Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Stephanie Griest is a major peace activist, having marched about a dozen times in Washington, D.C., and New York City against the war in Afghanistan.

But she hasn’t lost sight of the people who are putting their lives on the line for their country.

Griest, a graduate student in The University of Iowa nonfiction writing program, reached out to war veterans by volunteering at the UI Vets Midwestern Writing Workshop Jan. 15-17 in the UI Distance Learning Site in Iowa City.

The University of Iowa Veterans Center and the UI Division of Continuing Education co-sponsored the workshop for about 40 veterans, ranging in age from 21 to 78. Participants came from all over Iowa, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Omaha among other places.

Griest and fellow nonfiction writing graduate student Jen Percy taught the description class.

“(The workshop) humanized our side of the war a great deal more, which was important for me as an activist,” said Griest, whose father was in the navy for 30 years. “One of the healthiest things that can be done for veterans is to get them talking and get them writing, as writing can be such a powerful, cleansing force.”

Emma Rainey, who co-facilitated the workshop with John Mikelson, veteran’s advisor with the UI Veterans Center, thought it would be a sorrowful weekend, but instead it was uplifting.

The veterans were active members of the classes, volunteering to read selected excerpts from other authors’ work as well as their own original writing. The 10 nonfiction writing students remained on hand to assist during the entire weekend, despite being slotted for only a few hours.

“(The students) are the best writers on earth. I know they are from having been in workshops with them the last three years,” said Rainey, a 2009 graduate of the UI nonfiction writing program. “They’re dedicated, and I knew that dedication would translate into offering tools to those who don’t know what the tools are— dialogue, point of view, style, senses, character description.”

Actually, the graduate students were impressed by the skills the veterans brought to the workshop.

“The works I read were deeply moving, intelligent, and self-aware. There was a great deal of talent in that room,” Percy said. “A lot of the veterans I spoke with had stories that they had kept buried for years. This was a rare opportunity for them to share. It was our job to create a safe space for them to tell their stories.”