Kristen Dorsey Talks About Craft
We are happy to share more of our contributor's comments on their own writing, the moments that inspired them to writer, their process. This week we are happy to feature Kristen Dorsey.
Kristen Dorsey is an award-winning visual artist, United States Marine Corps veteran, and senior in the Creative Writing program at University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her short fiction piece, “The Shamans of Alaska,” was published in Press Pause Press, November 2018. Visit KristenDorseyArtist.com.
Writing the War
It took a lifetime to write “Semper Fi,” the nonfiction account of my introduction to a four-year tour of duty in the United States Marine Corps. The event happened when I was nineteen; I am now watching sixty approaching on the not-too-distant horizon.
I thought I had carefully examined, integrated, boxed up, and stored away my memories of the Marine Corps. After all, it was only four years of my fifty-seven thus far—less than 7% of my life.
A writing class at UNC Wilmington unearthed this story. Professor Michael Ramos, a Navy combat veteran who served for nine years, taught the course, called “Reading and Writing the War.” He designed it primarily for veterans, and initially, I balked at the invitation to take it—I explained that I had served so long ago and not during a time of war.
On the first day of class, I peeked nervously through the doorway. I hadn’t been in a room of military types for years. Michael had a welcoming smile and tattoed arms that honor his military service. The other men filled the room with a grounded, aware presence that is unique to the military experience. They all knew each other—they laughed and shared friendly insults. One vet, closer to my age, had a high-and-tight and a booming voice—I immediately suspected he was a former drill instructor. I was right. The only other woman veteran was 40-ish, still in the Marine Corps Reserves, and clothed in an armor of defiant self-confidence.
I don’t belong here, I thought. I rarely spoke of my USMC service, and other than an occasional visit to the VA clinic, I seldom saw what I thought of as “real veterans.”
Michael assured me in his uniquely tough-but-sensitive way that all experiences were welcome. I doubted this. My stories are not of wars fought in foreign lands to protect American interests and promote world democracy. Mine are about fighting the ongoing war on our native soil—the war in the United States for justice, honor, and equality.
Unpacking my active duty years, 1981 through 1985, forced painful introspection. Was I proud of serving my country? Yes. Did my experiences as a woman Marine shape who I had become? Certainly. And, while my four-year tour of duty presented profound challenges, it also rewarded me with an inner strength I may not have otherwise received as a young, white woman from the suburbs of Connecticut.
The event described in my piece “Semper Fi” was not the worst experience I had in the USMC, but it was the first of many similar experiences. I am aware that most women and marginalized persons in this country and all over the world suffer at the hands of unjust, patriarchal systems of power. And, let’s face it—the Marines promote the tough, Rambo-style persona. “First to Fight.” “Devil Dogs.” “The Few, the Proud, the Marines.”
But the Marine Corps also claims deep honorability, with a code of ethics exemplified by the mottos “Honor, Courage and Commitment,” “Esprit De Corps,” and “Semper Fidelis,” Latin for “Always Faithful.” I wanted to live a life that embodied these values over all others.
My lower-middle-class family, with three kids reaching college age during the time of Reagonomics cutbacks, could not afford to send us off to college. I needed to escape my small town, an overbearing mother, and an adult neighbor who was a sexual predator. The safety of an honorable tour of military service seemed an exciting alternative to staying in an unhealthy ome environment and working toward a college degree.
“Semper Fi” is a story of the accepted, normalized misogyny that our culture waves away with a dismissive chuckle as “locker room talk” and “boys will be boys.” This story was my introduction to the disappointing truth that lies behind the noble, worthy, and still-unattained values of our Constitution, democracy, and core institutions.
I am not proud of this story, nor happy to have written it. But it was the first story I needed to tell when that class forced me to ask this question: “What was your experience of being a United States Marine?” So, despite the hard looks and head-shaking of some of my veteran brothers, I’m telling it. And, thanks to Michael and a few others in that class, I can now answer those who ask, “Yes, I am a veteran.”
I have heard young writers ponder if they should tell their hard stories. Our audience likes those stories—and let’s face it—writers need to write what the world wants to read if we are to succeed. But, sometimes, it takes a lifetime for a story to ripen. Sometimes, we must fully understand our mythology to share it properly. Once gestated, there is no stopping the birth.