Flight. Risk.

Karrie Waarala
Adjunct Associate Professor of Writing

I learned early in my teaching career to appreciate the military veterans in my classes. They tended to be focused, responsible, unafraid to ask questions, and helpful in group work. And they inevitably earned high grades, even if writing wasn’t their strong suit.

Kevin did not fit this profile.

He showed up in my Creative Writing I class, solitary, quiet, giving nothing away about himself as he murmured through his shaggy beard. His poetry was distant and stiff, his fiction all high fantasy, and while the rest of the tightly-bonded class continued with me into Creative Writing II, Kevin vanished without a word.

So imagine my surprise a year later when a clean-cut Kevin showed up not only in my Creative Writing II class, but my Lyric Writing class, too.

“I needed to focus on getting a job, so I took Aviation classes this past year. It didn’t go well. My wife got fed up and told me to change my major to Creative Writing since that was the only class I enjoyed,” he explained. I learned more about him in that one answer than I had throughout my entire first semester with him. He was married? He’d liked my previous class??

Midway through Creative Writing II, Kevin taught me just how important these classes really were to him. In a stack of fiction assignments were two pieces of his writing. They weren’t stiff and distant works of fantasy. They were about the war in Iraq. They were full of pain and fear and fury. And they were clearly not fiction.

“Let’s talk,” I wrote below the full points possible. “These don’t meet the assignment guidelines, but I think they were incredibly important for you to write.”

It turned out this was the first time he’d let himself write about the war. His hands shook as he decided to choose one of the pieces for his Capstone Revision Project, which involved diving deep into a piece of creative work. The piece dealt with the repetitive patterns of following his brother into the military and circled around on itself a lot, so I suggested that if he was up to a challenge, he could turn it into a sestina.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“A form of poetry I’ve been struggling to write for years,” was my answer. “It’s tough.”

I’ve never been prouder to be beaten to a creative writing goal. Kevin’s sestina was carefully crafted and emotionally charged. The formal structure gave him freedom to take risks, and the last night of class, he informed me he was planning to revise his other piece into dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic poetry. Which was not a topic we had even covered.

I haven’t seen Kevin since, but I think of him often, proud that he took the risk to let his words take flight.