Discipline might be considered the greatest virtue a writer can possess, and Kelly S. Thompson has it in abundance. Consider her output during her recent stint in The Banff Centre’s Leighton Artist’s Colony: She drafted 120 pages of her novel and three short stories, edited five shorter pieces, and wrote seven poems – all in a two-week span. It’s enough to make any fellow writer envious, but delving into Kelly’s past as a Logistics Officer in the Canadian Forces reveals a unique necessity for expression.
Coming from a military family undoubtedly shapes ones ideas of servitude and responsibility, and such was the case when the September 11 attacks prompted Kelly to enlist.
A severe leg break at the outset of basic training proved to be a major setback. (It did, however, introduce Kelly to her husband, who carried her for three kilometers after the break in an act of unprecedented chivalry.) This led to Kelly serving in a more administrative capacity, which created its own set of difficulties when she eventually had to reintegrate to civilian life.
“The military has this problem where they make people feel like lepers if you can’t go anywhere; it’s like a stamp on your forehead, and I was injured from almost day one of my career. When you leave medically you’re not leaving by choice; you’re leaving because you’ve been told to go… No matter how much time you have, there’s this feeling of really belonging to something and that’s really hard to leave.”
Kelly left the Canadian Forces without having written a word during her tenure, but she did sustain her desire to be a writer. Her first nonfiction piece was about attending her first military funeral, which began a process of saying goodbye to her soldier self and welcoming a new artistic self. This led to Kelly blogging for Chatelaine about her transition to civilian life, and eventually to the University of British Columbia’s MFA Creative Writing program, where she is currently working on two novels – one of which addresses military themes and experiences.
Kelly matriculated to UBC because she wanted to find a way to share those military stories – the stories that she felt “went untold”. But this hasn’t always been straightforward. Kelly took flack for the Chatelaine blog and for exploring specific issues that women in the military face. In order to even write for Chatelaine, Kelly had to get formal approval through her chain of command. There is a tension inherent in telling these kinds stories, but her posting to the Integrated Personnel Support Centre, where she worked with injured and ill soldiers, exposed her to men and women who needed a voice.
“I’m torn between loyalty to the military—that does exists—and my loyalty to my work,” Kelly says. “I want to give all those people a voice. They’re already in a position where they could lose their jobs.… I want to give them a voice because they can’t, or think they can’t [express themselves].”
As Kelly continues to write, her focus has become on crafting a true and honourable voice, even if the subject in non-military. And she isn’t worried about getting pigeonholed; she intends to continue exploring her military past: “I can’t let it go either. It’s this part of me—part of what shapes me as a writer.”
Find out more about Kelly’s writing, editing, and volunteer work here: http://kellysthompson.com