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.

Hi, I’m Jeff. Can I send you something?

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88 thoughts on “What War Taught Me About Writing

  1. Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Jeff. Truly humbled to share my work with such an awesome audience.

  2. Goot post. Brings a certain perspective that’s unique. The biggest issue for me right now is the structure. I love to write but now that I need to market as well, I need to find a balance between the two and it’s not as easy as I thought it would be. Thanks for serving!!

    1. David, really appreciate it.
      Here’s the thing – you’ll LEARN structure by getting outside the wire (publishing). It doesn’t have to be perfect before you start…better to be imperfect and improve faster.
      Good luck!

  3. Thanks for sharing your story Tom. Loved it! Want to pick your brain. Do you think “writing for the people that matter” can be yourself, knowing that there are others just like you? I’m finding that when I sit down to write and I think about the people reading it, and I try to write for them, it’s hard for me to write. But, when I sit down with the mindset of writing for myself, it just pours; resulting in better writing. That’s been my hurdle recently.

    1. Eric, I personally started writing for myself…or at least, to another version of myself….almost a slightly younger version of myself. What would I writer for him, I thought. So yes – you can absolutely write for yourself..I’ve found marginal success this way, but other people may find even more incredible success. Many great business and books result from one person trying to create something for him or herself.

    2. Hi Eric, I share that hurdle with you. I simply can’t write with other people in mind, I just get writer’s block. I’m told that I should be picking a genre/gender to write for. That’s completely alien to me, I write from the heart and then everything slots into place. I think sometimes we try to too hard to please, or appease the supposed commercial aspects of publishing….and that becomes a hurdle for some of us. I say, write from the heart – it might or might not narrow your audience, but you will know that you’ve produced your best work! Tom’s article was great, he’s right of course, unless you take the risk to get ‘outside the wire’ you will never know what people’s reaction is to your work and there will always be an audience of some sort, just waiting to hear what you have to say. The trick is in the marketing and it seems to me that’s a minefield of its own!

      1. Oh good! So I’m not alone… 🙂 I think you’re right and I completely agree. It’s definitely in the marketing, headlines, etc. All of which I need to do a better job of. Currently my sole concentration is on the writing. Forming the habit of writing and hitting publish. But sooner, rather than later, I need to add that marketing layer to take my writing to the next level. That’s why I’m wondering, if writing for an audience, is part of the writing process or part of the evolution of a writer. I’m a young writer (in the early stages of really taking this seriously). So I’m wondering if I haven’t flexed, or worked out, my writing muscle enough to be able to push through that barrier of not being able to write for others, or it not being as easy than writing just for myself. Time will tell as I put in the work. Thanks so much for commenting.

  4. Excellent post. You can truly speak to the conflict can spark the writing. First, thank you for serving. Thank you for protecting. I can’t ever begin to tell you what your service means to the nation. I write for kids and am just now looking for an agent. *sigh* I do NOT like it, Sam I am. I guess way down in my psyche, I figured my most favorite agent would come knockin’ at my door. Ha. My favorite part of this post (though I love all of it) is to remember why we do it. For me, it’s for the children. All those reluctant readers out there. Thank you, Tom. Thank you Jeff for having Tom over. 🙂

    1. Robyn – thank you SO MUCH for the thoughtful and kind words. Love that you resonated with this part of the essay…when things get darkest (big time writers block, questioning our story + ability + worth etc), this is what’s most important – it forces us past the roadblocks.
      Thanks again and yes – keep going, no matter what.

  5. For me the struggles of life are one of the main sources for my writing. I just can’t imagine being a writer if everything was perfect. I find that the conflict and pain that happens in life also help me to become a better writer as I grow through those experiences.

    1. Caleb – I seriously couldn’t agree more. I think this is the place the best stories come from – that truly real (internal) struggle we all face on a daily basis. Keep at it – for all of us.

  6. Really enjoyed this post.Your analogies got through to me. I’ll keep plunking away as I explore the territory “outside the wire”.

    I stand with Robyn to say THANK YOU for your service, Tom!

  7. I like how you’ve become vulnerable in this post. You know what and by doing so, you were able to connect to your readers like me 🙂 and that’s the most important when you write.

    It’s about touching others lives through your work. Being able to create an impact.

    It’s true that a lot are scared to be vulnerable to avoid shame and all, but vulnerability is the key for genuine connection. And the birthplace of evwrything we are hungry for like joy, love etc.

    Thank you reminding that we should be authentic as writers.

    1. Jon – really appreciate it my man. Thank you so much. You hit the nail on the head – it’s the key for genuine connection (which definitely affects everything else in our lives). Love it 🙂

  8. Thank you for your service to our country. Thanks also for your service here for the writing community.

    I finally found ‘success’ in stage acting after I was willing to go (and went) ‘outside the wire’.

    Once, one of my in-laws attempted to have our boys (the only children we had then) taken out of our custody. (The kids were healthy and safe, and so were we, but I think this person was attempting to make of for mistakes of his or her past.) I dug DEEP that time and found strength I could not have imagined. Now they are fine young men, and a sister/daughter joined the family and we are stronger than ever. And last, but not least, our relationship with this other person is repaired too!

    1. LuAnn – thank you so much for your kind words and your story. I’m so glad you found the strength to get outside the wire even when things got difficult. Well done.

  9. Wow this article touched my soul. I have been within the wires for too long – writing and sitting on content instead of putting it out there. Thank you Tom – I am going to publish today and keep this moving!

    1. Dubem – really appreciate it. Definitely get outside the wire. As soon as possible. You’ll do fine 🙂

  10. An apt analogy. I don’t usually think of myself as a warrior ( in the loosest sense of the word) but what you say about needing to take real risks certainly makes sense. Thank you.

  11. Beyond the wires I have gone Tom. It’s beyond crazy out here. Everything was planned and on point. Book was published… then ‘wham’! You are wrecked. I completely agree with you that writing is like war. Sometimes it is hard to summon even the slightest of strength to even think of the wire, as that means I will inevitably have to make the decision to go beyond the wire.

    But I shall soldier on. I will continue writing. It is my passion, my lifeline. I will write another book, and another, and another. Because I am called to write. I am a writer. (I am trying to psych myself up here). Thank you Tom for sharing this timely piece…

    1. Kimunya – really appreciate it! Love your thoughts and really looking forward to what you create!

  12. Tom, I think your advice would apply to most of us and I liked your comparison. It meant a lot to me, as my current book has many references to the army and Afghanistan. Reading your comments drilled home to me the risks ‘outside the wire’ that army personnel face every day and the courage/responsibility required to do the job. Thank you. I wish you every success.

    1. Eliza, if you ever need to connect, just check out my blog – you’ll see simple ways to reach out to me. Thanks so much for the kind words…although I would say it’s no more courageous than what the writer (entrepreneur or artist) does on a daily basis. That’s one of the reasons war and art are so closely linked…I honestly believe, after having done both, the writer’s war is just as unforgiving as the soldier’s (at least in the mental space – and yes, this makes a huge difference).
      Keep me posted on what you create Eliza!

    1. Hahaha, thanks a lot Joe – really appreciate it man. Thanks for being an inspiration to do what I do. You and your bro keep up the great work!

  13. I’m so happy to see Tom featured here! I’ve been a fan of his for a while now. 🙂 I really hope everyone checks out his blog as well. Tons of great content there!

    1. Julie – thanks so much. Mean the world to me. And so happy to see your business – Socially Aligned – start to make some massive progress. Keep it up (only great things in the future for you – I’m sure of it).

  14. I’m speechless. Your words have touched my heart inside. Even as an aspiring writer, I get comfortable writing about what I know and talking about what makes me uncomfortable gets pushed back. Tonight I’m going to ponder these lessons for awhile and get in touch with writing about what makes me uncomfortable to push my boundaries. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Mariel – that means so much to me. Thank you! I really look forward to what you’ll create…and definitely keep me posted (I’m just an email away and love hearing from readers and their progress)

  15. Your post gives me a brand-new perspective about writing. Thinking that writing is like war is so true for me. The real “threat” is when you publish your work, i.e. when you walk past the wire. This is the area where “the enemy” will potentially strike with full force. But the most important thing is to keep doing it, keep on creating, or “to strike your attacks” as strongly and as swiftly as possible. Thanks for the inspiration, Tom.

    1. Mirza – really appreciate the kind words and thoughtful commentary. Bingo – you nailed it; it’s about striking back every day as a writer, even the days we want to quit (and you will experience those – I know I did and do still).

  16. Great article Tom. I particularly like:

    “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.”

    The most important things are the most difficult. Thanks for sharing and thanks for your service.

    1. Emily – thank you so much…but mostly – thank you so much for everything you’ve helped me with over the past year! Sincerely appreciate your support 🙂

  17. I hate to be a party pooper here but war is not like writing. War is killing people, oftentimes innocent people; it’s about viewing people as the enemy; it’s about failing to find peace among people. It’s viewing human beings as the enemy, as somehow less than human, less than you are. The analogy disgusts and offends me. The day I analogize writer’s block to war is the day I put the pen down forever. I am not so naive as to think the warrior caste will be removed from society, but I do not have to let it invade my soul, my heart, or my psyche. Tom, if it works for you, so be it; clearly it has worked for the others who have commented below, but my conscience will not allow me to be silent.

    1. Mary – really appreciate your opinion and definitely see where you’re coming from.
      I’m not a fan of war either – never have been, never will be.
      What I’m talking about in this essay is the parallel struggle between writer and warrior – both are in a battle, each and every day. That clash – the mental and physical – is brutal (for the writer as much as the soldier).
      It’s also an analogy.
      Good luck with everything you’re creating Mary and appreciate the commentary.

  18. Thanks, Tom, for a very inspiring and empowering post. One worth sharing with my Twitter followers and keeping on my desk-to read over and over.

  19. This blog is wonderful. Thank you, Tom. Timely for me, the reminder not to write seeking validation from outside myself. I lived in Iran for over a decade…not a very popular place. I write about it and wonder who cares, and I care. Best wishes to all writers. It is what we do.

    1. Rebecca – exactly. And there’s a core group of people who care and want you to write. Those are the people that matter. Write for them.

  20. Tom,
    I have the highest admiration for you and the other brave soldiers that give so much for this county. That is why I will never be able to compare anything of what I do to be in a real battle, like you have been. I know there are many parallels and similarities, but what you have done, what your brothers and sisters in arms are doing is so way over there (I’m holding my right arm and hand up and extended as high as I can) that there is no way I can equate any of my tasks / endeavors to yours.
    Thank you so much for your service. Because of people like you my kids can sleep at peace tonight, and we have a great example of what is like to be exceptional.
    You guys make this country great.

    Gracia & Paz

  21. Great post! I find that a great way to venture beyond the barred wire as a writer is participating in a writer’s group. It’s tough to listen to a whole room of writers break down what you think is a great piece, but it’s helped me build a thicker skin and to not be so enamored with my own writing that I overlook areas I could improve.

    1. John – completely agree; constructive criticism from people you trust is crucial…it really brings a writers work to the next level.
      Glad you liked the article – thanks for commenting!

  22. hi Sir, being a starter in writing push me to do so, believing that I have a unique story also to tell. It’s the purpose of wanting to share and inspire through my tale, that’s why even writing was not my own thing, I’m pushing myself to do. I begin pursuing the passion after reading tuns of inspiring articles that boost my character and self confidence. this is one of those. Thank you

  23. never heard the term “outside the wire” before. thanks for sharing that great perspective. i’m impressed that you can talk so positively about it – and i appreciate that positivity. what about the dark side of being outside the wire though? how do you deal with it – in war and in writing – when life outside the wire goes, well, haywire?

    1. Ed – great question. I suppose to avoid the morbidity of where an essay like that would go, I stayed away from it, focusing instead on the applicable lessons to writing.
      That would be an interesting post though…I just wonder for what website. If you have any recommendations, let me know 🙂

  24. Thank you jeff ‘by letting us inside Tom Morkes’ journey.It s very motivating and encouragement enable me to fight
    the war within myself. Thank you again.

  25. I never thought of moving outside my comfort zone as being outside the wire. The is terrifically applicable to not only writing, but to life in general. How often are we afraid to go outside the wire as newbies in a neighborhood, church, or workplace, and how much do we miss by staying safe?
    Thanks for this terrific analogy and piece, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service!

    1. Exactly Kim! You nailed it (and the lessons are far reaching).
      And thank you so much for your kind words – they really do mean the world to me.

  26. Thanks Jeff and thanks tom. I liked that article so much that I’ll have to visit tom’s website right away and sign up. Check you later Jeff, you da man.


  27. Well, since you’re wondering… conflict has taught me a lot about myself. Conflict is like taking a good look in a mirror…yikes.

    1. Kai – I resonate with the idea of conflict teaching us about ourselves…so true. Don’t worry though – it’s a good thing (even if it isn’t pretty sometimes).

  28. Thank you. Never been in service or war, but I can understand how blogging relates to them. One of my occasional “battles” is dealing with writer’s block.

    1. Cynthia – I actually wrote a small guide on breaking through writers block on my blog (just follow the link at the end of the post or go to http://www.tommorkes.com/goinswriter ) It’s free (actually, it’s ‘Pay What You Want’ – so if you like it, feel free to contribute!)

    2. Thanks so much Cynthia! If you follow the link at the end of my essay I offer a free ebook on overcoming writer’s block. I think you might enjoy it 🙂

  29. Tom thank you first for serving our country! What courage you all show in the daily challenges you face and risk you take in war. Also thank you for sharing your experience in such a way that helps us write better and stay on course in doing our best work. Your talk of “outside the wire” was compelling and I now have a new way to approach writing and publishing my work!

    1. Bingo – that’s what it’s all about Brett. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Get outside the wire and do what you were mean to do!

  30. “Remember why you do what you do” is a great way to refocus, re-energize, and remind yourself of your mission. Thank you for the post and your service!

  31. I can understand the symbolism between the battle on the field of war, and the battle at your writing desk, but I can’t help thinking that the comparison doesn’t sit right.

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