements was their following the normal human instinct to “hit the ground” while under fire. By contrast, veterans knew well to disobey this urge and continue to push toward (and shoot at) the enemy. Beevor explains, “When a rifle fired or a machine gun opened up, they would throw themselves flat on the ground, exposing themselves to mortar bursts, when the safest course was to rush forward. … keeping up a steady volume at likely targets as they advanced.”
These two axioms from the Ardennes (the longer you can survive, the longer you will survive, and when attacked, attack) can be applied, I believe, to life beyond the battlefield. Due to my profession, I see a connection to writing, analogizing the challenges that people who pick up a pen with passion and purpose often face. For example, while a writer, clearly, and hopefully, will never experience the life or death struggle of a soldier in combat, a similar threat of “survival” for their creative project exists. And no matter it be an an essay, poem, story or novel, the most dangerous time in terms of “keeping a project alive” is at the start. As a college professor of writing, I have seen many a good idea “flame out” before taking full shape on the page. The usual culprit a block, such as self-doubt, confusion or consternation about a character, a life interruption or work intrusion, all and anything that stymies the writing and stops the project in its tracks…sometimes forever. Conversely, writers that keep “advancing” against blocks early on, who “shoot” back, so to speak, throwing at the “enemy” acceptance, reason, reflection and fortitude, survive the conflict and go on to complete their work.
Jill Dearman, author of the newly released and award winning novel, Jazzed, is also a celebrated writing teacher and editor whose earlier book, Bang The Keys, uniquely addressed ways to overcome creative blocks. She adds this about the importance of sticking with a project when the going gets tough.
“Don’t forget that moods and external circumstances may rise and fall. But one thing you can commit to is being loyal to your writing. You are a team. You hold steady to the belief that you and your book (script, poem, etc.) are in this together and trust that any battle lost is just paving the way to a final win of the war. Temporary setbacks are normal, so are ups and downs in a writer’s mood. But if you treat your writing like your buddy in a foxhole you can be sure you will help each other to stay alive and ultimately find the path to victory.”
Jason Kurtz, , a leading psychoanalyst in New York City, and the author of the memoir Follow The Joy, also sees an equivalence to these axioms in his private practice with patients. He opines:
“One parallel with therapy is the longer you are in therapy, the better you understand how to use the time of therapy. Initially, people’s instincts about how to manage their feelings or how to handle difficult people or life situations, are often inaccurate or even harmful. This is similar to how novice soldiers often reflexively do harmful/dangerous things when under fire. Over time, as the client learns how to use the therapy space, they learn how to take what they’ve discussed in therapy and apply it in their daily lives. Like a veteran soldier, they learn how to better react when they are under emotional fire, and they are more likely to win the battle — as in get the kind of result they were hoping for.”
With a few more chapters to go in the book, I’m sure more opportunities for introspection and, perhaps, fodder for future columns will emerge. I only have to keep reading to the end, to push forward, and to return intellectual fire against the harsh realities of war and our past.