What War Taught Me About Writing

Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Tom Morkes, who is an Iraq War veteran and used to get paid to jump out of helicopters. Read more of his writing at his blog where he applies what he’s learned leading troops in combat to the world of writing, art, and entrepreneurship.

My watch hits 0100. Time to roll. I climb into my armored vehicle, lock and load my weapon, and order the convoy to move out.

What War Taught Me About Writing
Photo Credit: Hamed Saber via Compfight cc

In a few minutes, we pass through the gate and we’re officially outside the wire, no more barriers or guards to protect us.

The enemy is very real and probably waiting for us.

This is the ever-present reality in a combat zone. The smallest error — make a wrong turn, drive too slow, drive too fast, fail to notice an unusual pile of trash on the road — could mean the difference between life and death. And I’m directly responsible for the lives of 30 people tonight.

For most, this is a reality they’ll never have to experience.

For me, it was a Tuesday.

War and writing

I learned a lot of from my yearlong deployment, from dealing with uncertainty, to managing personnel and resources in chaos.

It wasn’t until I started writing that I realized the same lessons I learned in the impersonal, external combat zone in Iraq could be applied to the very personal, internal combat zone of creation.

As writers, we fight an internal creative battle daily. We do it not because it’s easy (it’s not), but because we seek to produce something worthwhile, impactful, and important.

In many ways, writing is war; the obstacles and setbacks are painful, the emotional hits can be brutal, and not everyone who starts finishes. Writing is uncertain, tough business. It’s not for everyone.

But if you’re willing to brave the fear, pain and uncertainty of creation, you can take comfort in knowing there are certain strategies and techniques that will help you succeed.

The following are the three most important lessons I learned from my wartime experience – lessons I continue to apply to my writing today. I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me.

Nothing happens until you go outside the wire

In Iraq, I was a convoy security platoon leader. I was in charge of the safe and secure delivery of daily logistical resupply (think food, water and bullets) to our neighboring bases.

Outside the wire refers to everything outside of the confines and relative safety of the base. The moment you set foot outside the wire, you are in potentially enemy-controlled territory. This vulnerability, exposure and uncertainty is scary.

Nobody inherently wants to expose themselves to unknown danger, so no one inherently wants to go outside the wire. But we can’t resupply the neighboring bases without exposing ourselves.

In other words, we can’t support those who need us unless we go outside the wire. In a very real way, the safety and success of others depended on our willingness to be vulnerable and exposed on a daily basis.

When we publish our work, we’re exposed and vulnerable. 

When you write and publish, whether it’s a blog post once a day or a book once a decade, you expose yourself to naysayers and critics. When you’re doing your best work, your most authentic work, it leaves you vulnerable.

But unless you write – unless you publish – those who need your work are left without your contribution to the world.

In a very real way, the people depending on your work need you to be vulnerable and exposed on a daily basis. Your job, as a writer, is to go outside the wire and publish your work.

Yes, it’s scary. It’s also necessary.

Success requires daily risk taking

Since my mission in Iraq involved exposure to danger daily, one would assume the likelihood of failure increased with every mission. The opposite is true.

Every time my unit went outside the wire, we had the chance to refine our skills, learn the environment, and perfect our tactics, techniques and procedures.

Each day, we stretched our abilities to operate in a dangerous environment and became more adaptive to uncertainty. Through our daily risk taking, we increased the likelihood of mission success if something bad did happen.

Your success as a writer depends on your ability to take daily risk with your writing. 

This means writing and publishing authentic, boundary-pushing, status-quo challenging stuff. There’s too much noise in the world — regurgitating material only increases the chance of your message getting lost in the noise.

Taking risk with your writing means pushing the limits of your own abilities daily, even if some people (naysayers and critics) don’t get it.

The truth is, these people will never get it, and sometimes they’ll even hate you for it. That’s okay. Your mission as a writer is to create your best work and impact the people who matter.

Like the neighboring bases waiting for resupply, the people that matter are the ones who are waiting for your message. Deliver something compelling, thought provoking, and unique, and you’ll get (and maintain) their attention.

Don’t worry about the naysayers, critics, whatever. Write for the people that matter. Take risks daily: write and publish stuff that matters for the people who matter.

Remember why you do what you do

After many intense months of grinding it out in a warzone, it’s easy to lose track of your purpose.

Sure, the daily routine helps – with a strong routine you certainly won’t forget how to do what you have to do — but why you do what you have to do (your purpose) can get foggy.

When we’re in the trenches for a prolonged period of time with little rest and no time to recover, we lose focus. Pretty soon, each day bleeds into the next, we forget our goals, and what mattered weeks and months ago becomes meaningless — we’ve lost our purpose.

The most common mistake is to trying to find purpose through external validation; we work for an award, or praise, or bonus to validate our actions.

Of course, this doesn’t fix the problem. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never receive the award or decoration you truly earned, the praise you truly deserve, or enough money to justify the months and years of sweating and bleeding for your work.

So if you’re waiting for validation, to be picked, I’m sorry to say but you might be waiting for a long time.

Purpose must be personal, intrinsic, and immune to external influence.

Whether you’re going to war or going to write, your only chance of success is through an internal, incorruptible purpose.

Don’t write because you want the recognition of the tribe; write because you’re called to write. Don’t write because you want a pat on the back and an award; write because there is a story inside you that needs to be shared.

But most of all, don’t write because you care about the title of ‘published author’ – write because there is something inherently important about the message and impact of your writing.

So when things aren’t going your way, when you’re marred by setbacks and failure, before you throw in the towel, remember why you started writing in the first place. A powerful why can get you through even the most difficult times.

Winning the battle

Three simple but powerful lessons:

  1. Go outside the wire and publish your work.
  2. Take risks daily with your writing.
  3. Remember why you do what you do.

Of course, like any other tips, techniques, or advice, these lessons alone won’t guarantee your success. Reading and understanding this material is the easy part – putting it to work is the hard part, and that’s on each individual writer. No amount of advice will help unless you put it to use.

So this is my final challenge to you: put these lessons to work in your life. And keep putting them to work every day of your life until you become the writer you’ve set out to become.

Good luck and keep creating.

Just for you guys, Tom’s giving away his new guide: The Combat Commanders Guide to Breaking Through Writer’s Block.

What have you learned from conflict? Share in the comments

Tom Morkes is an Iraq War veteran and used to get paid to jump out of helicopters. Read more of his writing at his blog where he applies what he’s learned leading troops in combat to the world of writing, art, and entrepreneurship.

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