The Bookshelf: In the North Country, a Free Writing Retreat for Veterans

Sep 15, 2017

Keith Howard, former director of Liberty House, now lives in Pittsburg, N.H. where he plans to live in the "Tiny White Box" and host free writing retreats for veterans.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

Earlier this year, Keith Howard stepped down as executive director of Liberty House, a transitional living facility for formerly homeless veterans.  And he started something new.

Howard now lives at a converted hunting camp in northern New Hampshire, on the grounds of Warriors at 45 North, where he's going to run writing retreats for veterans.  Howard himself lives in what he calls the Tiny White Box. I went to visit him there. 

 

(Scroll to the end of this interview for Keith Howard's writing prompts.)

Keith Howard: We’re in Pittsburg, New Hampshire, which is between nowhere and nowhere, about 10 miles from the Canadian border. We’re going to be stepping inside the Tiny White Box where I live. It’s a converted motorcycle trailer, about six feet wide, a dozen feet long. A friend of mine, Gavin, who knows how to do things, put it together based on very minimal input from me. So my dog Sam and I are going to be living here for the next year—writing and also running writers’ retreats for veterans.

NHPR: So let’s take a look inside.

Step up! And you can see it all in one glance—have a small microwave oven, coffee pot, lamps, speaker, radio for listening to New Hampshire Public Radio (which is the only station that I can get here that’s not in French). From the outside it is just a tiny white box. In here, it feels like home.

I’ve never seen a certificate like this. Do you mind if I point that out?

I do have a Master’s degree but this is what really matters to me. I’ll just read it in part: “College of bad breaks and misunderstandings. To all whom these presents shall come greeting, be it be known that Keith Barton Howard is a formerly homeless drunk.” Because that is who I am. Formerly homeless. Formerly a drunk. Today a man of some dignity.

So let’s talk about this writing retreat. Why did you decide to do this?

I had been at Liberty House for five years, which meant that I had been married to a job, because I was working about 90 hours a week, but in addition to being married to the job, I was also acting as surrogate father for a crew of ten formerly homeless vets that was always changing.

While I found that tremendously rewarding, I also found it tremendously draining, because although I can yuck it up some, I’m really an introvert and I just found that my energy level would get sucked by the work that I was doing.

So here, I’m writing and then I still want to be able to give back to veterans. I was in the Army right out of high school, before going on to college, and while I never really identified as a veteran because I was in the peacetime Army, when it came time for me to choose either life or death because of my drinking, because I was living on the streets, the VA is what held out the hand of hope to me and helped me save my life, and so I’ll always feel an obligation to help veterans.

What do you hope veterans take away from their weekend here?

I hope they don’t take my dog, because I really like my dog. What I would like to have people walk away with is a sense that it’s okay for me to express who I am. It’s okay for me to be as funny or fascinating or boring as I want to be and that I can write well enough so that I can go on writing until I get good enough.

Sam, Keith Howard's dog, who will live with him in the Tiny White Box.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

You’ll be living in the Tiny White Box, but the veterans who come here will be staying next door?

They’ll be staying in the bunk house which is right next door. I’d be happy to show you there as well.

Okay, let’s go.

So, yes, there are six beds, wood stove, microwave, there’s a TV over here. It looks like a bunk house put together by high skilled volunteer labor.

How does your experience working at Liberty House inform what you’re doing here?

I’ve seen people’s lives be completely transformed because they were treated with honor and with a focus on what they can do into the future instead of what they have done in the past. The future is a big place and I really do believe that, no matter how old a vet is, no matter what kind of infirmity a vet may have, anybody coming here to learn how to express himself or herself better can change his or her future and I want to help provide a launching pad for that. 

Above the door to the bunkhouse at Warriors at 45 North.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

Keith Howard's Writing Prompts

1.   Looking around you at all the people you come in contact with each day, about what percentage would you say are fully human and what percentage are zombies or pod people? How many strike you as having relatively fully-formed personalities and intellects (even if you may not care for them) and how many of them could, for all you know, simply disappear as soon as they leave your presence? That is, if you interact with a hundred people over the course of the day, with how many of them do you make human contact or sense that such contact is possible? 90? 63? 12? 4? How do you explain this figure? What does this say about you as a person? What are the commonalties among the people you identify as human? That is, do they tend to be the kind of people who do well on standardized intelligence tests, or is there some other factor which makes people be truly human? Could this humanity be measured? If so, what kind of "soulmetrics" would you use? If not, how do you know it exists? Are you simply missing the humanity of a large number of people or is there something fundamentally strange about the human condition? Or strange about you? If you are becoming more of the kind of person you want to be, will this number likely go up or down? What does this say? Please be specific and cite examples.

2.   Do cynical statements and bon mots seem to stick in your mind better than uplifting sentiments? Which has a stronger hook, doubt or faith? That is, which are you more likely to remember and identify with: Yeats' statement that "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity" or Jesus' injunction to "Love one another as I have loved you"? Sam Shepard's and Bob Dylan's judgment that "People never do what they believe in, they just do what's most convenient and then they repent" or Fritz Perl's placid "You do your thing and I do my thing . . ."? Why? Is a healthy cynicism necessary for survival? Do you want to increase or decrease your cynicism? Given the choice, would you like to have a simple, child-like faith in humanity and fate? Why or why not?

3.   Using an evolutionary framework, how do you explain the existence of human consciousness? That is, while it may take a leap of faith to accept that the mystery of life was created from non-living organic matter, it is at least possible to imagine a fertile primordial soup being struck by electricity or some other force and becoming alive? From this impersonal beginning, however, how do you explain the evolution of human consciousness, the ability of humans to be aware of, question and take delight in their existence? What was the process by which consciousness was created? If you accept a completely materialistic and behavioristic worldview, which posits that humans are nothing more than the result of impersonal and infinite time, plus chance, much like the image of an infinite number of monkeys locked for eternity in a room with typewriters eventually typing out "Hamlet," how do you arrive at the sanctity of the individual? What is so sacred about any individual creature, if it is simply a product of chance?

4.   If you were stranded on a desert island, with what one person, whether you personally know him or her right now, would you most like to spend the rest of your life? (Note: choosing friends who are boatmakers or survivalist nuts defeats the entire purpose of this exercise and is therefore rendered unacceptable.) Why? Is there anyone in the world who would choose you to be with him or her? How does this make you feel?

5.   What popular musician or band has had the strongest impact on you and your view of the world? For instance, many people cite Rupert Holmes, whose "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" sums up so well the staleness which can creep into a relationship and whose "Him" seems to take the listener right into the mind of the cuckolded lover. Likewise, the oeuvre of Three Dog Night, from the anthemic "Black and White" to the soulful "Mama Told Me Not to Come" to the mystical "Shambala," seems to have helped a number of people understand their place in the universe. What mindless pop musician or group has done the most for you?