Thank you so much for having me here. I really appreciate this opportunity to speak to you here at the fifth year of Compose.
My name is Sean Davis and I wrote a book called The Wax Bullet War. It’s a book about my experiences from reenlisting in the military the day after September 11th, 2001 and then I jump ahead to about a few years ago. In the book I talk about my time training for the war, the day I was blown up and sent home, and then the long and difficult transition returning from infantry squad leader on the front line to civilian, but don’t worry, that’s not really what I’m going to talk about.
I had this other speech about how life is a series of footnotes for a writer, for anyone really, but I decided to go a different route today because I’ve been doing a lot of readings around the country. That other speech is good too. It even started with a Nabokov quote to make me sound smart. I’ll save it for some other conference.
Okay, I’m here to talk about words… I know, pretty general, right, but that’s what I want to talk about. I want to talk about words and I want to talk about greatness. How we can achieve greatness through words. Not only how we can achieve greatness, but why we need to achieve greatness.
Greatness to me doesn’t mean fame, or tons of money, or even success in writing or whatever else you do. My definition of success is the ability to overcome obstacles in our lives. Greatness is when we accomplish more than what’s expected of us, and sometimes more than even we believe possible. Greatness, sometimes, is simply surviving. Greatness is leaving a mark in this world.
So, now’s the part where I tell you about my life.
My mom dropped out of her sophomore year of high school to have me and she never went back to finish her diploma. Before she was twenty years old she had two more sons and her husband had left her. My brothers and I were raised dirt poor in the trailer parks in the Cascade Mountain range. We lived on food stamps, welfare and only wore hand me down clothes, we all huddled around kerosene heaters in the wintertime and when we couldn’t afford kerosene we burnt furniture. I mean we even shared bathwater to save money. We were the dirty family, the second-hand or maybe third-hand family, the kids everyone made fun of, the ones on government cheese and powdered milk.
As sob stories go this one’s not that bad. I know for a fact that many of you standing here had lives similar, probably worse. I’m not sure how you guys overcame it, but I escaped by reading. I couldn’t control how much money we had or how cool I was but I would do my best to be smarter.
I read books I had no business understanding as a middle schooler and high schooler: Plato’s Republic, Aristophanes, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Nietzsche, Keirkagaard, and every time another book was mentioned in a book I was reading, I’d go and find that book and in all the books I’d always write all the words I couldn’t understand on the inside front cover to look up later. The inside covers were completely filled with words.
I lived on my own when I was sixteen in a one-bedroom guest-cottage in the backyard of an old couple’s house I really didn’t know well, but they were nice enough to only charge me a hundred dollars a month. I would go to school in the day and stock the shelves at the local grocery store at night to pay the rent and car payment and grocery bill. This was the way of things. There were a lot of guys like me in the small town I ended up in. I’m sure there are a lot of people here from small towns and maybe some of you at one time had that feeling that college was out of reach. I did. I had no idea how to go about even enrolling. The thought of it intimidated me.
The closest I got to going to college was driving to Portland and walking around the PSU campus not knowing if I should just walk into a classroom and ask a teacher or one of the students. I didn’t know and in the end I didn’t do either. I came to the conclusion that the whole college thing wasn’t meant for me, that’s how I felt. I have no doubt that someone here had felt that same way at one time, right?
I drove back to my small town where I was on the career track to be a cashier someday, or maybe I could have been assistant manager in the deli, or the tire store. It felt helpless, but I didn’t know what else to do. The one good thing I did do was keep reading. I kept reading and one day I opened up Dante’s Inferno and while I didn’t understand the satire and political criticisms I came across some words that really spoke to me:
You must shake off this slothfulness at once. Greatness is not for the man who lies under covers and sits on feathers; And those who use up their lives without greatness leave as little trace of themselves in the world as smoke in the air or foam in the water. So, rise up and master your exhaustion with the spirit that wins every battle.
These words blew me away. This man who lived hundreds of years ago was speaking directly to me, telling me to stop stocking shelves in a small town super market, leave my shitty roommate situation, and go. Or at least that’s how I took it.
There’s no telling where you will or have found the words that move you, but I have no doubt that many of the people here have read that one passage from that one book and it changed your entire life. Right? Walt Whitman, William Blake, Maya Angelou, the Bible, who knows what it was for you, but for me it was these words in Dante’s Inferno.
So right after reading this, no, after getting off work, I drove home – I was working graveyard and didn’t get off until eleven in the morning. My roommates were already stoned and watching TV. I walked right to the phone book and looked up the Peace Corps. I was so nervous I thought I might hang up, but I dialed the number and they answered. I told them I wanted to travel to Africa to save the rhinos, I wanted to clean the drinking water for villages of people, I wanted to save the world. I pictured myself sitting in a grass shack with a stethoscope in my ears listening to the chest of a sick, but improving, native boy. The excitement swelled in my chest. It was something I’d never felt before. I couldn’t wait to get started… but then they asked me what my degree was in, you know, cause you need a degree to be in the Peace Corps and all. I didn’t know that.
So, the next week I joined the army infantry.
But the point is I left that small town existence because some old book put into words what I had been missing inside of me. I left to change my life. I left searching for greatness because I somehow connected with one stanza written hundreds of years before I was born. I traveled the world. I fought in a revolution in Haiti, I helped in humanitarian missions around the world, and lived in Europe for a few years. I fought in a war with brave men who won the Presidential Unit Citation. That’s the same award they gave the Seal Team for killing Osama bin Laden. The same award they gave the 101st for storming Normandy in WWII.
In that war I was critically injured. If I were to show you a photograph of the Humvee I was in after it was blown up you would say that no one could have survived that, and I almost didn’t.
I was knocked out instantly, cracked some ribs, tore my rotator cuffs, broke two bones in my arm, a my leg and knee, and received some nerve damage, but due to the amazing surgeons and doctors in three different army hospitals I was able to keep my right hand. And now, ten years later, I have just about full range of motion, but the physical injuries weren’t the worst of it. I had a very hard time coming back from the war. I’m not sure I’m all the way back right now. For years I had survivor’s guilt, I blamed myself for my friend dying since I was in charge of the squad. After the fire fights, seeing people die in horrible ways, I just couldn’t transition back into the civilian world. There was a time when I thought that everything would be easier, easier for me, easier for my family, easier for everyone if I just died. It was a dark time. I would just sit there or lie in bed thinking dark thoughts and drink.
Master your slothfulness at once… right? For the man who sits on feathers or lays under covers leaves as much of himself in this world as smoke in the air or foam in the water.
The words came back to me. I thought I had gone as far as I could go, but… master your exhaustion with the spirit that wins every battle.
Words saved my life. I’m not lying to you; I have that Canto tattooed on my shoulder now to remind me every morning. I do.
Words and art saved my life. I started to write my story down, and if you had seen me writing it down you would have thought I was a lunatic. Smashing the keyboard of my computer late into the wee hours of the morning, crying my eyes out, sobbing, breaking down. I was a mess, but that’s what it took, right? I needed to get it out of me and I could do that with words. It was amazing.
My book was picked up and it’s a good book, but getting it published isn’t the greatness I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong, getting a book published is very difficult and if you do it take pride in that accomplishment, but you don’t need a book published to achieve that greatness. You don’t need to be famous. Sometimes just living through something makes you great.
Before and after the readings I’ve done I’m lucky enough to talk to the veterans and family members and their lives, what they lived through blows me away. World War II veterans, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, or just people somehow connected to the military who lived through incredible events. Right away we share this connection because of what I wrote or what I read. I’ve given my email or phone number out just about every reading and I’ve had people send me their stories. I’m including a few in the anthology that I’m editing now. Incredible.
I know I’m a combat vet and that’s what I wrote about, but you don’t need to have gone to war to know what I’m talking about. Who here is working a full time job, supporting a family, and going to school? That’s hard as hell. That’s greatness. Who here is a single parent, going to college? Just providing for a family is something you need to write about. That’s greatness in my book. Simply maintaining a marriage is difficult. That’s all greatness. Write about it. I know from experience that you writing about your experience can do a couple incredible things. First off, it can help you get through the difficult time. That’s what my book did for me. You can get those demons out one keystroke at a time. Shit, that sounded just as corny out loud than I thought it was going to. I’m sorry, but people all the time ask me if my book was cathartic. I tell them it saved my life. I was on the edge.
The second thing you will do by writing down your experience is inspire other people going through similar tough times. Who knows, maybe some crazy kid will read your words and get them tattooed on his or her arm.
It’s way too easy to give up and fall into a routine. It’s too easy to fall into the world of sitcoms, or videogames and not do anything in your life other than work and sleep. When you do that you’re leaving as much of yourself in this world as smoke in the air or foam in the water.
We all need to do great things. We do. Because if we don’t then what’s the point of it all? Make a mark on history. Do something great. You’re here right now so I know you want to. The good news is that we have an easy way to do it. Words… Words. Write a poem, write a song, write your story, make up a story, and leave in this life, a part of you. Achieve greatness. Rise up and master your exhaustion with the spirit that wins every battle. That’s the one thing I hope you remember about what I’m saying today, not who I am or the name of the book I wrote, but you have a responsibility to yourself to achieve greatness. Not only can someone else’s words speak to you, inspire you, and change your life, but your own words… writing your words can leave a mark in this word and inspire others.