Posted by: mew | June 14, 2010

two naked question marks

It’s Monday — again.

I think I’m going to have to face the fact that I’ll never get a workshop check-in completed on the weekend.  Weekends are for traveling, for catching up on housework, for outings in nature, for making time to make eye contact with my beloved who is trapped in the spiraling web of insanity that is the last six months of a doctorate in Physics.  This weekend was for celebrating my grandfather’s 84th birthday and my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary — and I had to drive to Atlanta to participate in all of it.  I’m just now feeling a bit recovered.

So the posts where I analyze my week fit better for me after the new week has begun.  Even when I have a killer workshop week.  Which I did.

I actually completed a story this week.  A story I like, with characters who I enjoyed getting to know, and who seem, well, real to me.  And the protagonist, a military vet dealing with the consequences of brain trauma when he returns stateside, is a male character who is definitely not a stereotype or a caricatured or cliché version of a man, in keeping with the goals for this four-week unit of the workshop.


This idea for a story was a pretty basic, simple one.  I’d almost call what I created in preparation for writing a schematic, rather than a story plan, and maybe the simplicity helped me to keep it short, and the lack of detail about how I would execute it helped me to follow the flow of the moment better as I wrote.  (Note I’m still far from being a seat-of-the-pants writer, though.)

The idea for this story came to me after meeting a woman at a party in 2005 or 2006 (?), who had unwillingly been divorced by her husband after he returned home from Iraq with a completely different personality, due to a brain injury suffered in an explosion.  It was one of the most shocking and tragic real-life stories I’d ever heard.

Her husband initiated their separation almost immediately after his return home because he found himself unable to communicate as before — and sometimes unable to control the violent impulses that arose from such frustration.  He’d been so looking forward to meeting his infant daughter, who had been born while he was deployed, but he panicked when he realized he might one day hurt her unawares.  Even therapy and drugs weren’t helping with his anger control issues and PTSD reactions.

He also had some amnesia, which unfortunately included the years of his courtship of his young wife.  They had only been married for about six months before he left to go to war, and most of their history together had gone A.W.O.L.  According to her, he tried to pretend for a few months after his return, to not reveal to her the extent of what was missing, and to act the part of adoring lover and husband.  Eventually he had to admit it felt to him as if he were married to a stranger.

And of course, she had to realize that although he looked the same and seemed familiar to her, with his brain trauma he was a virtual stranger to her, too.

You can imagine that this strange party interlude stuck with me for a while after it happened.  I can even remember the music that was playing in the background as we sipped our drinks and this extraordinarily beautiful young divorcée explained some of what she had been through in the last year of her life.  It was a wild story, poignant and heartbreaking and also inspiring somehow, that though this young soldier came home so altered and damaged, he was still determined to sacrifice of his own happiness to remove himself from his daughter’s sphere to avoid harming her, mentally or physically.

I went on to research brain injuries and to discover that many, many of our “unwounded” vets are now coming home from war quite damaged — or at the very least changed, and I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to write about it.  I even had the story idea.  But as many ideas do, it languished in a closet somewhere until we had to do our goal-setting exercise, and I decided I wished to work on writing 3-D male characters.   Then I pulled it out, blew the dust off of it, and found it surprisingly still viable and meaningful to me today.

Weirdly enough, as I began my writing week last week, I heard this report on NPR during a commute in the pouring rain, about the U.S. military still failing to diagnose brain injuries in our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and detailing some of the lasting effects on the lives of these former soldiers, and the lives of those who love them and live with them.

Now, to the title of this post.  I’m sure you’ve been wondering.  That’s from the first sentence of the story as it stands now, in pure, unedited, rough draft form:

“Paul and Kim lay curled on the bed like two naked question marks, with a stripe of moonlight marking the clean white space between their bodies.”



  1. Sounds like a very interesting story, Meredith. I just read an article in an in-flight magazine about a young veteran with severe panic attacks caused by PTSD, and he was able to get a service dog who has helped him live more normally. Fascinating story, throwing light on the seemingly “uninjured” who return.

    • I’m glad they are finding therapies that work, Kathy, to restore some peace to these young men’s lives! It’s hard to imagine having to live with that reality day-to-day — and yet with the injury being invisible to those around you.

  2. Way to go, Meredith! And I like the imagery – I would love to read the story post-workshop 🙂

    Don’t worry about being on time. 🙂

    • Thanks, Merrilee! I’ll let you read it after the first edit, if that’s okay. I’ve declared a moratorium on edits for the remainder of the workshop, so I can utterly separate the creator and editor for maximum progress. 🙂

      Yeah, schedules aren’t nearly as important as stories; are they?

      I appreciate all your encouragement.

  3. Wow, that must have been absolutely devestating for all involved. I really feel for the young woman, the war veteran, and his poor daughter. I’m not surpised that the story stuck with you the way that it did.

    • Devastating is the right word, Chibi! I felt for them, too, and continue to do so, altho I have no idea what any of them are doing now, or where they are. It was a strange passing encounter that I won’t ever forget, I’m sure.

  4. Wow! That sounds like such an dinteresting and sad story. I’m glad you enjoyed the process and the product so much this week!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Alisha. The story is a poignant one, for sure, and was a good jumping-off point for my own ideas and non-stereotypical male character study. It opened my eyes to a wider spectrum of human possibility than I’d yet realized existed.

  5. Such a sad story. So heart-breaking and awkward and tough. I hope you gave her a big long hug afterwards.

    If the story you write is going to be fairly similar, I must admit it would be moving to see this story written from the husband’s point of view, the wife’s point of view, and the child’s.

    • Sadly no hugs, Nick. I’d never met her before, and I’m not one to immediately jump into bodily contact on first meeting, even when someone tells such a heart-rending personal story. I think I’m slow to warm up that way.

      However, I think she appreciated the fact that I was a good listener. It must help to get it out sometimes; don’t you think? People tell me all kinds of stuff, and it’s been like that as long as I can remember. F. says I should become a therapist and get paid for it. 😉

      The story I wrote was different, of course, and the whole point of the exercise was to try and write a 3-D male, so I delved into his p.o.v. for the first story. Also, the story just seemed to want to be written that way. But my character is not nearly as selfless as the real-life version I heard about!

  6. I want to read that story. Just that line is powerhouse. The backstory is brutally heartbreaking. And yes, I want to read your approach to it.

  7. I think everyone comes back from the killing fields damaged and changed forever. We should be highlighting an awareness of these ‘invisible’ injuries and the costs/collateral damage of wars — so from that standpoint alone your story is worthwhile. It sounds like you’ve taken an interesting approach as well.

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