Reading Cheryl Dietrich's In Formation

by Judi Goldenberg

From the moment several years ago when I first read a short passage from In Formation, Cheryl Dietrich’s memoir of her years in the Air Force (Yucca Press, 2016), I knew I would love the book. It wasn’t even a book yet. It was 15 typewritten pages Cheryl submitted in the Prose Master Class at the Great Smokies Writing Program. An assignment. A draft: a draft of a draft.

For those who have not participated in writing workshops, the way they work is writers bring in unfinished work for fellow workshoppers to offer comments and suggestions. The idea is to help the writer make improvements. Those who have participated know the atmosphere of a workshop is like no other. In my personal life, I never ask my husband, “How do I look?” I don’t discuss with my daughters or sisters things I may have said or done that I probably shouldn’t have. It isn’t that I don’t have room for improvement. There’s plenty of room. I just don’t want to hear about it.

Yet I bring my writing to workshop and ask a roomful of strangers, “Whaddaya think?” A workshop provides a safe environment. Authors are free to listen to the comments and suggestions they receive, or not. Emotional baggage not included.

The first piece from Cheryl’s memoir I recall workshopping detailed her struggle, as a normal, healthy, full-figured all-American woman, to meet and maintain the weight requirements of the U.S. Air Force. By the end of this funny, painful, account, readers have suffered right along with Cheryl through the five stages of dieting: denial; anger; starvation; potato chips; acceptance. At the end of the chapter, we see her in uniform. She’s looking good; we’re feeling proud, although we all recognize a lifelong struggle when we see one.

Another passage she brought to workshop was about retreat. As a non-military person, I was surprised to learn retreat does not necessarily refer to soldiers running away from an advancing enemy. In this case, it refers to the lowering of the flag at the end of the day at an Air Force base. Apparently, every Air Force base does it every day. There’s a strict protocol for how to do it. Anyone outside on base grounds has to stop whatever they are doing and salute the flag, then stay saluting until the "Star Spangled Banner" has finished playing, usually over a loudspeaker. In her chapter on retreat, Cheryl describes the time she was caught in the act, not going very well as she tells it, of trying to change a tire when she hears the first strains of the national anthem. She follows that uncomfortable memory with a slightly more fortuitous one: the time she was joined in the act of saluting in the rain by the General shamed into coming outside and saluting beside her. Although personally I have never had much use for protocol, certainly not the kind that includes signs of deference, I have to admit I was touched by this episode, and yes, again, I felt proud.

These two selections, drafts though they may have been, put me in Cheryl’s world and made me care. That’s how you know good writing: it puts you in the writer’s world, real or imagined, and makes you care. Homer takes you to the gates of Troy, Dante through the gates of Hell. Charles Frazier takes you up Cold Mountain; Stephen King brings you Down East. Good writing does not have to be important or famous, or literary or intellectual. It just has to connect the writer with readers and make them care.

Over thirty years reviewing fiction for newspapers and magazines, I have come to believe that an author, any author, makes a promise to readers, often in the opening lines, to deliver something: a story that will make them laugh, poetry that will make them cry, history that will make them think about things in a way they never thought before. The author’s task is to fulfill the promise made. Cheryl understood the writer’s contract and kept it with military resolve.

Simply put, her memoir promises truth. Cheryl was familiar with current trends in memoir allowing the memoirist to alter and invent memories for the good of the Larger Truth, a.k.a. “The Big Picture.” She knew that it is common among memoirists to sharpen the outline around the Big Picture by suppressing annoying, confusing, and contradictory detail. But Cheryl would have none of it. Consideration for others dictated that she did not always tell the whole truth, and she did change a name or two and invent dialogue she no longer remembered word for word. Whatever she changed, she informed the reader what she was doing. She stayed scrupulously true to the truth.

And so when she wrote about her affair with a married man who was a fellow officer—it goes without saying that adultery is not part of Air Force protocol, in fact it’s a dismissible offense—she changed names throughout the chapter. At the same time, she did not spare herself any mercy describing what she did and how hard-pressed she was to stop doing it. This is probably the least proud moment in the memoir, and the most human. Her account of this episode was published in The Great Smokies Review under the title, “My Erstwhile Dear.” I was copyeditor for the Review at the time and I can tell you her submission required little proofreading and no editing, not even minor changes.

From workshop submission to articles in online and print journals to published book, not everything about Cheryl’s memoir remained unchanged. As long as I can remember, the title was In Formation, while the subtitle went through numerous incarnations. At one point it was, “Twenty Years Squeezing into an Air Force Uniform.” Later it became “What My Mother Didn’t Teach Me but the Air Force Did.” Later still, it was, “What My Years in the Air Force Taught Me about Holding on and Manning up.” Writing buddies who read the manuscript version to be sent to agents and publishers advised Cheryl to shorten the subtitle. I told her to lengthen it. I suggested going with something like, “What my Mother Didn’t Teach Me But Twenty Years of Squeezing into an Air Force Uniform Did about Holding on and Manning up.” The publisher, wisely I see now in retrospect, ignored this suggestion, and went with “One Woman’s Rise Through The Ranks of the U.S. Air Force.”

Common wisdom in the publishing industry holds that every genre has its must-haves. A mystery must have a puzzle and someone to solve it. A romance must culminate in the merging of two hearts into one after a series of near misses, unless it’s a Nicholas Sparks romance and then it culminates in a tragic miss after a series of mergers. Even literary fiction, though character rather than formula-driven, has an audience expectation for sense imagery and insights into the human condition. It’s true that occasionally an author comes along who re-defines expectations. But then a new set of expectations results. The darkness that was generally forbidden in youth fiction before J.K. Rowling gave us Harry Potter is now a must-have.

Prospective agents and publishers told Cheryl a memoir must have a strong story arc. Starting out a minister in a small mid-western hospital and ending up a Lt. Col. at the Pentagon wasn’t enough. There had to be more of a message if the manuscript was to be accepted for publication by an established publishing house. This presented Cheryl with a bit of a challenge. Her life, not knowing it was going to end up as a memoir, did not evolve with perfect narrative clarity. So Cheryl sought suggestions for a unifying theme. I suggested Leadership. Another friend suggested Courage. Cheryl chose—are you ready for this?—Love. Quintessential Cheryl: surprising, truthful, yes-courageous, and yes-loving. This is how she explains it in her epilogue:

In a writing class, when I wrote about how the Air Force reminded me of a Bruce Springsteen quote (“This is the land of peace, love, justice…and no mercy”), one of the other students circled the word “love” in heavy, black ink. In the margin, she wrote, LOVE????!!!! …I might have understood if she had questioned the word, “peace,” but her certainty that love and the military couldn’t coexist shocked me.

The Air Force taught me to love, gave me the courage it takes to love family, friends, spouse, and all those important others: the person working next to me when the pressure was on, the face blurred behind the gas mask; the flyer whose dreams were haunted by innocent victims, the guy at the desk across from me; the gal at the noisy rock concert; the jerks who gave me a hard time but also a hand when I was ready to give up; the strangers I met for a few minutes in a streetcar.

And so I wrote this book. A love story.

Cheryl passed away over a year ago. No author tour. No readings. No copy signings. But that’s not what she wrote the book for. She wrote it to put her story out there, one woman’s life in the military: honest, loving, true. The book puts us there and makes us care. It’s good writing. It’s good reading.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Judi Goldenberg first came to North Carolina for graduate school and returned years later with husband Joe for their retirement. She has been a college instructor, an ad agency market research analyst, a bank marketing and communications manager and a free-lance writer for academic, business and general audiences. She was one of the inaugural editors of this publication, when it launched in fall 2009. Her short stories have appeared in small literary journals and her columns in the Asheville Citizen-Times as well as The Great Smokies Review. From 1978 to 1998, her book reviews appeared regularly in the Richmond News-Leader and Times-Dispatch. She currently reviews fiction for Publishers Weekly.