Established in 1971, the College of William and Mary’s writer-in-residence program has become a vital component to the English department’s curriculum, each year funding a published writer to teach workshops in the genre of their choice. This year, the College welcomes Kirsten Holmstedt, a New England native whose books, “Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq” (2007) and “The Girls Come Marching Home: Stories of Women Warriors Returning from the War in Iraq” (2009), have won acclaim among reviewers and praise among military families.
“Writing is about emotions,” Holmstedt said, “It’s not just about facts. Maybe it is for some people, but for me, my books aren’t just about facts. I try to get this across in my class.”
Her class — a 400-level workshop-style seminar entitled “Writing Stories that Make a Difference” — focuses on creative nonfiction, a genre surprisingly unknown among her 12 students. Her passion for this style of writing was the topic of her MFA degree at UNC-Wilmington — ranked second for nonfiction writing by the magazine Poets and Writers — and an extension of her journalistic background.
Her first book, “Band of Sisters,” was the product of her study in this field.
“I started the MFA program in 2002 and the war [in Iraq] started in 2003,” Homstedt said. To graduate from the program I had to write a thesis which was a book, and my thesis ended up being ‘Band of Sisters.’”
Holmstedt’s journey to find a thesis topic not only resulted in two published books, but also inspired the new writer-in-residence to share her newfound interest with students.
“I have been talking to my class a lot about passion,” Holmstedt said. “I wasn’t passionate about women in combat when I started out. It was just like, I started the program and the war started and I needed to write a book and I saw these women Marines. I was living in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and I saw these women marines going off to war, and I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder how they’re going to do in combat. I wonder what I would have done 20 years ago if 9/11 happened.’ And since then, women in combat have been my passion.”
This passion led her to interview female soldiers and fighter pilots, many of whom she said have continued to contact her through Facebook and e-mails. She was also given a rare look behind the scenes of the Marines.
In her research, Homstdt said that she has had a number of exhilarating flights as a fighter pilot, including being catapulted off an aircraft carrier. Holmstedt admitted that while terrifying, these experiences have helped teach her some important lessons. She wants to leave her classes with this advice.
“Ask the absurd. You know, if you think something is absurd, so what? Ask it anyway. Because never in my wildest dreams did I think I would fly up to an aircraft carrier.”
Holmstedt credits experiential learning as her means of learning what it is like for female fighters.
“Standing on the deck of an aircraft when planes are coming and going and how slippery it is and how dangerous it is … I would definitely encourage my students [to] ask. Ask, ask, ask. And persevere. Because, you just don’t know what doors are going to be opened until you ask.”
It was this same philosophy that brought her to Williamsburg and her position as the College’s resident writer.
“I actually was online and I saw [the advertisement for the position] and wrote to the department, and they asked me to come in for an interview,” Holmstedt said. “I thought it would be a good location to work on my next book, because it is military related and [Williamsburg is near] Washington DC and Norfolk.”
She hopes to use this time not only to learn about Williamsburg, o but also to spread the message of female soldiers and what they face when they return to the United States after war.
“What’s important to me is writing stories that make a difference, and I read to them an email that I recently got from this female who was attacked by four Iraqis back in 2003. And these Iraqis worked on base and she was attacked in the bathroom. They were doing maintenance,” Holmstedt said. “So it’s really exciting to me not only to educate [my class] on nonfiction writing that makes a difference but also a little bit on the war and the effect that it’s having on our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and when they come home. I mean, when would they have heard Sammy’s story? That gives me the goosebumps.”
Fortunately, her students appreciate the passion that she brings to the classroom.
“Professor Holmstedt is an excellent instructor, but what really is wonderful about her style is that about everything else she is a passionate writer,” Christina Trimarco ’13, an English and film studies double major, said. “That drive inspires us to want a place next to her, to write as passionately and with an equal appreciation for words.”
But her time at the College is just a chapter in Holmstedt’s story. This semester, she will be speaking in Vermont, Wisconsin, Maryland and the United States Naval Academy. HBO has also expressed interest in adapting “The Girls Come Marching Home” into a two-hour film.
“They haven’t finished what they started, and I haven’t finished what I started,” Holmstedt said.