‘Among the Most Significant Professional Development Experiences I Have Ever Had’–Impact of the Writing Seminar

This fall, The War Horse hosted our Writing Seminar for Military Spouses at Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York, thanks to generous support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and other partners. The five-day, expenses-paid retreat brought together a dozen military spouses with a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, award-winning news editors, and a book editor from Penguin Random House. Together, they worked to help our 2022 War Horse Fellows find and shape their stories as active-duty military spouses, retired veterans who are now spouses, and more.

Writing Fellow Sadia Heil enjoys the quiet at Carey Institute for Global Good. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse.

Writing Fellow Sadia Heil enjoys the quiet at Carey Institute for Global Good. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse.

Since 2017, The War Horse has hosted five writing seminars for veterans and military families. The 62 fellows from those seminars have written 88 stories for The War Horse about topics ranging from mental health and suicide to school shootings and gender issues. Past fellows have gone on to publish memoirs, as well as reporting projects with USA Today, CNN, The New York Times, and others. During our most recent community-building event for military spouses, nine women and three men represented all U.S. military branches. And our 2022 War Horse Fellows brought a remarkable breadth of experiences—we will continue to work with them to publish their reflections.

“I want to be clear here,” said Dan Woodward, a retired brigadier general who served in the Air Force for 28 years. “This was among the best, most significant professional development experiences I have ever had . . . and I have had a lot. I knew I liked to write. Now I see a reason to do it and a path to make it mean something. That is a BIG accomplishment for four days. VERY well done!”

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Once selected, War Horse fellows receive a welcome packet that offers details about travel accommodations, activities, and our newsroom’s community standards. Fellows described the event as “easy and stress free” and called the logistics “seamless.” One fellow described receiving the travel stipend as a “surprise” and said they were “very appreciative.”

We also redesigned the onboarding process this year to better set expectations and best prepare our incoming cohort, while allowing our team to tailor the curriculum to the unique needs of our incoming writers. As a result, all 12 fellows reported that they arrived at our seminar understanding that they would be expected to write about and discuss potentially traumatic issues. Most importantly, upon arrival, all 12 members of our 2022 cohort felt as though The War Horse provided adequate resources to deal with the difficult issues we discussed and that our team presented the material in a way that was sensitive to their experiences.

  • Before the workshop, more than two-thirds of 2022 War Horse Fellows reported that they knew people who could help them publish their stories but that they did not feel comfortable asking for help with their writing. After the writing seminar, all 12 fellows felt confident they had gained mentors they could approach for help.
  • Before attending, two-thirds believed they couldn’t convey what they wanted to say or didn’t have the ability to share their story. After the workshop, all 12 reported a stronger ability to tell their story and left feeling good or very good about telling their story.
  • Before attending The War Horse Seminar, nearly half of the attendees reported that they didn’t believe their stories were important. Following our week together, the entire cohort believed their stories were important and wanted to tell them.

Because we design our seminars for writers of all experience levels, the personal benefits of each attendee vary. For many, our seminars plant a seed of curiosity about writing and forge a supportive community. “Spending time with the cohort was the most impactful part of the seminar,” one fellow noted. “As a writer, it was helpful to hear so many different, yet effective, voices. I have a better grasp on my voice.”

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Throughout their week together, War Horse Fellows worked alongside multiple guest speakers who each volunteered their time to work one on one with our writers. The first speaker of the week was Josh Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. One fellow wrote, “Josh is a great guy, and it was interesting to hear his experience and journey as a journalist and his tips to writers.”

Pam Wall, a counselor and retired Navy psychiatric nurse practitioner, and writing fellow Luke Pernotto. “Having Pam available was crucial for me to be able to tell my story,” one fellow said. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse.

Later in the day, our fellows had the opportunity to learn from our second guest speaker, Jim Dao. Jim is the editorial page editor at The Boston Globe and the former editor of the At War blog for The New York Times.

“Having had Jim there may very well be transformational for me, in learning about what editors are looking for and realizing that’s a great way to get my writing out there and start building authority in the writing community and on my particular topics,” said Matthew, a military spouse who realized there is a small percentage of male spouses and developed an app, Kovii, to connect other spouses.

Writing Fellow Sarah Flores shares her story. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse. War Horse Fellows also benefited from the moments of relaxation scheduled throughout the seminar. We incorporated into the writing seminar agenda optional activities that included massages and a hike to a nearby lake.

“The massage was an excellent idea that I felt really contributed to my stay,” one fellow wrote. “I highly encourage you to keep offering those. The walks and hikes were also amazing, and a real highlight for the seminar.”

Between guest speakers and events, David Chrisinger, director of writing seminars, presented classes. Dave has led all five of The War Horse writing retreats. “Dave did a great job of challenging my approach to storytelling structure,” one fellow said. “In his feedback, Dave was supportive and did a great job of pointing out the positives. The environment encouraged people to share at their own comfort level.” Another fellow said, “Dave gave me the support, feedback, and frame to be able to think about my experiences and bring them to the page.”

During our third day together, Nina Rodriguez-Marty presented her tips for telling stories and getting published. Her background as an editor provided tremendous insight to the cohort, and they collectively agreed on her value to the seminar. Fellows described her as “one of the best parts of this entire seminar.”

“Nina’s presence was impactful,” said Sadia Heil, an Air Force veteran and spouse who traveled from D.C. “You can’t be what you can’t see. My whole life, I’ve had to be what I can’t see—and I’m tired. But [Nina] was more than representation. She was genuinely interested in hearing our stories and gave meaningful feedback. Please bring more Ninas to these seminars. It changed my perspective and motivated me to keep writing.”

“Coming into the seminar, I wasn’t sure what to expect—but it was certainly not to be blown away by the sheer raw talent, honesty, and deep wells of passion each and every attendee brought to this seminar,” Nina said. “The War Horse has created an incredibly special experience where it’s not just the writers who feel safe and supported, but everyone involved. I was deeply humbled to have been invited to play a small part in such a transformative week.”

Throughout the week, the on-site dining team at the Carey Institute for Global Good at their historic Carriage House served our meals. “The food was outstanding, and I miss it already,” wrote one fellow. “It helped me write because I knew I would be getting a delicious meal with healthy options, and I didn’t have to think about what was on the menu.”

On the third evening of the seminar, Josh and Carol Friedman opened their home to the cohort and staff by hosting a catered five-star dinner. After eating filet mignon, double-baked potatoes, asparagus, and mouth-watering bread pudding, fellows found more opportunities to bond and receive mentorship in an informal setting.

“Josh is a wonderful human being and so is Carol, and their generosity made a big, positive impression on me,” said Abby Murray, an editor at Collateral. “I’m so glad to have met them. They obviously think very highly of The War Horse and all the awesome people who continue to make it happen, and that made an impression on me too.”

During our final day together, the cohort learned about editing and publishing their reflections with The War Horse and how to prepare for the pitch process throughout their careers as writers. To assist with this, literary agent Stuart Krichevsky spoke to the group. Fellows described Staurt’s insights as “fascinating and illuminating.” “Stuart was an excellent addition to the seminar,” said Jessica Morse, a military spouse who leverages her experiences to assist new and younger spouses. “I had never spoken to a book agent. It was interesting to hear what he looks for in book proposals and how you can make yourself stand out. It was useful to know why it is important to have an agent. He was a great resource of information and very friendly.”

David Chrisinger, director of writing seminars, and literary agent Stuart Krichevsky speak to the group of fellows. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse.

David Chrisinger, director of writing seminars, and literary agent Stuart Krichevsky speak to the group of fellows. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse.

During our seminars, in addition to editorial support, The War Horse places a high priority on the mental wellness of our fellows. To assist in this effort, Pam Wall, a counselor and retired Navy psychiatric nurse practitioner who has worked with wounded veterans and their families for more than 20 years, joined our team for the week.

“Having Pam available was crucial for me to be able to tell my story,” one fellow said. “My meeting with her helped me to work through my own emotions during the process. Her presence also made me feel confident that others who were writing about emotional topics would have support.” Other War Horse Fellows also appreciated the focus on mental health, saying they found it reassuring knowing a mental health professional was present if needed.

Many of our 2022 War Horse Fellows agreed that our Writing Seminar for Military Spouses was transformational, both personally and professionally as writers.

The War Horse Fellows also benefited from the moments of relaxation scheduled throughout the seminar. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse.

The War Horse Fellows also benefited from the moments of relaxation scheduled throughout the seminar. Photo by Jamie Spaulding for The War Horse.

“I have had several discovery moments as a brand-new stay-at-home dad,” said Luke Pernotta, a retired Marine Corps veteran adjusting to being a full-time active-duty spouse. “There are things that I learned that I didn’t know existed, and my view about myself and my wife changed over that transition.

“I took these lessons as self-discovery of what [my] spouse already knew. What I didn’t realize was that the nine lady spouses were looking for a way to explain their struggles to their husbands. After reading my piece, I learned my self-discovery was seen by them as an explanation that they could give to their husbands in a way they could understand because I was a veteran.”

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Our 2022 War Horse Fellows also gained a sense of community. “I now feel that I have a group of understanding, supportive people who can be a sounding board and a source of positive feedback and possibly constructive criticism,” wrote Jennifer Brookland, a veteran and military spouse who works as a reporter for The Detroit Free Press. “I also feel that I could reach out to the staff of The War Horse as friends.”

 

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