Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of author bios on their impressive writing experience. They detail how they were writing from the moment they could hold a pen in their hands. I sometimes wonder if that somehow makes me less because I can’t claim the same. Oh sure, as a child I jotted down the occasional short story for fun. As a teenager I wrote tons of poetry. Then came adulthood and responsibility.
I joined the military at seventeen years old, and let me tell you that profession leaves little time to write unless you get one of those rare assignment that requires little of you. None of my duties were ever easy. There were a lot of long hours that drained me physically and psychologically. The little time I had left was spent reading everything I could get my hands on. Heck, I was trying to read romance novels during my off time in Iraq (which was usually ten hours a day) as nearby explosions rocked my sleeping quarters. Talk about a distraction.
Needless to say, putting time into writing a novel or much of any kind of story wasn’t there. When the urge to write did strike, I grabbed my journal and recorded my current thoughts and experiences. At least that way I could look back on those crazy times and see what on earth was going on in my head.
For the first decade of of my adult life, I was living it in ways most people can’t imagine. If there was an exciting opportunity the military had available, I usually grabbed it. One example would be Airborne school. Many people don’t understand what could have possibly inspired me to want to jump out of planes, but they couldn’t understand the idea of what a rush it offered. Not to mention the challenge. Among the very small number of women who are in good enough physical shape to even be eligible for the school, less than half actually graduate.
It is far more brutal and demanding on a female’s body than a male’s. Let’s put it like this. When a soldier has to do a full combat jump, they will have to strap at least one hundred pounds of gear (maybe more) to themselves. Not just that, they have to wear it for hours before they even leap out of the plane (let me tell you I was usually glad to leap out at that point just to get a brief break from the weight). After a paratrooper lands, they have to trek through a rutted out drop zone (sometimes up to half a mile) to dump their gear at the nearest turn in point. How many women do you know who can do that?
In order to be sure, they test you in every way possible before getting to that scenario. When I went through the school in 1999, we were not authorized to walk AT ALL during the duty day. Even after you ate, they made you run back to the company area. Once you arrived there, you had to do ten pull up and push ups before entering further (that part was required even during your off time). They pushed your body hard by forcing you to jump off all kinds of random objects during training so that you were also very bruised and sore. I came back from that school with about as tight and toned a body as it was possible to get. We must have done thousands of push-ups during our few weeks there, but that’s not all.
There is a final five-mile run just before jump week that you must pass. For the experienced runner, that distance might not seem too bad, but it’s tricky. Your body is already broken down and sore. One top of this, they have to make the pace meet a nine minute mile average. That is relatively slow, but the instructors want people to fall out so they do all they can to make that happen. Keep in mind if you get more than an arms length distance from the guy in front of you in that run, you fail the whole school. They use this to their advantage by speeding the whole formation up to what is pretty much an all out sprint for a quarter of a mile.
It is painful for most women because this is often done after you’re well into the run and already growing tired. A surprising number of trainees won’t be able to keep up and they’ll fallback. More instructors wait behind the formation to grab them immediately and pull them off the track. Only once they think they’ve gotten enough of failures do they slow down again. They have to end each mile at the nine minute mark, so you do get a breather for a bit. Then the next mile starts and they speed it up again. It’s painful and very effective at testing your endurance. I know many women who failed. Only sheer willpower got me through. No one was going to stop me from the opportunity to jump from a plane, despite the fact I was never a great runner. The trick is to want it bad enough to endure the difficulties.
Now back to the subject of writing. Maybe I got a late start by not getting into it seriously until a few years ago, but I’ve done everything I possibly could to study the craft, practice at it, and learn the industry. I wrote my first novel knowing I’d never try to publish it because that was my practice round. It was meant to get me into the swing of things. After that I started several more before ditching them part-way through because they weren’t working and I’m not one to waste my time on a lost cause. Now I’ve got the novel I believe in. I’ve worked as hard as possible to get it polished and I’m proud of it.
Every experience my characters have are drawn (in some form) to what I’ve gone through. In the more than a decade I served in the military, I saw and dealt with a lot. I know what it’s like to have my life in imminent danger. To wonder when I lay my head down to sleep if I’ll wake up or die from a random rocket sailing into my bunk. The feeling of being shot at isn’t foreign to me. Looking ruthless killers in the eye and knowing they’ll take my life if given half the chance is not unfamiliar. I’ve seen and done a lot. Now it’s a matter of using all those things and putting them into a fiction story that can come alive for readers. Capturing the emotions of danger and death all around, losing people you care about because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and the enemy got them. Maybe worse because now they’re missing an arm or leg, or their face is disfigured and surgery can only fix so much when your entire bottom jaw was blown off. Those are the things I’ve seen and hope that it comes across in my writing so anyone who picks up my book(s) will feel those emotions and believe they are real.
Maybe I don’t have the experience of writing fiction since age five, but I do have a lot to offer now that I’m in the game. Just as that five mile run could have been the end of my Airborne aspirations, so too could doubt in myself now. I’m not going to let it get to me. I have faith in myself that I’ll reach that finish line, just as I have many times before. The sun set on one career, but it can still rise on another.