Review of “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” by Chris Hedges

Genre: Nonfiction, philosophy, war

Synopsis: As a veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges has survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. He has seen children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans. Hedges, who is also a former divinity student, has seen war at its worst and knows too well that to those who pass through it, war can be exhilarating and even addictive: “It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”

Drawing on his own experience and on the literature of combat from Homer to Michael Herr, Hedges shows how war seduces not just those on the front lines but entire societies, corrupting politics, destroying culture, and perverting the most basic human desires. Mixing hard-nosed realism with profound moral and philosophical insight, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a work of terrible power and redemptive clarity whose truths have never been more necessary. (Taken from Goodreads)

Review: I’ve been on a nonfiction kick this summer, which is lucky for me as my summer reading for AP Lit this year consisted of war books, one of which was War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. I enjoyed this book, despite my original trepidation. It made me think about a lot of assumptions and beliefs instilled in me by American culture and it really opened my eyes to the truth and reality of war as opposed to the “myth of war” that Hedges describes. Knowing his background, I could ignore the slightly overdone language when needed, but the author has a very nice way with words for the most part, and I found myself tearing up at several points in the book.

It also, rather surprisingly, has affected my own novel. There is certainly violent conflict in some portions of the story, but it hadn’t even occurred to me to think about the psychological aspects that accompany war when it comes to my characters. War Is a Force gave me a clearer view of the realities of any violent situation and helped me cement in my mind how I will approach fighting and battle scenes in Star Kings. We’ve all been exposed to cultural icons such as LOTR, “Braveheart”, “300”, and “The Patriot”, to name a few, and it never occurred to me personally that there was any other way of portraying war. Chris Hedges, however, has made me consider more fully how I want this part of my story to go, and I have a feeling this awareness of the nature of war will be invaluable when it comes to writing those scenes.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Recommend it? Absolutely.

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The Power of Your Imagination

Disclaimer: I was inspired to write this partly by this video by one of my new favorite YouTubers, the fabulous Meghan Rosette. I should warn you now that I’ve decided not to restrain myself in this post; therefore, prepare for colorful swearing and uniquely-flavored punctuation.

It strikes me that as writers, we are nearly always incredibly self-conscious. It’s practically guaranteed that if you write, you have a veritable library of insecurities and doubts about yourself, your craft, your ideas, your characters, your future, etc… Why do we have these insecurities? Why do we constantly nitpick at what we may or may not be doing wrong in our writing? We worry about our POVs, our literary style, our marketability, possible traits our story may share with a famous work like Harry Potter or Twilight that would doom us to “copycat status” as authors. There’s so much pressure to be unique and sophisticated and artistic and we read articles and books on how to write when really, really truly, we already know the formula. You sit at your desk, on your bed, on your couch, in a coffee shop, wherever you like, open up your notebook or laptop, and set pen to paper or fingers to keys.

It’s not hard. And yet the simplicity of making art is such a brilliant trap. It is so easy to believe that there’s something yet to learn, another trick of the trade, another inside look at a published author’s methods. We make writing into so much more and so much less than it is. Because what is writing? What is the real, honest-to-God definition of writing? To me, writing is peace. To you, writing may be adventure. To a young boy writing a haiku in his freshman English class, writing may be work. To an old woman with a notebook always at hand, writing may be comfort.

There is always, I suppose, something to improve on when writing, but that is the catch. That’s the reason so many writers don’t make it. We are fundamentally afraid of risk. We are afraid of using that word or keeping that paragraph or making that joke and it’s so stupid. Writing is a business, yes. But first, always first, it is an outlet. You enjoy it, you exercise it, you do with it whatever you please, because if you aren’t writing what you WANT to write, you aren’t writing at all. Writing is the act of giving over to imagination and playing God with your own world, your own characters and stories and places, and there’s no point in doing it for others. Fuck the business. Business makes art dispensable. We stick prices onto what is priceless and call it an industry and that’s okay, that’s alright. But to think of all the people, all the creative energy that has snuffed itself out by second-guessing, by hesitating to upset the unwritten etiquette of writing…it makes me angry and, more than anything, sad. What great stories have we missed because of writers’ constitutional perfectionism?

My novel, if one judged merely by the bones, would be considered YA. But because I don’t want to sacrifice incredible characters and unique plotlines for the sake of an audience that doesn’t even exist yet, I am letting myself do exactly what I want. There’s sex, and taboos, and gruesome violence, and complex villains that you love as much as the protagonists, and it’s pure. It’s what I envisioned, what I saw in my head all along.

I can’t understand why people would even want to restrain themselves and reign in all the power of creation they possess. As a writer, you possess extraordinary gifts. Use them for yourself. Give yourself over to the power of your imagination and let yourself tell the story you want to write. When and if others read your words, you won’t have to wonder if you could have done better. You won’t have to worry and regret over choices you made along the way. The business can make art commercial, but what’s the point in that if you haven’t even let yourself make that art the best it can be?

At the Moment…

I started school today. God, it was a bloody mess. My schedule is mixed up, I got terrible teachers, my counselor was NOT very pleasant, and everything was rather confusing. Not the best way to start out senior year if you ask me. But there are bright bits. I get to sing in the advanced choir, which I really missed. I have an awesome AP Literature class with cool people and a wonderful teacher. It works out so I see most of my friends at least once a day. And there was frozen yogurt and a summer social for our county’s Democratic Party, which I quite enjoyed. And I have a meeting tomorrow with my counselor from last year, which I’m really looking forward to.

But mostly I’m getting excited about applying to colleges. The actual admissions process itself is sure to be grueling I know, but I can’t wait to actually be there, deciding my future and figuring out where I’m going to be for the next four years of my life. It’s fun to think about, especially since I get to make lots and lots of lists, and I love lists. I’ve already written a mostly-completed packing list for college that’s 7 pages long.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on at the moment. Life is messy and unorganized and I’m loving it.

Let It Be

*ignoring the fact that I’ve been gone for months* So one of my very best friends, who also happens to be a writer, decided some time ago to turn her novel into her senior project for high school graduation. This basically means she spent twenty hours with her fantastic mentor Greg Wilkey, (a local writer whose books and other funsies can be found here), completed and revised her novel over the summer (well actually she’s still working on it even though school starts on Thursday), and is supposed to present the final product this fall to judges. It’s apparently the wussy version of the big-bad-bullying college theses. But the reason I bring up my friend’s situation is because the fact that she actually has a literal NOVEL under her belt (albeit not entirely polished) really pisses me off if I’m honest. Authors generally have overcome the inherent laziness that plagues most writers (especially moi), and my friend seems to be coming along respectably well. And you would think her success would be motivation for my competitive self to catch a fast train and attack my baby manuscript with determination.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

My competitiveness only extends as far as my mouth. I want badly to show everyone else up, and like most people, I have a dreadful tendency to brag on the occasion I do take the lead. I love feeling superior. But I am, for the majority of the time, unwilling to act on my ambitions. A major flaw? I definitely think so.

My novel originally started as a tale about a little girl who could turn herself into a lioness. It became a story about five young people who come from completely different worlds who are chosen to fight for the freedom their lands have lost. And the sheer amount of characters, plotlines, backgrounds, and culture is incredibly intimidating at times. Most people would probably frown and question why I’m making everything so difficult for myself. But I suppose when you have a story that you feel has greatness in it, the kind of characters you wish to God were real, the kind of places you could spend forever exploring, there’s not much to do but let that story grow in your mind. Sometimes the best poems, the best stories, the best art, the best music, come from people who are by no means experts in the craft, but who allow themselves to reach high from the beginning.

Of course, I could laud the magic of amateur creativity for days, but still there lies a far-from-finished novel sitting in my hard drive and it’s frustrating, I won’t lie. But I have to keep believing in it. Even if it takes me years to actually get off my ass and write it, I refuse to simply want myself to complete the final product. I expect it. I owe it to myself to write the story in my head and heart. You owe it to yourself. These stories aren’t just bits of our brain that we’ve plucked out; they can live, they can breathe, they can be, if we can find it in ourselves to let them.

As for me, I’m working on it.