A walk-through of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this spring revealed not only tents featuring high-profile speakers, authors offering their books and actual bookstores selling their wares, but also a regular attendee and one of Cal State San Bernardino’s often overlooked powerhouses: the Written by Veterans project. Featuring a double tent’s worth of books and some of the author-veterans themselves, this CSUSB Veterans Success Center decade-long initiative was professionally presented and displayed an impressive collection of works for sale. All proceeds go directly to the authors themselves.
Andreas Kossak is the heart and soul of Written by Veterans. For him, it began with a connection made in film school. He and interim associate vice president for faculty development and chief academic technologies officer Bradford Owen found themselves in the same classes at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts, and made a couple of student films together. Later, they built a small company that became the lead entity for making promotional videos for universities all along the West Coast.
Eventually, Owen went into academia, but Kossak stayed in the film world, writing (he is a member of the Writers Guild of America), producing, etc. Their paths crossed again when an opening arose for a screenwriting teacher at CSUSB. Owen remembered his former partner and brought Kossak in to teach the Fundamentals of Screenwriting course, which Kossak then re-designed from scratch. The questions Kossak wanted the class to address included not only what professional writing techniques students need to know and when, but how not to overwhelm them and give them the creative space to write successful screenplays. “That first year, it was staying ahead of the class one week at a time,” he remembers.
Kossak led the class for six years before competing demands on his time led him to step away. But he liked what he saw at Cal State San Bernardino and was not ready to leave completely. He took an unorthodox approach: supporting CSUSB’s student-veterans by offering to teach the Fundamentals of Screenwriting course for free over nine weekends. And a program was born.
As a veteran himself, though from the West German military (“I was adopted as a fellow vet from a friendly nation,” he adds and gives a small chuckle of gratitude), he walked into CSUSB’s Veterans Success Center to speak with its former director, Marci Daniels.
“I thought I could try this out, just as an experiment,” he recalls. “I had some student-veterans in my regular screenwriting class and found some of them got so into writing that they turned in complete 120-page screenplays and not only the required first 20 pages.”
He remembers Daniels’ astonishment. “No faculty had ever walked in before to offer anything, and definitely nothing like this. And Marci couldn’t believe I was willing to do this for free.”
Kossak credits a seminar offered by the Writers Guild of America Foundation with sparking the idea. “I showed Marci the WGA Foundation video that evening. We decided then and there that we wanted to offer more than simply a weekend screenwriting workshop.” They both agreed that they wanted to stick with a group of writers and lead them not toward writing screenplays exclusively, but actually writing books. And getting them published.
The first veterans who participated in 2014 got so much out of the class that they decided to keep going as a writing group. As the program evolved, Kossak stopped formally teaching the class and instead simply acted as its leader and facilitator. The reason? He wanted to let the group explore their creativity more freely.
He also viewed the group’s development as a result of his approach to teaching. “The way I taught screenplay writing was to use it as a springboard to long-form novel writing.” And his approach clearly worked. While many began with non-fiction and poetry, some used it as a way to begin writing their novels. “When they got to a point where they were quoting what I had said back to me, I knew I needed to take a step back.” He summarizes, “If anything, I only needed to teach them the basic elements of storytelling. For example, how to structure mystery versus suspense. And then I help them with particular issues they encounter with their writing.”
One of the participants of his first writing group is now the director of the Veterans Success Center, Agustin Ramirez. “Written by Veterans adds value to the programs that the VSC already has,” says Ramirez. “It’s open to the community. That includes our students, some alumni plus community members who have no official connection to CSUSB except that they are veterans.” It is this access and outreach that are key. “This program is folding in people who would not normally have access to the university.”
The program is free of charge. “We don’t ask them for anything: no dues, no paying for resources,” says Ramirez. “Everything is provided.” This is why it is so inviting to the community, he observes. The only barrier he can see is asking participants to come to the CSUSB campus for the meetings. “Since COVID, though, we hold hybrid meetings, which helps with that.”
While other veterans centers may have writing programs, CSUSB’s is unique in its business model. Written by Veterans not only helps to get its vet participants published, but its goal is to ensure they maintain access to the funds from their book sales. The program does not act like a middleman.
Kossak explains, “My idea was to ensure, if I were not to be there, that it would continue and they would have full control of their books. Each author opens their own account with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.” He underscores that this way, the vet-writers have access at any time to change their price, descriptions, etc. “We can help them upload their book into their own account if they need that assistance. But that is all.” The only cost to a veteran-writer for the publishing process itself? The fee required to copyright their book.
As of 2022, about 60 books have been produced by the program. Some have made the Amazon bestseller list. One has even been a semi-finalist for the Tony Ryan book award.
At the heart of this enterprise, however, are the veterans themselves, the opportunity to connect and share their writing, and the ways that writing can serve as a tool for them to process their experiences as their lives move forward. Kossak found himself learning about this journey along with the veterans he was leading. “Initially, I thought: this will be all about focus and discipline, which would be an inciting factor for veterans to become successful at the writing process. And it is. But,” and here he pauses, “the other aspect is, the ability to let go. To have the courage to give up control and slip into the zone.”
Giving up control runs counter to the training received and the experience lived by veterans. But this skill is needed to enable a writer to get to the point of relaxation and let the subconscious do the writing. “You can’t overcome it by discipline and effort,” he emphasizes. “You just have to warm up and, maybe on the third page, you forget that you are sitting there, writing at your desk.”
Another element (and obstacle) at play is trauma. It also hinders the ability to let go. “This is where the therapeutic aspect of writing comes in,” he underscores. “And I had to learn to recognize trauma in writing. Still unaware, I had a student I was pushing to be more descriptive. But he would reach a point where the description became more mechanical, like a bird’s eye view looking down. Now I know: that is the trauma coming out in the writing.”
He adds, “If someone had trauma, it is difficult describing that traumatic event with the same level of detail like everything else – because it’s real, it’s not fiction and our brain protects us by blocking certain memories of traumatic details like all the beats, all the human elements. With them missing, the writing style suddenly changes and begins to feel more mechanical.”
Kossak continues, “I learned to recognize trauma in writing and know to take a step back. This is when the group takes over. Combat veterans who share similar experiences have an intuitive ability to support one another when it comes to trauma. They always jump into action, and I learned from them to get out of their way and not intrude.”
Ramirez agrees with the therapeutic benefits to writing. “I believe that writing can be therapeutic. It is a creative outlet. We’re writing papers for school, so why not cultivate and create a craft? And that’s what Written by Veterans is doing.”
He explains that participants can pursue whatever avenues they wish: fantasy, sci-fi, horror, romance or their military experience. “These veteran-writers can explore all facets of their personality through writing. It doesn’t replace,” he cautions, “but it does supplement psychotherapy, psychiatry and mental health care. That’s why I see it’s very valuable.”
And now Written by Veterans has become a regular attendee at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. “The big idea of writing, publishing and then selling your book at the LAT Festival of Books? It’s like having your recital finally. It’s amazing; it’s an amazing outlet.” Ramirez’s enthusiasm is infectious. “The LATFOB is the big leagues. You wrote a book, you’re there and you’re showcasing your book. That to me is just exciting.”
“With the exception of the height of COVID, we have been there since 2015,” Kossak states. “We have become more professional in our presentation, less focused on trying to sell books. It has become more of an opportunity to get to know your audience.” Attendance at the festival is a chance to step into the public persona of being an author. “If someone wants their book signed, that’s awesome.”
The booth has also acted as a recruiting tool for drawing even more veterans to the program. “Some may sign up and never attend, or only come by a few times. And that’s okay.” He adds, “It may not be for everyone, but once you get hooked? It dominates your life.”
What are the next steps for Written by Veterans? “We often discuss the question of growth, but it’s difficult to get bigger than we are,” Kossak observes. He notes that the veteran-writers have been growing their book and e-book production skills. “Now when I get a manuscript, it’s better prepped. In fact, I have become the bottleneck.”
Written by Veterans has also hosted public readings on Zoom using professional actors to perform some of the completed work, which has been another way the veteran-writers have been able to see their writing out in the world.
For now, one of the ways forward is to seed programs elsewhere, to be run independently but along the same lines as Written by Veterans. “The best way to grow,” Kossak advises, “is to spark other universities and get them interested in doing something like what we do. We can advise them with tips, ideas on how to structure, what to avoid, etc.” He concludes, “That would be the best way, to spread horizontally.”
He can see this happening with the long-standing Loma Linda Veterans Administration writing program run by Written by Veterans member and VA peer support specialist Ted Peterson, an accomplished poet and songwriter himself. “The VA writers group meets in person. The social aspect of meeting in person is a bigger aspect for them than it is for us,” Peterson says. “But our members, such as Vietnam combat veteran John Cole, also attend their meetings.”
A role model to aspiring writers, with six published novels and a volume of poetry to his credit, Cole encouraged the VA writing group to write enough material for their own anthology. Fellow Written by Veterans member Jeff McCarley took on the role of editor and published their first anthology for them. In return and as a ‘thank you,’ the VA writers group donated all proceeds from their anthology to the CSUSB Veterans Success Center for student-veteran scholarships.
Coming out of film production, Kossak believes firmly that “the work has to get out. You don’t keep it in your drawer. It makes your writing different if the book gets out.” He smiles. “Even if you only sell three copies, it is still out there. You can hold the warm memories physically, in your hands. You can put the book on a shelf, look at it, and start your next.”
Ramirez clearly agrees. “At least while I am here as director, Written by Veterans will never go away.”
For more information on the VSC Written by Veterans program, visit its website.