Monday, September 12, 2011

In Tragedy, a Writing Lesson

Ten years ago, when 9/11 happened, I was in graduate school. Yesterday, I was trying to remember that time, that week, and very little of it comes back to me. I know I was sad and terrified and numb, even though I was living across the country from the terror attacks and didn’t personally know anyone who’d been affected. I remember a sense of shock, the feeling that nothing would ever be the same, but I can only remember this in the vaguest sense. Was school cancelled? I was teaching, but what did I say to my students? I have no idea.

There is one odd thing I remember vividly, though. Maybe it was the day the attacks happened or the day after or later that week, but I was sitting in a fiction workshop class. It must’ve been the first one we had in this new world, because the professor, an older and slightly frightening man who I felt would never understand me or my writing (and mostly, I was right about that part), sat in front of the class and began by saying this: So let’s talk about what happened.

It seemed obvious what he was going to talk about, what everyone was talking about then. But then he said something else: “My dog died,” he confessed, “and I can’t get over it.” He went on to talk about how his dog, who’d been with him for years, had passed away over the weekend or maybe on 9/11 – that much I can’t remember now. “I know I should be sadder about 9/11 than about my dog,” he said. “So many people died. But I didn’t know any of them.” Then he added. “My dog was with me for so many years. My house is so empty without her.”

Maybe because it was a fiction writing workshop, and because he felt he was dedicated to teaching us, even when none of us were in the mood for learning, he added that there was a writing lesson in this. “It’s the smallest tragedies that are the ones worth writing about,” he told us.

At the time, it sounded all wrong to me. I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying, or why he was saying it then. I am an animal lover, but still, it felt like the wrong conversation to be having at the time. There were so many other things to say, to think about, to worry about, to mourn.

Yet, something about it has stuck with me all these years later. When I think about the days and weeks surrounding 9/11, this is one of the only things I remember with clarity. In fact, this is one of the only things I remember from two years worth of intense and soul-crushing writing workshops with clarity. Why?

The new book I’ve been working on takes place against the backdrop of an enormous historical tragedy, yet the story I am choosing to tell is a deeply singular and personal story of one woman’s loss. I’m finding the best part of writing it is in the details of this one particular woman and the people closest to her who she has lost and loved.

And I keep thinking about this one professor telling my class about how his dog died on 9/11, how it’s the smallest of tragedies that are worth writing about.

Is he right?


Mary said...

Great column. I think he's right. It's the smallest of tragedies that are worth writing about and the smallest of tragedies that trigger change.

Jillian Cantor said...

Thank you, Mary!

Andrea Wenger said...

This reminds me of a photo I saw after the Virginia Tech shootings. Among the flowers left for the victims was a coffee cup with a note on it, from a student who had been late for class because she stopped for coffee. That coffee cup saved her life. That one detail, and the story behind it, are what I remember most about that tragedy. When a tragedy is so large, it's simply impossible to comprehend. When you break it down to its smallest parts, you can process it and begin to feel the magnitude of the loss.

Jillian Cantor said...

How interesting, Andrea. Thank you for sharing that!

Brenda's Arizona said...

Yes, I think he is right. It is the smallest of tragedies that we can grasp in the sleepness night and allow to haunt us until dawn.

And maybe now I will always think of Sept. 11th as being the day a sad professor's dog died. That small grief is concrete, it is intense.

I can't wait until your next post!

Jillian Cantor said...

Thank you, Brenda!

top-shelf t said...

I talk about this in class when we read Auden's "In Memory of WB Yeats." Because "a few thousand will think of this day/ as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual" sounds trivializing, but that's how we process tragedy. For me, 9/11 is the day when my friend made muffins for breakfast because we didn't know what else to do with ourselves. That's what I remember: that day of utter despair and desolation was slightly unusual because we made some Krusteaz. I guess I find this pretty hopeful, because isn't it also how we love people? Stupid details are what we fall into.

talli said...

and yeah, that was me. talli.