06/09/2010 06:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Drafted to Teach Veterans

Can writing be taught? I have always been skeptical. So it was with a certain ungracious wariness that I allowed myself to be drafted into participating as a mentor in a weekend workshop on writing for former and current members of our armed forces. The workshop was sponsored by the Writers Guild Foundation as way of giving something back to those who have served in our military.

I had taught before, briefly -- math to second and fourth graders, math and English in high school -- but it had been years since I had been inside a classroom as a teacher. I had reservations that any real learning could come out of this experiment.

At least I was assigned to an interesting group. The five aspiring writers were from all branches of the service, and they managed to comprise, within that tiny random sample, a quintessentially American cross section of ethnicity, gender and even age. Eddie was 23, in his last weeks in the service. Michael was 74 years old, a former Korean War paratrooper. His son had served in the military, and a granddaughter was on her way to Afghanistan. What quickly became obvious is that the quality of men and women who serve in our armed forces is exceptionally high.

I also lucked out big time in the other professional writer with whom I was paired. Ben Garant is a co-creator of television's Reno 911 and a co-writer of Night at the Museum, an entertaining movie with a very smart script. He is intelligent, funny and generous with his knowledge and insights.

Although Ben and I had never met before the workshop and although we had worked in somewhat different genres, we immediately discovered that we shared the same basic approach to the craft of writing. One of the first points Ben made, which I enthusiastically seconded, was that it was important for writers to finish things. If you are writing a screenplay, Ben told the group, get to the end of it, then write another, then finish a third -- then go back and revisit the first one. You will see it with new eyes and heightened skill.

Since most of the participants in the group came with stories they wanted to tell, we decided to create, for the two days of the workshop, our own "writers room." This is a uniquely Hollywood phenomenon, most often a part of the process in developing scripts for television series, organized in different ways, but in which, to varying degrees, writers collaborate and help each other with their scripts.

Within about ten minutes, our group felt like a team. The military training probably contributed to the ability of a handful of strangers to blend into a cohesive unit, but it is also true, I believe, that when we are at our best, this knack of being able to come together with a unity of purpose is a quintessentially American talent.

The stories, novels and movie scripts the participants were working on are proprietary, including the screenplay and TV series pitch former Army Staff Sgt. Thom Tran is developing. But I want to share some of Thom's own story, an experience, unfortunately, like that of many soldiers. In the first few days of his posting to Iraq, Thom's best friend was killed. Within the first week Thom was shot, through the head. Through the head.

For a year, he didn't smile. He wanted to return to the front, but the doctors wouldn't okay it. Before he left for Iraq, Thom already had ambitions to write, to act -- and to do stand up comedy. Previously a naturally upbeat person, he was going through a very black time.

Thom had a camera with him on patrol the day he was wounded in Iraq. The video has footage of the vehicle in front which halts as it starts to take fire. You hear the sound of gunfire, then the shouts when Thom is hit. Then the camera is turned, and you see the moment when Thom discovers that the back of his head is covered in blood.

On Memorial Day weekend (appropriately enough), my family and I went to the Improv Theatre on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood where Thom was doing his new stand up routine. Szymon, a former marine from the workshop, also attended. Thom used a clip of the Iraq shooting video in his sketch. The audience was riveted. Then as Thom worked in his punch-line, they gave him the biggest laugh of the night. In the comic, not military, sense of the term -- he killed.

Service in the armed forces can involve taking risks. Writing, at its most interesting, is also about taking risks, and Michael, Eddie, Thom, Szymon and Becky have the courage to face both kinds of risks. Thom transformed a wrenching military experience into, of all things, stand up comedy.

I had been leery of this project and of the prospects for genuine learning it could offer, but I needn't have worried. As it turned out, I learned a great deal.