Rosa del Duca’s, “The Script,” can be found in the Winter 2012 edition of the CALYX Journal. I wanted to find out more about this engaging author and how her story took its shape.
Some people think that the military is not an ideal environment for fostering creativity. What was your experience in the military like in terms of the influence it had/has on your writing? Did you do much writing while you were active? How has your writing evolved since then?
I’d have to agree that the military is not an ideal environment for fostering creativity. I wasn’t very creative while in the National Guard. Part of it was because I was a full-time student and working part time in addition to drill. And it was partly due to the fact that being a soldier, especially at first, is all about conforming, doing what you’re told, keeping your mouth shut, and playing by the rules. The rigidity bleeds over into civilian life. I remember coming back to classes at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo a few days after completing my AIT job training. For at least a week I couldn’t help but stand at parade rest when speaking to my professors, and answer all their questions with a “ma’am” or “sir.” It was automatic.
Writing was a passion of mine before I joined the Guard. And once I got out and gained some much-needed distance, writing about my military experience was cathartic—still is cathartic. I’m working on a full length Army memoir because I still feel this searing need to explain myself. It’s all wrapped up in the guilt and anger and shame I feel from joining at 17 and then declaring myself a conscientious objector four years later.
I don’t know that the military has influenced my writing. It’s just given me a glimpse inside a culture that many Americans aren’t privy to. And because I feel like I was somewhat exploited, being held to a six-year contract when I was just 17, I feel like it’s my responsibility to inform other young people who are thinking about doing the same thing. There was so much I didn’t know. There was so much I wasn’t prepared for. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I joined before 9/11, but another time like that will come. Another 17 year old country girl will think the Guard is a responsible and mature way to pay for college. She’ll think she has it all figured out. I hope she waits a year or two or three before signing her name.
In “The Script”, as the men are being punished on the CAT 5 day, you say, “I didn’t want to be spared just because of my sex” ; in your military experience, did you find that you had to work harder as a woman to gain respect from your peers and authority figures?
There’s this strange dichotomy women in the military have to work out for themselves. How much do you want to be seen as a man, and how much as a woman? You are supposed to be seen as a man. Your uniform is exactly the same as a man’s, so you have the shape of a man. You are reprimanded for standing with one hip out or walking “like a girl.” Make-up and nail polish are banned. Well, I’ve heard nail polish is allowed in earth tones, but I’ve only seen a few drill sergeants wear it. Displays of emotion are ridiculed. You are expected to imitate a man in every way, and when a hint of femininity slips out, try your best to cover it back up. Once, in the chow hall at boot camp, right before I’d dumped my tray, a drill sergeant blocked my way to the trash bins. He asked me if I was wearing lipstick. Of course I wasn’t, and told him so. He made me wipe my mouth with a napkin as proof and show him my clear chap stick before he would let me go.
It goes beyond just wanting you to be as physically and emotionally strong as a man. I can only assume the same motivation was behind the drill sergeants walking in the female barracks one day, examining all our faces, and then punishing those whose eyebrows looked like they had been plucked.
That’s what burns. The impression that any and all feminine traits are flaws to be corrected. Because you do want to be strong and impervious and equal, but you also want to feel accepted as a woman. And recognized as a woman. Recognized by the men you’re training with. So there’s this constant tight rope walk, this constant gauging and censoring and monitoring. While half of you wants to blend in, to pull your weight, to prove yourself as unemotional as the guys, half of you wants to reclaim your femininity, to still look pretty somehow, to flirt (after all, you are surrounded by hot, fit guys), and to feel justified in feeling and showing those feelings. You’re only human.
Tipping the balance either way can ruin you for the rest of the training cycle. Play it too tomboy, and the guys will see you as one of them, which can be thrilling and rewarding, but can also make you feel like shit when they crack comments like, “I don’t trust anything that can bleed for a week and not die.” Or when they start talking about the flavor of their girlfriends’ pussies or what girls from other platoons they’d like to fuck while you’re just standing there, staring at the ground, willing them to remember that you’re a woman. Play it too feminine, or get romantically involved, and you can be seen as a weak link, a stupid “chick,” or some kind of slut who deserves to be fantasized about by a group of guys.
Do you have a particular creative process when it comes to writing fiction and creative nonfiction? Are those processes different from one another, and, if so, how?
Writing fiction is very different from writing nonfiction for me. My Army story really is like this little animal, trying to claw its way out whenever I start a new essay. To get inspired, I reread partial journals I kept while I was in the Guard. I also have a stack of letters people wrote to me while I was away at training, copies of letters I wrote back, a few pictures, and a copy of my conscientious objector packet. I like to let the weight of what I was feeling, (trapped, depressed, alone, disgusted, guilty, exhausted) settle back on to my shoulders. It always works to inspire me to either write something new or revise something I’ve already started. But it often leaves me in a funk and I don’t think I’m very fun to be around when I’m working on nonfiction.
Fiction is completely different. I feel a huge sense of freedom, especially when I hit a rough spot. If something isn’t working, I can make plot/character/setting/theme changes much more easily. And it’s liberating to make up all the details, or rely on research instead of racking my brain for scraps of memory. Nonfiction feels confining comparatively, but then again, I’m more driven, focused and passionate when I write nonfiction because it’s so close and personal and raw. Maybe it’s because of the safety of the fictional world that I tend to work on my novel and short stories more. Hmmm, I should really do something about that.
Your biography says you are also a songwriter. How has music influenced your writing and vice versa? Who are some of your musical influences?
I’m influenced by a lot of the original folk musicians, including Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan, but the new wave of folk rockers too, including M. Ward, My Morning Jacket, Iron and Wine, The Dirty Projectors, and Bon Iver.
Some of my most favorite songs are songs that tell stories. For instance, Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. And I’ve come to learn that I’m most satisfied with my songs that are driven by narrative. Whether it’s fully reflected in the lyrics or not, most of my songs are little stories in my head.
I started a band this past year called The Eiders. One of the songs on our demo is (in my head) the story of a political science major who goes to Madison Wisconsin in the spring of 2011 as some kind of aide to Governor Walker. He arrives all idealistic and ready to be engaged and do great things, but as the protests escalate and the political stonewalling intensifies, he grows disillusioned. He ends up going back home and telling everyone little white lies about where he went, and what he was doing the past few months.
The story grew out of me sitting and thinking about the rhythm and tone and progression of the song. Our lead guitar player usually makes up the music and I write to it. By soaking in the emotional undertone of the music, a story or idea usually buds. And then comes the hard part—choosing just a few words to convey the emotion of that story, and then matching a melody to those words to capture the right feel.
There’s a song on the demo that’s Army inspired too, about the Forth of July at Ft. Lee, Virginia. So I suppose even in songwriting I do a mix of fiction and nonfiction. If you’d like to hear the songs you can find them at: http://theeiders.bandcamp.com/.
Do you have any words of wisdom for women who are looking to establish themselves as writers?
What a flattering question! I don’t consider myself “established” yet, but this is what I’d suggest for writers looking for that first publication: Write, revise, share, revise, share, revise, edit, edit, edit, and then submit like crazy. On a more practical note, something that really helped me when I was ready to start submitting to literary magazines was the Literary Database. It’s basically a spreadsheet of hundreds of lit mags with some useful facts about each one. For me, it was worth the small fee. Duotrope is a free online resource that works the same way.
Rosa del Duca is from Montana, but now lives in Northern California. She divides her time between teaching at San Jose State University, producing at NBC Bay Area, and writing fiction, non-fiction, and songs. Her work has been published in Cutbank, Grain, and River Teeth. Her creative non-fiction piece, “The Script,” is published in the Winter 2012 edition of CALYX.
Christina, Intern Extraordinaire