Of the many questions repeatedly posed to me regarding my fairly unusual professional path, one of the most complicated to answer is, "Has being a veteran helped you as a writer?" The easiest way to sum up my feelings is, "Yes, but so what?"
I've been relatively lucky in my burgeoning writing career insomuch as I've had a fair number of pieces published, the vast majority of which directly relate to my being a vet. If we're talking pure numbers, my service was unquestionably beneficial to my status as a writer. And, to a small extent, my bank account.
But here's the catch, the woebegone stare at the proverbial gift horse's mouth: I don't really care. I don't want to write about my experiences in the service, all of which fall into the categories of boring, depressing, or difficult to explain. Hell, I don't even like writing non-fiction, though there are more calls for personal articles and blog posts in the wide world than there ever will be for purely creative stuff. My undergrad years focused on screenwriting and my MFA is in fiction because those styles are what I’m good at and what I want to do for a living. Moreover, I'm none too keen on the fact that my being a decent writer, one who can string a few flowery adjectives together broken up by an unnecessary swear or two, gets second billing behind the time I spent in various searing shitholes with a loaded M4 and severe gastrointestinal distress.
I know what you may be thinking and I hear you (that's right, I can hear your thoughts and you should be ashamed): getting a foot in that door to paid writing work is a big step, so why fret about the way you wedge yourself in there? Let me respond to your thought with a question of my own: why did J. K. Rowling, one of the most celebrated and financially successful contemporary authors, begin publishing her non-wizard books under a nom de plume? Because everybody gets pigeonholed. She wanted to try her hand at publishing non-genre fiction, but her first attempt to do so post-Harry Potter (The Casual Vacancy, which, rather appropriately given the point I’m making, I didn’t even remember existed when I started writing this) met what could be generously called a tepid response. Life is unfair, whether you’re a world-renowned billionaire or a barely-employed recipient of a "Grape Job For Flossing!" scratch-n-sniff sticker.
I have the good fortune to know several far more successful veteran-writers and they've all shared the same difficulty: their war-related works get published, but when they write something outside that genre, the response from the industry and public is a chorus of condescending shushes and shakes of the head. Even those with highly-lauded, award-winning novels face the widely-held notion that military people should write about military stuff because there's a built-in market for it and it's what we know best. Just like how Rowling should only be allowed to write about wizards because of her years of experience as a fucking wizard.
I haven't faced any such roadblocks yet because, frankly, I haven't gotten that far. I only received my MFA this past May so don't rush me, damnit. And although there are more than a few hurdles between now and getting my first novel published (finding an agent, some extensive editing, covering up the violent murder of the next person who says I absolutely need an active and popular Twitter account before I can succeed as a legitimate author), I already dread that being known as another "military internet guy" will be one of them. It’s a concern that’s nagged me from the very first time I had an article published back in the bygone days of 2014. This was under the apt title: “Don’t Settle For A Bullshit Job When You Get Out Of The Military”.
The stuff I enjoy writing typically has little to do with my own experiences. For example, my completed novel is about a motley bunch of rich weirdos in a rehab program aboard a giant luxury yacht, and I can honestly say my four years in the Marines did not inform that particular scenario in the slightest. But since the preponderance of my published work exists solely because of my status as a veteran, I worry people will skim through my portfolio, notice its lack of topic diversity, and assume I have nothing else to contribute as a writer.
Despite all this kvetching (Lord knows I've done plenty and will surely do more), chances are this won't be the last veteran piece I write. At this point, getting my name and words out there in the wide world is far more important that fretting over whether or not I'm writing exactly what I want. With the aforementioned novel currently stuck in that wide gulf between completed and published, two more in progress, and a half-dozen short stories racking up rejections at the cyclic rate (military jargon for “very, very quickly”), a fella’s got to keep his writing career moving forward somehow. I fervently hope that someday the byline on my published works identifies me simply as a damn good writer, not a veteran who happens to write things. But for now I'm grateful (whiny, but grateful) for what I can get. As a particularly tired, old gag tells us: a man is likely to complain about his brother’s belief that he’s a chicken. But he’ll let his sibling’s delusion continue because, as the man says, "I need the eggs."
Paul D. Mooney is a New York City born graduate of Boston University, survivor of the advertising industry, and veteran of the Marine Corps. He currently works as a freelance writer and recently received his MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence. He's been published, under his own name or as a ghostwriter, in Forbes, Task & Purpose, Uniform Stories, The Big Jewel, and others. He never turns down a burrito and once peed next to Tom Hanks in a Broadway's Schubert Theater.