Matthew Shanks, right, listens to a live reading during The War Horse’s 2022 Writing Seminar for Military Spouses. Photo by Jamie Spalding for The War Horse.

I’m Finally Here at This Place Where I May or May Not Belong. I’m Ready to Find Out.

The fireplace crackles, just starting to warm the lodge’s lower-level living room on a quiet autumn evening in upstate New York. Someone lets loose a sigh, prompting me to look up and observe my company. Three others are cozied into their single sofa chairs, staring at their computers. Jennifer’s fingers wiggle in the air as if they themselves are desperate to start their chatter on the keyboard. Valerie repeatedly picks up and sets down her phone. Andrea combs her hands through her hair and types every now and then. Each face is serious, and none seem to notice as I repeatedly look up from my computer.

Matthew Shanks, right, listens to a live reading during The War Horse’s 2022 Writing Seminar for Military Spouses. Photo by Jamie Spalding for The War Horse.

Matthew Shanks, right, listens to a live reading during The War Horse’s 2022 Writing Seminar for Military Spouses. Photo by Jamie Spalding for The War Horse.

I grew up in a generation of ambition. Walt Disney challenged us with “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I have aspired, and I’ve achieved. I’ve completed around 20 Ironman triathlon races—the 140.6-mile version. Their slogan, “Anything is possible,” is among the inspirational material I’ve heard throughout my life. This is all great, except it leaves a deep-rooted mentality that if I don’t achieve exceptional success and solve the world’s problems, my existence is a failure.

Over the last few years, certain ideas have infested my mind—ideas about the way we communicate with each other, and the way we find meaningful connections. But in order for these ideas to make an impact, they have to be written, and written well. Yet despite the recent sessions on learning how to write our stories, and despite all the wonderful talks within my newly found community, I feel incapable of writing any of my ideas in a way that we’ve just been taught, in a way that they deserve, in the time I have.

READ MORE
‘People Feel Expendable’—Military Could Lower Suicide Rate With Focus on Quality of Life

Sitting on this couch and comforted by the silent fellowship of my three new friends, I can’t bear the pressure. But I have to write something, so I start typing.

 *   *  *

Weeks before and 100 miles away, I was at home on a typical day. I was juggling my six-month-old son and wondering how I could improve my attempts to help fellow military spouses connect on a personal level. My phone lit up, and a notification banner crossed the screen with a message from Kayla.

Fellows from the 2022 Writing Seminar for Military Spouses take a walk on a fall day. Photo by Jamie Spalding for The War Horse.

Fellows from the 2022 Writing Seminar for Military Spouses take a walk on a fall day. Photo by Jamie Spalding for The War Horse.

Kayla lives five states away, and while we’ve never met in person, we’ve become friends through my initiatives to help military spouses make friends. These aren’t about helping me make friends, but as I often lead the various programs and events, I get to know many of the participants.

“You can start writing a book,” read Kayla’s message. She’d linked to an application for a War Horse writing seminar for military spouses.

Had she meant to send that to someone else? A book? On what? I’m not writing a book. I’m not even a writer.

“What a strange idea lol,” I wrote back.

Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox

  • Email address
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Yet after turning the idea over in my head for a week, I found myself filling out the application. The bigger surprise was that I was accepted.

 *   *  *

The week of the seminar arrived, and after an Uber, train, and taxi, I am finally here at this place where I may or may not belong. The campus is beautiful. Everyone is kind and we begin sharing stories and ideas that create a variety of discussions. With this immediate bonding, I began to embrace that I belong here.

 *   *  *

During an exercise on the second day, we are asked to use all five senses in a short description of a picture. After the allotted five minutes, I have mustered two awkward sentences that include three of the senses that together give a partial and strange depiction of the image.

Luke volunteers to read his first. He, like me, is a dad of two young children and relies on his wife’s paycheck to cover the family’s expenses. He writes a blog about brewing beer, but I’m unaware of other writing experience. Yet his reading so perfectly paints the picture on the projector screen in front of us, not only with every detail of the image but with an entire story of the man in the picture, filling in the blanks of my imagination.

Matthew Shanks, a military spouse, talks with David Chrisinger, director of writing seminars for The War Horse. Photo by Jamie Spalding for The War Horse.

Matthew Shanks, a military spouse, talks with David Chrisinger, director of writing seminars for The War Horse. Photo by Jamie Spalding for The War Horse.

The next reading is poetic, filling to the brim all that could possibly fit into the image. If only I was sophisticated enough to unpack all that, it sounded so beautiful. The third reading has words that leave me equally overwhelmed. I shift my posture, uncomfortable with the thought of ever sharing anything I write, wondering if my efforts are even worth an attempt.

The session ends, and we move on to dinner. I do my best to muzzle the feeling of ineptitude the exercise has left me with—and remind myself that The War Horse staff intentionally selected writers at different levels of experience.

 *   *  *

Returning to the lodge with full stomachs from another wonderful dinner, three of us decide to write in the lower-level living room. The room is chilly, but there is a fireplace with wood and matches on the mantle. I look closer and find newspaper packed beneath a bundle of sticks, confirmation we are welcome to light a fire. I strike the match and watch as it catches.

Matthew Shanks with his wife and two children. Photo courtesy of the author.

Matthew Shanks with his wife and two children. Photo courtesy of the author.

I settle onto the couch and wonder how to place one of my core ideas into a story. I’ve written blogs before. I typically just write, scratch, rearrange, edit here and there, and call it a day. Occasionally I’ll write a quick outline to start with a framework, but that’s it. No storyline planning or analysis, no seeking for one core, true statement or object of desire. But now, I think about all the other writers here, all the personal essays published by The War Horse. I think about all the powerful words and sentiments shared today. I think about all of the things I want so badly to share with the world, and this remarkable opportunity for mentorship, editing, and publishing.

I am frozen.

Tomorrow, I will share a draft and wait for the others to critique it. I’ve fallen so deeply into exploring concepts and changing angles that I have nothing good and not enough time to create something that is.

What point are you trying to make?

The question will come from a mentor about my idea to change the world.

I can’t make out this storyline. It lacks structure and direction.

My chest will tighten at the feedback, at either my inability to explain or their inability to understand that what I’m trying to say could make all of our lives better.

There’s a story in here for sure, but. …

Intellectually I will know it’s constructive, but all I’ll hear is that I am so far off I’ll never accomplish what I’ve set out to.

 *   *  *

I sense the other three sitting in the warmth of the fire, wondering about their own stories and how others will receive them. I can’t focus. It’s too high a task, the opportunity to fail too great. The clock is running out. Disappointment is nearly guaranteed.

I need to evade.

I’ll take guidance from Nike now and “Just do it.”

Just write.

The exercise I failed at so miserably today was describing a scene. So, I’ll start there. But what scene?

The one in front of you right now. Three writers, thinking about what they want to say, how they want to say it. Trying to get the right words in just the right places.

 *   *  *

Avoidance feels freeing. It takes away the pressure of the stories that weigh so heavily on me. I came here to learn how to be a better writer, and in writing this story, I put together my basic understanding of the lessons we learned with my limited vocabulary and creativity. I put words on paper (well, on a screen). Tomorrow, I’ll edit and discuss it with mentors, and I’ll learn more.

Our Journalism Depends on Your Support

  • Hidden

I’m not ready to write a book. I’m not sure if I ever will be. But I’m so glad my friend Kayla planted the seed and I submitted my application. I am so thankful I have received the opportunity to spend a week in upstate New York in autumn, to immerse myself in the world of writing. I feel as if I’ve just stepped into a new world for the first time.

I have a crude map, a handful of friends, and so much to explore.

I’m ready to continue the story.


This War Horse reflection was written by Matthew Shanks, edited by Kristin Davis, and fact-checked by Jess Rohan. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.

Tags:

Matthew Shanks

Matthew Shanks is a military spouse, dad, and entrepreneur focusing on ways to help people connect more meaningfully. He’s the founder of the Kovii app, a video chat app that lets you know which of your friends would like to talk to you, anytime you’re in the mood to connect but aren’t sure which friend to call. He’s also the founder of the Military Social Network, which helps people develop friendships through the MilSpocial app, and various events, programs, and Facebook groups. He is a 2022 War Horse Writing Fellow.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Do you value compassionate, compelling stories like this? Donate $15 so we can continue to dig in on stories that matter, and let us keep our reporting and writing seminars free for everyone.