We had the good fortune of connecting with Dan Sheehan and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Dan, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I consider the conscious assumption of risk a prerequisite for success. While my particular risks—flying a gunship in Iraq, landing on a pitching ship in the middle of the night, or spending years writing a book that might never leave my computer—might differ from yours, I see the motivation they provide as the crucial ingredient for any successful endeavor.
My willingness to accept risk has changed significantly over time. As a young Marine helicopter pilot, every day in the “office” brought with it a legitimate risk of dying. My training mitigated that risk but could never erase it. Even considering my combat experiences in Iraq, the closest I truly came to dying was on a routine training mission that almost ended in disaster sixty-miles off the coast of Djibouti. And even after two decades of war, the number of friends I’ve lost in training accidents still exceeds those I’ve lost in combat.
That being said, after I left active duty and started a family the level of risk I was willing to assume dropped significantly. My personal risk of dying in a crash was much lower as a civilian pilot, but the cost of my death was now unacceptable to me because it would be borne by my kids. So I stopped flying and switched responsibilities with my wife; she began a new career and I stayed home with the kids.
Such a drastic shift from flying gunships to changing diapers and retrieving stuffed animals from toilets was not without risks, but they were ones I was more than willing to face. Not only did they open the door to the incredible gift of being fully present with my rugrats, but they also gave me the foundation I needed to face the different risks of being an author.
While the risk of asphyxiation due to the gassy dog who likes to sleep behind me while I write is undeniably real (trust me, he’s got skills), the greatest risk of writing is that I might be wasting my time. Writing a book takes years of dedicated effort with no legitimate expectation of rewards for a new author. I accepted this risk and did it anyway, writing while the kids napped and after tucking them in at night, and never once during the three-year process did I have a reason to believe anyone would ever read it.
But just like the risk of dying motivated me to practice emergency procedures and perfect the tactics needed to keep the enemy from poking holes in my aircraft, the risk that writing was a waste of time motivated me to dedicate more time to doing it right. The effort paid off and my first book recently became required reading for all Marines when it was named to the Commandant’s Reading List.
After two books in the memoir and self-help genres, I’m taking on new risks by switching to writing contemporary fantasy. My novel may never leave my computer, but the story I’m working on about manipulative Fates, oversexed hippocampi, and unlucky CIA mercenaries is a hell of a lot of fun to write. At this point in my life, that makes the time I’m investing in writing it well worth the risk.
Success comes when you decide what risks you are willing to accept, and then dedicate yourself to do what’s necessary to hold them at bay.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
While I began writing as a means to understand how my experiences in Iraq had followed me home, I chose to publish my non-fiction books in the hopes they could help other veterans. With that as my primary goal, I’m intensely proud of the messages I’ve received from men and women stating that my words helped them comprehend and heal from their own traumas.
After an unsuccessful half-hearted attempt to land an agent, I self-published my first two books. While this was the right choice for me, it carried with it the added responsibility of becoming my own marketing department. Unfortunately, I then discovered that I don’t really like telling people to buy my books so I’ve always struggled to increase visibility for my work. I recently got a huge boost in this effort from the Commandant of the Marine Corps when he added “After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey” to the Commandant’s Professional Reading Program. Marines are required to read several titles per year from the forty-six book list, and I am grateful his recommendation will help get my book into the hands of the men and women who need it the most.
After writing two award-winning non-fiction books, I’ve spent the last several years working on a contemporary fantasy novel. Such a drastic shift in genre is not without risk, but the excitement I feel when turning an idea from the twisted depths of my mind into a full blown story makes it all worthwhile.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way is to trust my process. It took me a while to realize that I even had a process, much less to trust that it will lead to a finished book, but through trial and error I’ve found what works for me. Writing a book seems like a daunting task, but if you break it down into daily word counts it’s really not that bad–provided you keep writing. In fact, I’ve found the actual writing isn’t hard at all. It’s coming up with what I want to say that really takes the time and effort!
That’s where the process comes in. I see my creative process as making sausage. I’ll start with a general idea for a story in mind, and then read a bunch of books about the location, timeframe, activity, or themes that I think will come into play. While all those ingredients get mixed together, I turn my conscious effort toward nailing down the particulars of my story. Then, as I slam my head against the wall to come up with character arcs, subplots, and plot-points, snippets of the research I’ve done get filtered through my own life experiences and perspectives and come out the other side as the story. Once all that goop is in one place, I churn the handle and write it out, sending a glistening tube of meaty joy into the world.
Okay, that got weird. Sorry.
But that’s how it goes. For example, my research for my current book involved reading everything I could get my hands on about greek mythology, the Iran-Contra scandal, the socio-economic impact of tourism on the native people of Huatulco, and magic mushrooms.
I’m cranking through another re-write on it now and, trust me, it’s gonna be some good sausage.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
It would depend on the weather, waves, and diving conditions. If the surf was good then we’d probably spend most of the week surfing Beacons, only dragging ourselves onto dry land long enough to grab burritos from Kojita’s Jr. before heading out for another session.
If the surf was flat we’d go spear fishing. I’ve got a few favorite spots offshore that reliably provide sheepshead, calico bass, and the occasional halibut, but I’m not saying where they are! Once dinner was secured, we’d grab some pints to go from the St Archer tasting room and then make fish tacos at home.
On the off chance that we don’t want to spend a day in the water, a day hike on Mt. Laguna or pie-run to Julian might be in order. Afterwards we’d kick back and relax at Regal Seagull with a few pints and watch the Padres do their thing on TV.
Simple ingredients make the best dishes; sun, sand, surf, and friends. Not a whole lot else is needed to have “the best time ever.”
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I owe a debt of gratitude to many people, but I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize the positive impact of one group in particular; the veterans of the Vietnam War.
The men and women who served in Vietnam often came home to a population unable to separate hatred of the war from those sent to carry it out. In contrast, when I came home from Iraq I felt welcomed and celebrated even by folks who considered the war immoral at best and illegal at worst.
This drastic change in public sentiment didn’t just happen on its own. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans, united by the common mission to never let another service member suffer the pain of returning to a society unwilling to comprehend the sacrifices offered in its name, worked tirelessly to make it happen.
Through sharing their own stories, lobbying in Washington, and pushing the Veterans Administration to improve its services, the Vietnam veterans’ efforts to educate the American people directly translated into my own successful return from combat and set me up for the life I now love and cherish.
So, to the Vietnam veterans I say thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Your fortitude ensured I had access to the tools I needed to navigate my own challenges of returning to normal life after war. I hope that my non-fiction books can provide the same level of support for future generations of veterans that you gave to me.
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Image of Dan Sheehan with stack of After Action books: Photo Credit Bill Wechter Image of Dan Sheehan squatting in front of greenery: Photo Credit Micaela Malmi