Sean Davis is a busy guy—he’s a writer, an artist, a playwright, a mentor, and a teacher whose positive influence is all over the Portland community. Still, in preparation for the publication of his Iraq war memoir The Wax Bullet War, Sean managed to find time in his truly packed schedule to answer a few questions about himself, his book, and what’s next.
When did you begin creating art?
Early, four maybe? The best memories I have from childhood were of my mother painting. My brothers and I always had crayons, colored pencils, watercolors. But we did all sorts of things. I remember when I was ten we made everyone in the trailer park come out to see this huge production. It was our version of Star Wars and it lasted about ten minutes before we all ran into the woods leaving all the crazies of the trailer park scratching their heads. Later we ended up with one of those old cassette recorders, the type where you push down the red circle and white triangle button to record. We’d do whole radio shows. If you pushed the buttons down halfway you could distort your voice. We created hours and hours of stories. I wish I still had those tapes.
How long did it take you to write The Wax Bullet War? Can you tell me about your writing process?
Years. It’s a war book, and it was very difficult. The first story I wrote [for it] was “The Kid,” [which became the chapter of the same name], and I wrote it in third person and it was still too close. I didn’t set out to write the book, but I knew I wanted to be a writer and nothing else came out. I was in grad school and every story kept being about all these traumatic experiences I had in the military and then coming back and trying to find some footing. I remember late nights at my desk writing it by hand into my notebook and laughing and crying. After I had a half dozen stories, a good friend of mine told me to find a beginning and it just made sense to go back to re-enlisting the day after 9/11. Of course the first few drafts of the book had everyone’s real names and more characters. I had to make it a bit more reader friendly.
What was the most challenging part of writing The Wax Bullet War?
Allowing myself to write my story. Being in combat is a sacred thing, and there were hundreds of people in my unit experiencing the same war through a different point of view. I let someone I respected who was one of my bosses in Iraq read a few chapters thinking he’d enjoy it, but he surprised the hell out of me when he didn’t like it. He said I was doing myself a disservice. He said he remembered me always being steady and unafraid and the book made me come off as this guy who had moments of uncertainty and fear. From his perspective I accomplished all the tasks given me without hesitation or trepidation, but in reality I was scared most the time. Dealing with his criticism was difficult, but I wanted to show the real story. The Wax Bullet War could never be an action war movie with a dashing and fearless protagonist. This is a story about a regular guy trying to make sense of the chaos of war, the hypocrisy of the bureaucratic system, and the near impossibility of becoming a civilian again.
How do you feel your experiences in Iraq shaped you as an artist and a writer?
Iraq was only a few months of my life, honestly. I don’t know. I spent most of my adult life training to kill people and blow shit up, so I guess the question is, “How did that shape my creativity?” I grew up in a small town, and because of that I had small views on many topics. Traveling around the globe, seeing how people live in [developing nations], and living in Europe for a couple of years helped broaden my horizons. I spent some time in Haiti in 1995, which showed me not all people value life like we do in the United States. I’ve always had jobs with dead people as an occupational hazard. I’ve worked in emergency rooms, traffic reconstruction, security. Working so close to mortality takes a toll on everyone, I think. In Iraq people shot at us daily, mostly mortars. That was new. I don’t know. I guess after that I don’t have problems with trivial things like talking in front of audiences, or job interviews, or whatever. I always figure, how hard can it be? It’s not like they’re going to shoot at you. I’m not afraid to do what I want to do with my life instead of getting stuck in a job I hate. There is one thing, after living through something you weren’t supposed to live through: you really appreciate life. I don’t waste a lot of time watching television, waiting in line, or following rules I think are dumb.
Your book details the way you used creating art as a way to work through trauma. If you could give one piece of advice to other sufferers of PTSD hoping to do the same thing, what would it be?
Oh man, you know, I hate the term “PTSD.” It’s used as a catch-all nowadays. There is so much bundled up in that one little acronym. I can only speak on my issues, but the reason I want this book to be a success is because I want to help other who are going through a hard time transitioning back. I believe there are three main problems. One, combat veterans come home and find themselves without a mission. When you’re at war, your main reason for being is to accomplish the mission. When you get back and there’s no mission, some believe they have no reason to be. Two, we are asked to do things, no, told to do things, that society would usually lock people up for, by that same society. If someone told you this morning that you’d be alone in a room with someone who’s killed people you’d feel a bit apprehensive probably, right? Our society condemns violence, punishes violent offenders, until they need someone to do violence on their behalf. So when these rough men get back from doing their violence, they no longer fit in. Three, many people can’t get over the horrific shit they had to live through. The feeling of never being safe that comes from people actively trying to kill you, from seeing the dead and dying, from the horrors of war. Art gave me a mission again and calms me. When people appreciate a painting I created or a story I wrote, I feel like I am a part of society again. The trauma will always be there, but that’s something we all have to live with. I don’t have general advice for all the others going through difficulty, but I would tell them they’re not alone and it’s hard but not impossible to come back from it.
What are you working on right now?
I started a nonprofit with a friend of mine and fellow combat veteran called A Rock or Something Productions a few years back. Our mission is to help veterans transition back into society by getting them into the arts. Through this I’m editing our second anthology of poetry and prose by veterans and their family members. I’m also the veterans’ service coordinator for an opera called The Canticle of The Black Madonna, which is about a combat veteran who came back from Afghanistan having difficulties. I’m getting veterans involved in the project. It’ll be at the Newmark Theatre next September. I write essays for a couple magazines and one of them connected me with a European film crew who wants to interview veterans for their upcoming film Human—The Movie. They’re interviewing people in sixty different countries and they’re stopping in Portland at the end of the month. This summer I’m producing a series of one-act stage plays written, directed, produced, and acted in by veterans and their family members. This project is called In Theatre and will be performed over three months at MetroEast Community Media. I wrote a play and will direct it there. I paint at least a few days a week. My art hangs at Six Days Gallery in the middle of the Alberta Arts District. I work at the gallery a few days a month. And finally, I’m always looking for a class to teach. The life of an adjunct is hard.
Do you plan on writing another book?
Ha, yeah, I mean of course. I’ve been working on a novel on my free time. It’s about halfway done, as far as the first draft goes, but I think my next book just kind of snuck up on me. I’ve been writing short nonfiction stories, and I send them out to lit mags. Suddenly, I realized I had almost fifty thousand words. I plan on writing a few more and then sending that out to see who wants to pick it up. The stories range from when I was pulled out of school by my alcoholic and less-than-responsible dad at noon to go pan for gold in the woods for the rest of our lives (that lasted three months) to when I moonlighted as a male stripper for middle-aged women in Germany to when I was paid by rich people to waterboard them so they thought they were better prepared to travel overseas. I’m fairly certain that I can’t stop writing.