A look back: My first stab at long-form narrative nonfiction

Jason Cyr at his base in Iraq

I recently went back and read a piece of creative nonfiction I wrote in 2004 while a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. It tells the story of two families in Lewiston, Maine, torn apart by a military deployment to Iraq, trying to maintain a normal household while the men are at war. The story is called “Until their feet leave the sand”.

This story is significant for me because it is the first piece of creative nonfiction I ever wrote. I had no newspaper experience, no magazine writing experience when I went to Salt. I didn’t even write for my college newspaper. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I returned from a year spent traveling in Europe. When I did, I enrolled at the semester-long creative nonfiction program at Salt. This story was the result. It was published in the Salt magazine. Otherwise, it never saw the light of day. If you have a moment, read it now and let me know what you think.

What struck me after reading it again after so many years was the trust the subjects of the story had in me. I spent days and days with Anna and Tonya Cyr, sisters-in-law who moved their families into the same house while their husbands, a pair of brothers, were sent to Iraq. Anna and Tonya opened their home to me and a photographer I collaborated with on the story. They also opened their hearts, telling me their fears, their worries, things they likely hadn’t told anyone else. Some of the most poignant moments are the brief interludes I include that come straight from Instant Messenger conversations Anna had with her husband Jason while he was on a military base in the Middle East. To hand those uncensored conversations over to the young writer I was at the time took trust. I hope I’m still capable of building that kind of rapport with people.

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