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?


Anonymous 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.

-b9 said...

Luckily, I wasn't on the plane or I'd have kicked-some-ass, brudda. What I did experience was something life changing nevertheless: lemme add summore thots; lemme fill-you-up withe efficacious epiphany, the avant-gardeness and necessary wisdom to achieve Seventh-Heaven, dear, if ya desire Seventh-Heaven...

If 'freedom lies in being bold' (Robert Frost), doesn't pushing-the-envelope also result in the Elysian Fields of Utopia? If I'm the sower, we plant the Seed; if I'm an artist, we RITE the symphonies heard Upstairs ☆IF☆ we accept His lead withe orchestra...

Wanna find-out the fax, Jak, in a wurld fulla the 'power of cowards'? Wanna wiseabove to help a 'Plethora Of Wurdz' [POW!] which are look'n for a new home in thy novelty?? Yay!

Q: But [gulp] can anyone tell me the difference between K2/IQ? A: Nthn. In Heaven, we gitt'm both for eternity HA! Need a few more thots, ideers, wild wurdz (whoa, Nelly! easy, girl!) or ironclad iconoclasms?

VERBUM SAT SAPIENTI (Latin: words to [the] wise): As an ex-writer of the sassy, savvy, schizophenia we all go thro in this lifelong demise, I just wanna help U.S. git past the ping-pong-politixx, the whorizontal more!ass! we're in and wiseabove to 'in fin sine fin' (Latin: in [the] End without End -Saint Augustine).

"This finite existence is only a test, son," God Almighty told me in my coma. "Far beyond thy earthly tempest is where you'll find tangible, corpulent eloquence". Lemme tella youse without d'New Joisey accent...

I actually saw Seventh-Heaven when we died: you couldn't GET!! any moe curly, party-hardy-endorphins, low-hanging-fruit of the Celestial Paradise, extravagantly-surplus-lush Upstairs (awww! baby kitties, too!!) when my o-so-beautifull, brilliant, bombastic girly passed-away due to those wry, sardonic satires...

"Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the Heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightousness as bright as stars for all eternity" -Daniel 12:3, NJB

Here's also what the prolific, exquisite GODy sed: 'the more you shall honor Me, the more I shall bless you' -the Infant Jesus of Prague.

Go gitt'm, girly. You're incredible. You're indelible. Cya Upstairs. I won't be joining'm in the nasty Abyss where Isis prowls
PS Need summore unique, uncivilized, useless names?? Lemme gonna gitcha started, brudda:

Oak Woods, Franky Sparks, Athena Noble, Autumn Rose, Faith Bishop, Dolly Martin, Willow Rhodes, Cocoa Major, Roman Stone, Bullwark Burnhart, Magnus Wilde, Kardiak Arrest, Will Wright, Goldy Silvers, Penelope Summers, Sophie Sharp, Violet Snow, Lizzy Roach, BoxxaRoxx, Aunty Dotey, Romero Stark, Zacharia Neptoon, Mercurio Morrissey, Fritz & Felix Franz, Victor Payne, Isabella Silverstein, Mercedes Kennedy, Redd Rust, Phoenix Martini, Ivy Squire, Sauer Wolfe, Yankee Cooky, blessed b9... (or mixNmatch)

God blessa youse
-Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL