Interview with Ben Inks, Author of Soft Targets

Author of “Soft Targets,” a collection of short stories that launches on 18 May, 2023, is Benjamin Inks. A Purple Heart recipient, Benjamin served three years in the Army and has worked an odd array of jobs—private investigator, personal trainer, peer recovery at a crisis receiving center. So far, the highlight of his résumé was teaching literature as a grad student at George Mason University.

Phil: I have a lot of questions that I want to ask, but maybe the best place to start is at the beginning. What was your motivation to join the Army?

I don’t know anymore. I remember it being the plan when I was a knucklehead in middle school, which is strange because I have difficulty forming long-term goals now that I’m grown, and I can’t imagine how/why I’d have such conviction at that age. No one in my immediate family served, though I have an uncle in Kansas who also earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam with the same unit as me (The 173rd Airborne Brigade). I didn’t know this prior to enlistment, but we’ve since had great fun reconnecting.

Almost like a family business!

I guess the war machine likes us working-class boys (and us war, if I’m being honest). I do know, I eventually became aware the military was the only way out of my hometown, which I desperately needed to leave, and serving was the best way for me to attend college.

I think that reason resonates for a lot of people. That’s the same reason that I joined the military, as a relatively straightforward way to tick a bunch of boxes in my life – university, a degree of independence, and getting out of my hometown. And all it took was one signature to make it all happen!

And there aren’t too many ways to change your life as quickly or as easily. But yeah, I’d say equal parts angst shaken (not stirred) with limited options, a standard American cocktail. *Grins.  

Why do you think so many soldiers become writers?

Oof. I think soldiering is inherently traumatic. And one of the best ways of processing your history is to write it. It organizes your thinking, turns energy into words, and helps construct a personal narrative through which to see the world, a narrative that may or may not need adjusting down the line. But such is life: cycles of death and rebirth. Such is writing: cycles of drafting and revision (I say this like you don’t already know!)

I do, but that’s a really interesting way to think of it. In my mind, writing is always like some sort of craft, typically wood or stone carving or carpentry. I think about writing as a productive process and editing as a reductive process, sort of like sanding or polishing. Or sometimes demolition and renovation. But the idea of it as cyclical is really powerful, and takes the metaphor away from craftmanship and links it instead to the nature of all things.

It’s like, soldiers eventually discover writing because its an outlet for trapped survival energy, a coping skill. Not the only one, of course, you can also drink copious amounts of alcohol or drive motorcycles at daring speeds (just please, for your mother’s sake, don’t combine the two activities).

Actually, you can cross that one off my bingo card. (sorry, Mum)

But this is an important idea, because I know that I learned a lot of negative coping skills in the military that I’ve since had to replace. Binge drinking, repressing my feelings, continuing on through injury instead of taking time to heal, not very smart adrenaline-seeking activities, etc. Writing is a therapeutic outlet that can replace a lot of these things, but I think there is another reason that soldiers turn to writing: truth. Good writing is about showing some kind of truth, even if you’re writing fiction. The experience of war, I think, is one of a lot of bullshit getting stripped away, revealing sometimes uncomfortable truths about human nature, society, etc. And once you’ve seen and felt these truths, I think that a lot of people feel compelled to express them.

A good soldier pays attention and can endure high amounts of discomfort. Both are required to be a good writer.

Good writing takes discipline, and discipline is what keeps your ass in the seat in front of your computer even when you don’t want to be there. And discipline keeps you going on the fifth draft of a novel that you’ve started to doubt is any good. Without discipline, I don’t think it’s really possible to be a writer.

I never had difficulty staying focused until recently. Right now, writing is competing against my forty-hour (plus side hustles) plus that pesky human need for social interaction. It seemed easier when I was a teaching assistant and everyone I knew was a writer.

What inspired you to first start writing?

Pass   🙂   

Okay, but the meta-question is then: why do you want to skip this?

*Lays down reverse Uno card.

What made you wanna start publishing?

I’ll play your silly card game!

As a new writer, I found myself in an uncomfortable position trying to query my work to what seemed like a lot of indifferent venues – agents, publishers, magazines, etc. This is nothing new, and writers learn to develop a thick skin and get on with it. But it stuck with me that my stuff wasn’t necessarily getting the reception that I thought it should because it was different – military literary fiction, in essence. And I found that other writers in my circle, all doing their own kind of stuff, were having terrific work rejected that I thought should be in print. This pissed me off, to be honest.

And so, I co-founded a literary journal, Blood and Bourbon, which showcased a gritty, unvarnished, an even unpasteurized view of life. We didn’t want you to boil off the gnarly bits, we wanted to see life warts and all. Our lead story was non-fiction about how to make love to a woman who uses a wheelchair – written by a woman who uses a wheelchair! Who wouldn’t want to read that?!?! I’ve since moved on from Blood and Bourbon, though it continues to this day, and it was a short hop from there to wanting to give the same treatment to military stories. And so Double Dagger was born!

But enough about me – back to you. What is your writing process like?

In his recent book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rick Rubin describes art as “an act of receiving intelligence from the ‘source’ and interpreting it through the language of craft.” This is something anyone can do at any stage, but Rubin does stipulate that “Our level of skill influences our ability to articulate this translation.” Read into this however much you want.

Okay this is a book that’s on my to-read list already. And I love that in response to a question about writing process, you’ve gone straight to a book by an iconic music producer. Creativity, and the production of art, are not as siloed as people might think. What do you think that Rubin means in that quote?

For me it means capturing and developing good ideas when they float by, usually in quiet, liminal states of mind: commuting to work or nodding off before bed. You might call this (as Rick does) gathering seeds of inspiration, which I seem to have little control over except to entertain one seed over another. It took a long time before I could judge “good” from “bad.”

That’s a tricky skill. Because that inner critic is absolutely necessary, but also absolutely deadly if they gain the upper hand. We can stop producing anything if the critic gets too much sway.

Quoting Rick again (the dude totally just gifted us a vocabulary for explaining this stuff), the best barometer is excitement. Pay attention to the things that generate emotions in you. Once I have sufficient seeds stewing in the subconscious pot, then it’s time to work.

That’s a very good gauge for what is actually good, or at least has the potential to become good over time. There are days where I wake up and I am literally excited to get to my desk to work on something. My approach to creativity is about cultivating this kind of experience, and creating a mindset that allows that state and the resulting flow to happen as often as possible.

What are the concrete things that you do to get into a creative state?

If you’re looking for nuts and bolts:

  • I read/study adjacent material
  • I take a conspiracy theory-meme worth of notes    
  • I write on legal pad before transcribing into Word (Hemingway)

I’m going to stop you there for a moment. Why handwriting?

Because it slows me down. It gives me time to determine if this seed is bad or good. Is this line I’m about to pen really worth the hand cramp that might result.

OK, what else?

  • I do 24-hour fasts

Okay, I’ve got to stop you again. I’m a regular faster as well, though my usual period is 18 hours. Explain where this is coming from and how you use this as a tool?

I could probably pull up a YouTube video or two that sciences this out, autophagy or whatnot. I appreciate the will power it takes to resist something (anything). It also loosens things up cognitively. And if I’m being honest, sometimes I’m too lazy to cook.

But really, many of these more actionable steps just keep the fire going, which one can tend but never control. (planting seeds, building a fire—sorry for mixing metaphors!)

How do you gauge success? By the output or the experience?

I know I’ve had a good writing session when I feel somewhat manic by the end (no joke). It usually takes an hour or two of music to balance out that euphoria. Then I hit the gym like a motherfucker. But yeah, writing for me is a weird struggle between grace and free will. It really does seem to be an energy source. I live for it. I might even be willing to die for it.

This idea of tapping into something bigger, a universal conscious or grace or an energy source, is really common among artists. I would have written the idea off as ridiculous had I not experienced it myself. I think it puts the artist in perspective, as well. We are very small and insignificant, and whatever it is we are tapping into is vast and eternal. Do you know Steven Pressfield? I love his writing, and his writing about writing. He literally recites a prayer to the Muse before he starts writing. He uses it to set his intention before he sits down at the keyboard.

I’ll have to check him out. . . There are different ways to explain it. Again, I’m sure you could do so using neuroscience instead of something resembling spirituality. You become connected to whatever you pay attention to. My very busy, very American mind feels like it’s a waste to sit and not produce. I have to remind myself that all energy directed toward something I find meaningful is time well spent. Even if I don’t walk away with something to show for it.

The biggest hurtle lately is aiming my attention—like a magnifying glass—on one specific idea or project without getting distracted. The phone is a nemesis.

So true!

Albert Camus said: “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” How does that relate to your work?

Hmm. Hmm. Soft Targets is pretty close to autofiction.

That term has a bit of a flexible definition. How do you see it?

I took a class called Continuum of Personal Narrative. On one end of the spectrum, you get something like a courtroom testimony. On the other end we see the faint (and debatable) influences of Tolkien’s war experiences in Lord of the Rings. Anytime there’s an intentional inclusion of “self” in the story—you might be on that continuum. So maybe a piece of writing can be entirely autofiction, or there are brief moments only the author is privy to, used more as a technique rather than a form.

Example:  Much of my time at Walter Reed Hospital made it into Soft Targets. I just didn’t have a whirlwind romance, sadly.

Right, but those experiences and observations inform your fictional writing. They form a scaffold of truth that underpins the fiction. Or the fiction becomes a vehicle to deliver that truth, as Camus says.

Exactly! We observed patterns of behavior in a fixed environment and rather than just report on phenomenon we splice it into narratives. They find their spot on the continuum. We understand our world through stories. There are some stories where I literally wrote 3,000 words just to communicate a single sentence of truth. And when you finally get to that sentence, it’s the best catharsis in the world—and maybe you get to help others understand it too.

It all comes down to that idea of truth, I think.

The last few years have been pretty weird. Has the pandemic changed your view of the role of artists/writers in society?

Yeah, the pandemic really elevated artists because we had to live vicariously, wasn’t it?

It certainly strained all the existing content delivery systems that people could access, whether that was a run on books at the library or people getting to the end of Netflix.

For me it actually exposed the limitations of art. At the end of the day, there really is no substitute for lived experience.


And in many cases, maybe art just augments what you already have. Like when I read about a city I’ve never been to, I can’t connect with it cause it’s too abstract and my rational mind has to do too much heavy lifting. But if I’ve visited a city I’m reading about, it’s a completely different experience because I can now pair it with a memory that’s rife with emotional significance. Good art can prepare you for the world, and can round out your experiences, but nonstop art is something akin to the matrix, at least for me. Kinda like that Magritte painting: “This is Not a Pipe,” right?

Exactly! That’s a modern version of Plato’s theory of forms, which is about what is real and what is not. What is the essence of the thing versus a representation of the thing. This is, I think, the purpose of art – to point you at the essence of the thing, so that you experience it. Art doesn’t produce that essence itself.

I love that. This is why I’ve always been fascinated by the more mystical counterparts of organized religion. Gnosticism, Sufi Islam, Buddhism. You come to realize the thing is not the thing itself: the metaphors, liturgies, avatars and incarnations, are merely intermediaries for an essence not so mired in time and place. This doesn’t invalidate anything but allows me to countenance the unimaginable. It also gives me permission to evolve commensurate to our shifting world. 

Maybe we need to pull up out of this rabbit hole and talk about something more practical. What advice would you give to people who want to get serious about writing?

Put the phone down. Like turn it off and put it in a drawer. It kills creativity. Delete your social media. Get bored. What you’re after is not instantaneous and you need to calibrate your reward system accordingly.

Okay, but then break it down into component parts. Follow those seeds borne of excitement. Remember: when it comes to anything, it’s difficult to jump from 1-5 in one swoop. It’s easier to go from 1-2, 2-3, etc (Rubin). Don’t be afraid to ride the waves.

I’m always a little disheartened when someone is just getting started with writing and they tell me that they have started writing a nine-volume epic fantasy series. I don’t want to discourage them, because maybe that’s what excites them, but I see writing as a craft, and so I think that you need to get proficient at the smaller stuff to be able to build a giant edifice that hangs together well. But I also don’t want to be a gatekeeper to people’s dreams.

That’s a tricky one. I lean toward letting people arrive at their own conclusions. I had a community college professor who encouraged me when I knew nothing about writing or even English grammar. I didn’t even do too hot in his course. But he brought in a handout on basic narrative structure and said I had talent. Do you want people to look back and say, “thank you,” or do you want them to say “ha-ha, look what I’ve done in spite of you!” Depending on how you frame it—both are valid options.

But to aspiring writers: try turning it into a lifestyle for a while. Then go back to your day job. Travel the world and do something completely different for a spell. Then go back to writing. If it’s still there, it will always be there. Also (nuts and bolts) read nonstop. Get feedback. Oftentimes rejection can tell you more about yourself than success. Embrace the industry/shark-tank grind of it all. Learn to enjoy it, even.

That grind, and the need to steel yourself for disappointment, is key. Thin-skinned writers will have a hard time producing anything that can get shared with the world.

It’s a paradox. You gotta be sensitive to make observations but able to switch it off. Mine isn’t a switch but a sail. I can steer it one way and be gangster for a season. Then about-face when it’s time to go snowflake again.

Are there any new projects that you are working on now?

I’ve got seeds in the kettle (*counts fingers, 3 mixed metaphors).

You’ve still got seven more fingers…

I spent 2022 working at a psychiatric crisis center and that’s my next book. I’ve a massive reading list to prepare me for it, pretty much everything written by Gabor Maté plus the weird esoteric stuff I’m into. Structurally, I’m trying to pattern it after Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, whom I consider the finest prose writer alive today.

I’m not familiar with them. Can you give me the Reader’s Digest version?

She won the Pulitzer Prize on her debut collection. She never generalizes, everything is acutely detailed and shown. Yet there’s an economy of language that appeals to the minimalist in me. I really don’t know how she does it. Incessive drafts, I think I heard in one interview.

With my next project, I know I have something meaningful to say about mental health, I just gotta find the time to draft like Jhumpa. I either gotta go ghost or go full-blown Goggins/Willink with 0300 wakeup calls. I guess this is what they mean by “suffering for your art.”

Or if not suffering exactly, prioritizing it enough that it finds a spot in your calendar, whether that’s fifteen minutes a day or eight hours a day. I wrote a Masters thesis over the period of a year from 5-7 AM, five days a week. It’s like I invented an extra day of the week, and it was minimally disruptive to my job or my family.

Damn. Good for you. It all goes back to discipline, like you were saying. That’s why my 2023 mantra is “Find your peace, find your focus.”

I always end these interviews with the same question: what are you reading or have just finished that you’d recommend?

Well, I just lost about 12 hours to Mike O’Hearn memes. As far as books . . . Look, I could talk books I’ve read for hours, but my Bubba Gump impression is rusty. Why don’t I tell you what I wanna read next, which means I can’t in good conscience recommend them but maybe we can all get excited together.

I’m down for that.

Jhumpa Lahiri has a new book coming out, as does Brianna Wiest. I’ve had my eye on The 50th Law, the collaboration between 50 Cent and Robert Greene.

Interesting! I’ll add this after Rick Rubin’s book.

I’ve been meaning to check out Jamil Jan Kochai’s collection. Also, Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, only because I just got a massive sleeve tattooed on my right arm inspired by Matthew 6, and I should probably read up on what I’ve literally just embodied.

There is a long military tradition of tattoos that are hard to explain in the light of day!

Thanks for the interview, Phil! Everyone deserves to be heard and understand. You catch me in person and I’m not nearly this articulate. The synapses just don’t fire like when I’m alone and comfortable and in my own headspace. I didn’t answer why I started writing, but moments like this are why I keep writing. Always a pleasure, Sir.

A pleasure indeed! Check out Ben Inks’ debut collection of short stories, Soft Targets, launching 18 May, 2023. And also follow him on Instagram @Inks__Thinks.

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