Tag Archives: An Unfortuante Discharge Early in My Naval Career

On Writing An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career

I got my copy of Best Sex Writing 2012 earlier this year and was very pleased to have my work featured alongside so many great writers. Like they used to say in the old Penthouse Forum letters, “I never thought it would happen to me!

For my part in the Best Sex Writing Virtual Blog Tour, I wanted to talk about how I came to write my submission, An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career.

This was a difficult story for me to write. As nonfiction, I have long thought the story would work better if I had been gay. Consider the synopsis: caught having casual sex with a shipmate, a troubled teen collides with an out-of-control and powerful homophobic authority. This, in turn, makes our intrepid young protagonist confront his own homophobic fears, which allows him to realize that he is… STRAIGHT?

Humm. I hear you. You probably want to say something like: Your synopsis doesn’t seem quite right, my friend.

That’s exactly what I said. For years. Too many years. But then I read a brilliant craft essay by Kerry Cohen, a former Best Sex Writer herself, and discovered that the story really is mine, even if it doesn’t map cleanly to what a reader might expect. I can own it. I don’t have to tell it the way it would be told if it were in a Hollywood movie or a cheap novel. If I can overcome my own personal shame long enough to see the truth, I can make the story mine.

With that revelation, the only thing left to overcome was the social stigma.

As the author of a memoir about my recovery from heroin addiction, I know a little something about social stigmas, how damaging and infuriating they can be. In one of the first pieces I ever published, I refused to acknowledge I was an addict because I was afraid of what people would think of me. I published the piece—a great story about my relationship with my oldest son—without mentioning my addiction. But I started to think seriously about how much of my life I wanted to share in my stories. What does it mean to write nonfiction? What impact comes from openly sharing true stories about socially stigmatizing issues? Nonfiction gives our stories a little extra something that fiction can’t manage. That’s not meant as a ding against fiction writers, but as encouragement to writers of nonfiction: Our work matters in ways we can’t always know or understand. As Kerry Cohen points out, we have to be brave enough to “locate the truth,” to own our own stories.

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Tim Elhajj in Guernica

A portrait of Tim Elhajj as a young seaman

I have a story up this morning at Guernica, a delightful online magazine that rides the slim line between mainstream news site and literary journal. I am so proud of  my story, An Unfortuante Discharge Early in My Naval Career. I am so pleased it found a home at Guernica.

I have tried with varying amounts of success to write about this experience before. I have always known I would write about it again one day, but I probably wouldn’t have attempted it this time around were it not for a brief craft essay written by Kerry Cohen that appeared on Brevity early this year (discussed here).

Once I started writing, the story came surprisingly quick, but I had a bit of trouble with the ending. I’m not a very political person, but Gay Rights is one of the few issues I do feel strongly about, and I wanted to find a way to present my feelings in an overt fashion, but it kept coming out wrong—like a writer who knows he is not very political, but who nevertheless tries to make some deep political statement known.

Despite these problems, I started sending it around. I received a lot of positive comments, but most pointed to the unsatisfying ending. I started thinking about the wisdom of trying to sound like a particular type of writer. Not that there is anything wrong with overtly political writing, but I’m the kind of writer who likes to let the story to do its own talking. I needed to find a way to let the story speak for itself. What you’ll find on Guernica is what I came up with.

There is one line in particular that I won’t share here, but of which I am particularly proud. I suggested to my wife that this very line might one day find its way into all my future bios. She laughed. I hope you’ll agree that this story is a powerful political statement, but it’s more than that to me because it’s uniquely mine: not that reveling in one’s own sexuality is a terribly original idea, but it’s told in a way that could only have come from me. Huzzah!

Many thanks to Katherine Dykstra, the wonderfully smart and supportive editor from Guernica, who had some great suggestions for this piece. Also, thanks to William Bradley, who introduced me to Guernica by posting something about it to his blog earlier this summer. I have learned more about the shape and breadth of creative nonfiction by following William’s blog than by following\reading any other single blog or book. My man.

And, of course, I want to thank my wife Holly, and my oldest son Tim, who have both been so supportive as I write about all manner of nonsense from my past. Thanks you two: I don’t say it nearly enough, but I’m really grateful for your ongoing support.

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