Author: Kyesha Jennings
This month, Dare Arts—the arts council for Dare County—will host its 10th Annual Outer Banks Veterans Writing Workshop during Outer Banks Veterans Week, an annual event celebrating veterans and their families through the arts. The workshop will be held at the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute, in Wanchese, on Saturday, November 12, and Sunday, November 13. Veteran, writer, playwright, and educator Ron Capps, who is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project, will lead this year’s workshop, titled “Scene Writing for Stage & Screen.”
On Veterans Day in 2012, Barbara St. Amand, co-founder of the Outer Banks Veterans Writing Program and former Dare Arts board member, heard an interview with Capps on National Public Radio. He was promoting the launch of the Veterans Writing Project's new literary journal: O-Dark-Thirty. “I get an email out of the blue, which is of course the way good things typically happen. And the email says, ‘Hey, we're gonna have you come down and teach workshops in North Carolina,’” Capps recalled. He was used to getting such requests by email, and they rarely worked out for lack of funding. But St. Amand and Chris Sawin, the executive director of Dare Arts at the time, “buckled down and made it happen, and we’ve been going at it ever since,” said Capps.
St. Amand is a Marine Corps widow and a big fan of the arts. “I'm really happy that the Veterans Writing Workshop has continued,” Jessica Sands, the county arts council’s current executive director, said. “It is an extension of Barbara’s legacy. It was really important to her that she brought people with a military background together.” For the past 10 years, Dare Arts has been intentional about creating a safe space where veterans and relatives of veterans feel comfortable enough to open up and share their stories.
Capps was a soldier for 25 years. He served in the military from 1983 to 2008, completing tours in Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq, Kosovo, Rwanda, and many other countries. After retiring from the military, he went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University to study writing. While there, he wrote his critically acclaimed memoir, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, and developed a curriculum for a veterans writing program titled, “Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story.” “I just knew soldiers were going to be coming home and there would be struggles and challenges that universities wouldn’t be prepared to deal with—especially since they hadn’t supported a large number of military men and women since Vietnam,” said Capps. Reaching out to the major universities in the Washington, D.C., area, he secured a partnership with George Washington University. Shortly thereafter, the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned him to write another curriculum. To date, the Veterans Writing Project has presented its no-cost creative writing and songwriting workshops to more than 3,600 people in 25 states.
The Outer Banks community has responded positively to the Dare Arts Veterans Writing Workshop. “The veterans program is something that just always seems to work,” Sands said. “It also consistently has fulfilled a need. We provide an arts experience for free to people who have a common background, whether it's that they are a veteran, or their partner is a veteran or their parent. We have a core group that every year asks, ‘when is registration,’ or they’ll send an email and say, ‘Don't forget to hold me a spot.’”
The excitement that the participants display is a testament to the workshop’s effectiveness. Veteran Greg Smrdel said he looks forward to it each year. According to Smrdel, the workshop helps him hone his skills as a writer, and it also gives him an opportunity to cultivate new relationships.
To offer a diverse set of writing skills to participants, each year the focus of the workshop changes. This year's focus is playwriting. On November 12, workshop participants will see a staged reading of a play that Capps is developing: Trying To Catch Amnesia. The play is about the challenges of returning home from war. “It's a super opportunity that Jessica has provided for us because of her personal skills as a director,” said Capps. “There's this enormous chasm between what writing a novel or writing a memoir is, and what writing a play is. With the Veterans Writing Project, our goal is to give participants the skills and the confidence they need to write their own story, whatever that story is.” And, clearly, too, whatever form it needs to take.