YMCA Stories

September 20, 2013

Writing Therapy: Peter McShane

Peter McShane (right) with Downtown Writers Center Director Phil MemmerPeter McShane wrote the following essay about how the YMCA's Downtown Writers Center changed his life. He presented it as a speech during the Sept. 19, 2013 meeting of the Metro Board of the YMCA of Greater Syracuse. Pictured in the Downtown Writers Center at right is Peter (right) and Phil Memmer, director of the Arts Branch of the YMCA.

Most of you know me as a successful businessman, former banker, and leasing company executive. But there’s another Pete McShane you don’t know. I’m a Vietnam veteran, a former Green Beret medic. I was wounded in action and spent months in the hospital before going back to college, and on to a career. I put my military memorabelia in a box and hid it away. I wanted no part of that experience to cloud my future, but the memories followed me everywhere. I struggled for years with guilt and anger. I had difficulty trusting authority figures. I had few friends and pushed my loved ones away. I had compassion for no one.

In 2005 I went to a reunion of my medic classmates. The stories of suicide, drug abuse and broken lives consumed me. I had a nervous breakdown after being diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder. Painful memories flooded my mind. Nightmares interrupted my sleep. Flashbacks made it difficult to concentrate. I couldn’t work. My VA therapist suggested that writing about my experiences might help me. She said creative writing—expressive writing—could be therapeutic, help clarify memory, and put nightmares and flashbacks into perspective. I did a lot of writing in my business career, and decided to write a memoir. The words flowed, thousands of them, but it was dry material—pure exposition. It read like a business report. Family members said it was terrific, but I knew better. I wanted to create something that non-relatives would want to read. I thought that if I could tell my story to others, it might help them deal with their own traumatic experiences.

I began taking courses at the Downtown Writers Center in 2006 and quickly learned that I didn't know anything about writing stories. In the words of acclaimed author and educator John Gardner, the key to successful stories is creating a vivid and continuous dream for the reader. It's difficult to do this without characters who interact with one another and draw the reader into their lives. Successful authors use a combination of exposition, scenes and dialog. This helps to create what Gardner calls profluence, or forward motion, drawing the reader in and holding his or her attention. At the DWC, I learned how to create a plot, establish the setting, build scenes, develop characters, and narrate a story.

After learning all the nuts and bolts of creative writing, you need readers to test drive your work; people willing to read through your early drafts and tell you what’s working and what isn't. That's what workshops are all about. It’s a humbling experience, but my writing improved. I got encouragement from instructors and peers alike. One-on-one tutorials with experienced, published authors provided valuable insight and suggestions for fine-tuning my work.

Over the course of eight years, I’ve taken over 150 craft classes and a similar number of workshops. In the process, I’ve learned how to articulate my trauma, to objectify it, which helps me manage painful memories. Several of my stories have been published and my memoir is almost finished. Now I work with young combat veterans at the Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group who are transitioning back into civilian life and trying to put their lives back together. It’s a daunting task. A few of them are taking courses at the DWC. Seeing that my stories have an impact on others who struggle to find meaning in their lives gives me strength and purpose.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, but ironically you can't do it alone. The Downtown Writers Center is nothing if not people serious about writing stories and instructors who validate their work. The DWC is an introduction to the vibrant and supportive Central New York writers’ community and is how successful authors do it. It's hard work, but the reward is a reader who connects with your characters, and can't put your story down.

Every one of us has a story to tell. The Downtown Writers Center made it possible for me to tell mine. Thank you so much for your continued support of this worthwhile program.

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