LS: Mike Mcgrath, you have started a non-profit. Let’s talk.
MM: Words After War is an emerging non-profit organization dedicated to providing high-quality literary programming for veterans, their families and civilian supporters. We currently run one workshop out of Mellow Pages Library in Brooklyn, led by Matt Gallagher, a veteran and the author of the Iraq war memoir Kaboom.
In the future we hope to expand and run more workshops and other creative networks across the country for veterans. The idea is to really provide these men and women with the tools they need to tell their stories.
LS: Please tell me about how this came about.
MM: I met Brandon Willitts while getting my MFA at the University of Virginia. He was living in Charlottesville, taking classes at the local community college and grappling with a lot of issues that recently returned veterans frequently experience. We met watching football at a watering hole and bonded over writing/lit. The following semester he started a writing group at Piedmont (his community college) with a professor, myself and our friend Lee, another MFA guy. It was just very obvious that Brandon had a lot on his mind and that the group was a very important, almost necessary outlet. At the time I sort of took it for granted because I was taking workshops almost as a job, but later, after I finished grad school and was released into the largely uncaring world I realized that it can be a really effective support network. I missed having readers and deadlines and feedback. Then, after Brandon finished his B.A. in lit he was working as a veterans’ advocate in NYC and one night we were talking about building a writing studio in the woods behind my parents’ house and that somehow led to Words After War.
I think I said something like, “You know who could really use a free writing studio? Veterans.” So far it has been a really cool way to combine our overlapping interests. Obviously Brandon knows WAY more than I do about the veteran experience and the issues they face, but I like to think that my experiences allow me to contribute something to the cause as well.
LS: I’ve never actually been in a writer’s workshop.
MM: Workshops are the only classes I’ve ever done well in so I took as many as possible and I also went to places during the summer for MORE workshops, mostly to meet other wannabe writers and the famous ones that weren’t professors but also couldn’t say no to a weekend’s worth of readings/craft talks/receptions for a fawning audience of young people. And I do think they are helpful if you have the right sort of attitude. I’ve actually only been in maybe two skin-crawlingly awkward workshop scenarios and both of those were due to people being willfully mean/petty/obtuse. Overall I’d say it’s sort of a self-policing system. Your time will come.
Also I used to think workshops were a good place to meet women, due to insights possibly gleaned through their work, but because MY stuff usually follows a thinly veiled version of myself stumbling through a series of worst-case, self-inflicted scenarios, nothing ever really panned out, romantically.
LS: Hahah. Are you finding that many veterans are already writing?
MM: Oh yeah, big time. Brandon met a lot of fellow veteran writers through workshops at NYU and elsewhere in the city. And we believe that there’s a hunger for both opportunities to tell these stories and opportunities to read them. Veteran lit is a burgeoning literary genre. And we filled our workshop and a waitlist pretty quickly, so based just off of what we’ve seen so far (the last 3 months or so) there definitely is an active veteran lit scene and a pretty high demand for this type of programming.
And of course we are actively trying to engage with veterans and writers outside of NYC. We are putting together a mentorship program, pairing off fledging veteran writers with more established journalists/writers/professors/screenwriters, etc. That has been really interesting. There’s been a lot of interest on both sides.
LS: Do you feel out of your league at all with the veterans? (I would.)
MM: I mean, I would not feel 100 percent comfortable teaching a class/workshop comprised solely of veterans. At least not yet. I don’t think I’ve earned that. But that’s something we’re trying to tackle. If we shy away from these subjects because we don’t think we’re allowed to weigh in on them, or because we’re afraid of contradicting or offending, that only widens the soldier-civilian gulf.
Matt Gallagher, the workshop instructor, said some good things about that very idea in his Times blog post. Basically he wanted to get away from “Well, that’s the way it happened”-type responses to any workshop feedback. We’re all protective of our memories, especially painful or traumatic ones, but one benefit of the workshop environment is to experience these memories from another perspective. And that’s healthy.
LS: What kind of funding do you need to get this operation going, and how are you doing it?
MM: Right, now we’re running on empty. Meaning, we are entirely self-funded. It has been difficult. We secured a fiscal sponsorship, which allows us to raise money until the IRS approves our 501(c)(3), which, these days, who knows when that will be. We have reached out to friends and family and other people in our extended network, and we are seriously considering a crowdfunding campaign, but in the end we really do believe that the money we need will come, and, in the meantime, we wanted to get the ball rolling so prospective donors would be able to see exactly where their donations would be going.
As for exact figures, it’s hard to say. It’s an on-going discussion and has a lot to do with what we think we can bite off and chew successfully in this first year. More workshops, a retreat, other programming. I will say re: figures, someone (a stranger!) sent us $100 and I just about cried. But even beyond the money, we have received such an outpouring of gratitude and support—emails from people saying, “This is what I’ve been looking for,” or “Check out this related project,” suggesting partnering orgs and all sorts of other emotional support. So that has definitely helped us keep up the momentum.
LS: What are your expenses? Is Matt paid? Does the space cost you?
MM: Our number one priority is paying Matt. The minute we get any money, the first check we cut will go to Matt. He took a chance on us and we need to come through for him.
Mellow Pages has been extremely generous with their time and space and so we have not had to pay for that. We wrote to a lot of place—colleges, venerable culture hubs, community centers, etc—looking for a room and so we understand how lucky we were to find a like-minded institution willing to let us crash.
LS: And the workshops are free?
MM: The workshop is free this “semester” and I don’t see that changing in the near future.
LS: Do you want to expand nationally? Can you imagine this being your job? Or is this really a passion project on the side?
MM: We are talking with people who want to run a Words After War workshop in their city. We’re very excited about that possibility but a lot of it depends on the money we can raise. Until then we’re committed to maintaining an active blog and social media presence. We want to be available to anyone who might be interested in the services we’re offering. We’re just an email away.
I would like for this to be my job. I have a lot of ideas. Basically I ask myself what I want as a writer, what sort of support I’d like, and then I try to figure out how to get that for these very deserving men and women.
Words After War’s first public event is coming up! Danger Close: Writers on War is Saturday Nov 2nd at Acme Studios in Brooklyn. Buy tickets here.