May 13, 2016Vol. 46, Issue 6

A Way with Words

Sylvia Bowersox finds solace, understanding through creative writing

It can be said that warriors make it safe for artists to create. But it is also true that art can save the lives of those men and women who have seen the horrors of war.

Disabled veteran and graduating master’s student Sylvia Bowersox is grateful to Chico State’s Department of English for encouraging her to write about the pain, outrage, and myriad other emotions she experienced throughout three tours of Iraq with the US Army.

Her chapbook Triggers, published last year by Jerkpoet Press, and her master’s thesis, “Catherine Talbot’s Two Days in Iraq,” blend prose and poetry to express the savage and poignant extremities with which she and her fellow soldiers coped. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor Dana Priest called Bowersox’s book “a shocking, thought-grinding, spell-binding work.”

A self-described Army brat, Bowersox was born in Virginia but grew up primarily in Monterey. She moved to Chico with her physician husband Jon four years ago from Washington, DC, where she had been unable to receive proper treatment for PTSD at a VA hospital. 

“I came to Chico State to learn to write fiction,” said Bowersox, who first enrolled in an undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop. She was encouraged to continue her studies by English professor Rob Davidson and others in the department, and enrolled in the master’s in English program with a focus in creative writing.

“Chico State has been proud to help Sylvia along her way,” said Davidson. “Working with her has been a highlight of my 14 years as a professor. In terms of sheer promise and raw talent, I rank her among the very best of the many students I’ve worked with.”

Bowersox said she really connected with English department faculty like Davidson, Paul Eggers and Sarah Pape, who motivated her to keep pursuing her writing goals even when she doubted herself.

“Professor Davidson was so accepting and encouraging, telling me ‘You can do this.’ Because he was so positive, I could see myself succeeding,” she said.

Along with her classes, Bowersox honed her craft at summer writing workshops in Alaska and Oregon that she learned about in her master’s program. She also was invited with other graduate English students to the Association of Writers and Writing annual conference last year in Minneapolis, where she met a representative of Jerkpoet Press who was interested in publishing her work.

Davidson said two pieces from Triggers have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, which are awarded to work published by small presses. About having her work recently published and appreciated, Bowersox said, “I’m numb–it’s fabulous.”

After this semester, Bowersox will enter the Veteran’s Writing Project in Los Angeles offered by the Writers Guild Foundation. She will have the opportunity to collaborate with film and TV writers to work on her writing and explore ways it could be adapted to the screen.

Whether in class or out around town, Bowersox’s constant companion is her black Labrador service dog, Timothy. She said he is able to tell when she is struggling and provide the loving attention she needs. “Everyone knows about Timothy,” she said. 

Campus resources such as the Student Veteran Center and the Accessibility Resource Center (ARC) have also helped Bowersox stay healthy and succeed academically. “It’s wonderful we have that place,” she said about the vet center. “I love being around other vets. I don’t have to explain anything.” Bowersox said the staff at ARC had helped in multiple ways, such as scanning reading assignments and sending her copies.

Ultimately, though, it is through her art that Bowersox has received some measure of solace and understanding about her harrowing wartime experiences. One of her Triggers pieces, “31 Bullets,” which she has also performed set to music, concerns an Iraqi named Ali who was killed for assisting US troops. Bowersox knew him well, and after his death she returns to her Army trailer where she has his photo tacked to the wall. She puts on a CD that was a favorite of his and takes down the photo. “31 Bullets” tells what happens next:

We sink to the floor, I balance the player on my lap, hugging Ali to my chest, we hit play & turn it all the way up.

Singing along, we can be heroes, but not today. Today I cover my ears. Today I feel the music. Today I remember we’re right. Today I say goodbye to my friend, but I don’t cry. I don’t cry. I don’t cry. I don’t cry. I don’t cry.

I don’t ever cry.


Joe Wills can be reached at

Photo of Chico State grads

126th Commencement

Four days of commencement ceremonies begin Wednesday, May 18. Search #Chico2016 on social media for a live chronicle of events.  See schedule.

Senior Sendoff

A Super Sendoff

The Alumni Association honored the Class of 2016 with a BBQ and fun activities to wish them a fond farewell. Watch Video.

click to comment on an article in this issue