Success Story with Kelly S. Thompson
Kelly S. Thompson is a writer and retired military officer with a master’s in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and is a PhD candidate at the University of Gloucestershire. Kelly won the House of Anansi Press Golden Anniversary Award, the 2014 and 2017 Barbara Novak Award for personal essay, and was shortlisted for Room magazine's 2013, 2014, and 2019 creative nonfiction awards. Her essays have appeared in several anthologies, including national bestseller, Everyday Heroes, and in publications such as Chatelaine, Maclean’s, Maisonneuve, and more. Her memoir, GIRLS NEED NOT APPLY, was released with McClelland & Stewart in August 2019.
Girls Need Not Apply has been a journey that originally started as fiction, which should offer an idea of how unsure I was of this project. In the novel format, I initially portrayed female veteran experiences through two fictional women who were deployed to a war zone, because I felt that was the only way women would be taken seriously as soldiers. But the characters were coming across rather leaden, and it just wasn’t working. Once I reframed the book through my own experiences, I realized I hadn’t felt brave enough to share my own stories, but there is such power in true tales. (Solidarity, kindness, and compassion spring to mind.) So the final version of the book is a process of emotional excavation, crying, research, and therapy.
"Books are art, and writing is a practice"
I first wrote the initial two sections dealing with basic training, mostly because I wasn’t emotionally ready to dig into my more recent military experiences without some good ol’ self-flagellation over what I perceived as my professional failures. So I kept editing and revising the third portion of the book to no avail. Five or six rounds of this with my agent and I was ready to throw in the towel—it would never quite get there. I felt stubborn and frustrated, partly because I don’t like to take long breaks between revisions, even when some emotional distance is necessary, because as a former military officer, I like progress in forward motion only. But books are art, and writing is a practice, and so I had to step back a few months and completely rewrite the third portion. I knew it was finished when each chapter sung to the main themes I was trying to explore: mental health, sexism, and hope.
Writing about family
But with memoir, there are countless landmines. For several years now, I’ve taught creative writing to first-year university students. I dedicate an entire class to writing about family, since many students ask, “What if I write the story and they’re mad at me?” These students refer to their parents, their friends, their loved ones, wondering what will happen if they are hurt by what is put to paper. I’m tempted to give Anne Lamott’s advice: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But, of course, it isn’t always that easy. I’ve asked myself this question, and worried about family being mad for as long as I’ve sat at the computer, and for me, this extended to the military, which was my family for such a long time that writing about flaws in the system felt disloyal. I allowed that fear to silence me, to keep me from writing, and the book suffered for it. I’ve learned, looking back, to be true to my art because when I’m honest with myself, I’m honest on the page.
The result is the final version of Girls Need Not Apply, a book that looks at sexism, lack of belonging, and mental health issues in the armed forces. The reception so far has sparked conversation amongst other female veterans, but also men who have bought the book and said they want to be part of change. That’s what the book is all about: change. And I think change is coming for the next generation of female veterans. This book is my small contribution to that.
Click here to buy Girls Need Not Apply