September 11: the Day the Writing Stopped

September 11, 2001: my sister in Sweden called so early in the morning she woke me up. "Are you all right?" she asked. It was a question my sister in New Zealand would repeat a few hours later, then my father in D.C. and my sister in Cambridge. It was the same question I phoned to ask two of my oldest friends, who live in Chelsea and teach ESL to Turkish immigrants in New York City. It is, in fact, the same question we've all been asking each other, ever since. "Are you all right?" Are you still there? Are you still writing?        

After the optimism and the good fortune that have characterized our nation's domestic affairs for nearly 60 years came tumbling down last fall, the loss felt incomprehensible. The twin towers fell and took with them our isolation from the fear and violence citizens of many nations in the world live with daily. Six months later, we'll still taking toll, counting the wounds, feeling the shock. That shock, of course, is massive and far-reaching, but I'd like to talk today about one aspect of that aftermath: its impact on our community, on people who write.

When just one person, old or young, loved or despised, dies, the universe misses a particular pattern of chromosomes, of tics and needs, that will never come again. When 3000 die at once, the dark presses in on all of us. And that includes those of us who, by profession and inclination, are engaged in the business of celebrating life, of finding meaning in existence and telegraphing it to our readers. The Twin Towers tragedy resulted in the most massive case of writer's block I've ever seen. Every writer I know stopped— stopped building scenes, stopped telling stories, stopped believing in words.        

We did write each other, though. For comfort, for healing, and for the consolation of reaching out to others suffering the same paralysis. My students were among the first to write or email me. Here's how Cathleen responded to what had left us all reeling: "Dear Lou, It seems like a lifetime since I sent my last packet. I have to be honest. Writing does not come easily lately. My best friend said something that triggered the truth of what I've been feeling. 'Why can't I write?' I asked her. 'What's wrong with me? I always write, that's what helps me to understand the world.'   'Maybe it's because you don't think writing can help you understand this,' she said. Which is, of course, why she's my best friend."        

Here's Josh's letter: "Lou, today is September 12 and yesterday is a day I can't wrap my mind around. What happened is so difficult to understand— I'm still trying to soak in the details, but so far nothing makes any sense. I am at a saturation point and can't talk of this easily."        

And Emily: "I can't even begin to describe how I have felt as the events of the past week unfolded, except to say I have felt paralyzed. Even small daily functions like showering and eating have been neglected, as I can't seem to get a handle on my thoughts.."        

And Richie: "That week every ounce of free time I had I spent in front of the television. I have never held my attention on one thing for so long. I honestly couldn't think about anything else. I find it hard even now."        

And Lyn: "I admit to being more than a little dazed by the recent disaster. It is a great sense of loss not to have ideas pouring out as they used to…"        

Yes. How hard it is to write when life seems to have lost its meaning. And it wasn't only new writers who found themselves bereft, unsteady, wordless. Mary Pope Osborne, author of The Magic Tree House series, writes in a recent issue of the Author's Guild Bulletin, "Many New York writers I talked to in the days following September 11 found it impossible to write; the only true expression of their horror seemed to be a stunned silence. I myself was caught in a web of anxiety and news gathering, ignoring deadlines, social e-mails, business calls."        

Paula Fox, in the same issue, writes: "We have little context for what happened on September 11th, only an uneasy, flickering awareness that other countries and other cities and peoples have experienced such horrors, a dim awareness next to the events themselves. Perhaps chaos can only be imagined after it has struck."        

And me? Was I immune to my students' paralysis? Did I resist Osborne's web of anxiety or Fox's more cerebral self doubts? No, of course not. But I also had my own bizarre response to the trauma. It began with nearly normal symptoms. In the initial grip of panic, I thought of the people I'd loved and lost years before. For a fragile, uncountable second, I was jealous of their having missed all this. Next, I was relieved, glad I wouldn't have to add their pain and confusion to mine. Last and, to my shame, more enduringly, I was angry at them for not being here with me, not being beside me or within phone's reach, so I could turn to them, or call and ask, "Are you all right?"        

And then? In the fearful aftermath, the body counts and the talk of retribution, the rumblings of a national war engine, I was seized with my own peculiar version of writer's block. I call it, in retrospect, Writer's Palsy. I'd just seen that actions speak loudest, most thunderingly of all. And now I doubted words so much that I became a whirlwind of activity. I took to the streets to prove, perhaps, that I was alive, that I could still have an impact on the world. 

I carried signs, I protested, I took a bus north and marched in Washington, I organized teach-ins and demonstrations. I became a mad, political dervish. And it was only slowly, after weeks and weeks, that I came to the sobering realization that the days of Vietnam-style protest were over, that my romantic theatrics, while rooted in pacifism and the doctrine of Ahimsa, to which I was and am still very much committed, were not actually changing anything except my image of myself. (More about this embarrassing development in a minute.)        

So I switched my attentions to the internet. Finding a way to put words to work again, I churned out dozens, scores, hundreds of e-mails; I published articles overseas and around the country. I'm sure some of you received this when I sent it out, but for the rest of you, here's a sample:

In the wake of President Bush's determination to "bring them back, dead or alive," and after hearing countless TV commentators applaud this motive, I thought I'd tell you about the vigil I attended last night at a non-denominational sanctuary. People cried and sang and prayed and talked about what had happened in New York City and outside Washington, D.C. Sitting with them, I watched the candles we'd lit and I found myself thinking about stars and people, how even though the scale is different, there are some good things, some true things you can say about both. Their variety is infinite, their magnitude can be small or large, their impact on others measurable or not. But when a single human life is lost, just as when one star is snuffed out, the shape of things, the pattern of the universe is changed forever. 

Among those at the meeting, was a couple whose son died in the collapse of one of the twin towers. Another man lit a candle for his daughter who walked away whole. Two families had friends whose fate was still in doubt. Three couples were the parents of young children who had watched the destruction "live" on television at their schools, and who kept asking what it all meant. 

Every person in that room felt overwhelmed, helpless. But each of us felt something else, too. We were united in our hope that this nation's response will be one of love and support for the victims, not revenge or retaliation against the countrymen of the terrorists. For the life of us, and for the lives of all those who died so terribly, we could not understand the point of snuffing out other stars across the globe in the name of people we loved.      

I was, at last, writing up a storm. But I wasn't telling stories. My novel, the opening of which I read you last semester, remained untouched. Vini, my young protagonist, whose historical counterpart, Lavinia Fontana, grew up to be among the most famous painters of the Italian Renaissance, is an image maker. Her work now seemed to me as irrelevant and useless in the face our country's choice between moderation and vengeance, war and peace, as did each and every one of my books, all words, words, words.  Interestingly, though, as I watched myself and others slowly surface from our collective nightmare, as I saw us slowly, inevitably resume the business of living, I noticed what was helping us find our way back. It was stories. First, stories helped us spot humanity in the welter of statistics, the staggering numbers. Yes, 5000 people had died, but that figure was somehow less impactful than the story of two individuals, a man and a woman who chose to die holding hands, as they fell from the 91st floor of the tallest building of the largest city in the world. The dizzying clatter of numbers gave way to a silence in which we could feel, could hear stories like that of the wife of one of the heroes on the plane that crashed in Philadelphia, how she sat for three hours with her cell phone in her lap, how she waited past all reason and hope, to hear his voice again.        

And stories didn't just help us to feel the pain, the loss; they helped us to heal too. 50,000 people might have been in the Towers that day, but only 20,000 showed up for work, and of those, just under 3,000 died. That is numerical  salvation. But the story of the man who dragged a handicapped office mate and her wheel chair down and down the narrow, smoke-filled stairs, that is acute, vibrant, real. And the woman who always walked past the tantalizing smells of a bakery on her way to work, but who on the morning of September 11, decided for the first time to treat herself, and whose life was therefore saved by a sticky bun, that is salvation we can taste. It is a story we can savor, a story that brings us back to our job, living.        

There have always been stories, especially stories of suffering and redemption. Like signal flares from one heart, one village, one generation to the next, stories are the way we get outside our own skins and into someone else's. Just as we've all found in workshop that we can often understand the writing process more clearly by analyzing someone else's writing, so we can often be clearer about the value and beauty of life and the cost of the unfathomable journey to death when they . belong to someone else. "Alas, poor Yorick," we say, holding in our hands, not a skinless skull, but a book, a story that brings to life a whole, breathing, fallible, funny, passionate, lazy human being. A human being to whom we are connected by our common frailties and potential, and by our  end. This commonality and our tender response to it is the stuff of art, of stories, of music, and painting.        

John Tarrant has studied English Literature, Australian aboriginals, the music of the Latin mass, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism. He writes more lushly, and lyrically than any non-fiction author has a right to. His book, The Light Inside the Dark, has been by my bedside ever since the towers fell: 

The consoling and alarming discovery is that we are not bounded by our skin. What we witness, we become; we are not separate any more than we are lonely. We are the snow making a silence as it falls, the girl picking up her bicycle, the blossom adrift on the bough. This is the insight of Buddhism— an image of the jeweled net that holds the world and all of us in a seamless continuity. It is also the insight of the creative process, the alchemy by which the harshest touch, the bitterest grief, is altered through our careful openness — an attention so persevering it becomes a kind of love—  into something astonishing: a pain filled with immortal brightness. Refusing nothing of life, our sorrows, like pails of water, carry their gleam.

Our finest art, then, like our finest moments, reveals our vulnerability, our ignorance, and the bravery of our persistence in honoring this brief, protoplasmic dance by getting out of bed each morning. By putting one foot in front of the other. And by going about our human business all day long until it is time to go back to bed. But this is hard work. And sometimes we lose will. The will to persevere, the will to do what we've always done. The will to write. Such dark, faithless periods don't mean, of course, that the well is dry. They simply mean that we've forgotten how much stories matter, how powerful the smell of sticky buns can be.        

How do we remind ourselves? How do we find the courage to open one sleepy eye and then the other, to put our feet on the floor? To write? Not easily. And not without cost. Especially after September 11. But we do, we always will. Not coincidentally, it was two writers, one famous and one unknown, who taught me again this fall what countless stories had already shown me ¾ that loss paves the way for growth.        

Let's start with a writer whose work many of you have read. Ed Young, a wise and gentle man, who is a gifted painter and the author of picture books that bless both their child and adult readers, happened to be the keynote speaker at a conference this fall where Norma, myself, and ten other children's writers were on the docket. Held barely a month after the towers collapsed, this literary festival seemed poorly timed to celebrate children or stories or anything else.        

But Ed gave us a special and hopeful gift. He built his brief remarks around his study of Chinese calligraphy, something he admits he's come to late in life. His mentor is an old master, with whom Ed has worked for several years. Chinese ideograms, like sanskrit and Japanese writing, he's learned, are made up of several characters, each with its own history and meaning. (For a luscious illustration of this, I refer you to Ed's Voices of the Heart, a book I use in meditation almost every day now.) At the Festival, Ed showed us the ideogram for CRISIS, pointing out that it is made up of two seemingly conflicting characters, one signifying DANGER, the other OPPORTUNITY. He told us that he'd thought about this ideogram a great deal since September 11, because that day of crisis had, indeed, brought with it not only unspeakable danger and wholesale destruction, but a tremulous opening as well, a compassionate wound, through which all our hearts poured, our love and caring found a vaster, broader reach than ever before. We became not only sadder and wiser for what we endured, but more tender, "sweeter" if you will.        

The second, slightly less well known writer who showed me how growth and change are part of cataclysm, was our own Joshua Keels. I was groping for ways to show myself and you how to regroup, recharge after the shock we've all absorbed, when Josh's packet arrived in the mail. He had mentioned in an earlier letter to me that, as a student, he used to do Tarot readings. I loved the way he talked about the deck, and I encouraged him to incorporate this in his book. He did.       

In the chapter enclosed in his last packet, one of Josh's characters does a reading for a friend. He turns over the card that covers, or governs the present. It is  the 16th card in the major arcana, The Tower. The illustration on this card, you should know, is just that — a huge castle tower. A tower that is burning. Although at least six centuries old, this image speaks eerily to what we've just experienced. In many decks, the cap of the tower is a crown, a crown that has broken off and is hurtling through the air. In French, The Tower was called La Maison Dieu, The House of God, and it always shows human figures (sometimes two, sometimes more) leaping from the crumbling tower and falling to earth. It is a shocking card, perhaps the most dreaded in the deck, for it foretells nothing less than catastrophic, irreversible, and traumatic change.        

When Josh’s character, Jim, turns over the tower, he is fully aware of this card's meaning. He is also aware that nearly always, the trauma of the tower, like the Chinese ideogram for crisis, includes opportunity for change and growth. Here's a snippet from Josh's book: 

  "Your house is in conflict," he said, "old ways are being overthrown. Old order is being destroyed. But liberation comes at a price." Jim always spoke like this when he read a card — vague and cryptic— but somehow, dead on."

I should add that the Tower is followed in the major arcana by the seventeenth card, The Star. And if the Tower is the most frightening card in the deck, The Star is the most hopeful. It is rich with purpose and guidance, wisdom and calm. It is not a card of action, but of quiet assurance and peace. (Describe) So if I could read our group Tarot, as writers, as a nation, and as a planet, I would guess that, in the same way night follows day, the Star is in our cards.         

Caught in between, though, how can we find our way from upheaval to peace? Where do we get the assurance and courage to keep on writing? Here, half way through my talk, I'm going to give you the first tangible step in my Writer's Recovery Program. It's one I've already hinted at, but here it is in official prescription form: Step One: If you can't write, read. Heal yourself with others' stories, stories that reflect your own peril and confusion. Read for a way out.           

The story I thought of right away in my own dark night of the writer's soul was an old one, the struggle of Jacob with the Angel. Jacob, camped across a stream that divides him from his brother, girds himself for a dangerous confrontation with the tribe he hasn't seen in years. Yet his fiercest battle, the competition that marks him forever with a limp, is a lonely one-on-one. In a mysterious passage that suddenly interrupts the biblical narrative, an angel appears as Jacob waits alone for morning. Jacob gets no sleep. He and the angel wrestle all night long.            

I've always wished I could read the original, because the translations I've seen give no hint as to who challenges who. But Jacob's demands suggest that, in fact, he may have started it all. He asks first, for the angel's blessing, and next, he wants to know the angel's name. How like a writer, I think, each time I read the passage ¾, this tussling with the divine, with the organizing principle of life. And this drive to know, to name. How like the lonely business of writing, too, because Jacob wins but at a cost. He can never move among men in the same way again. The angel, seeing that he is being bested, exercises the prerogative of the inhuman, and touches Jacob's thigh with magic. Jacob's tendon is shrunk and, though he wins the match and ends up with a divine blessing, he also walks away with a damaged leg:

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

What a fortunate misfortune, if not for a migratory Israelite, at least for a writer forced to halt, to take notes, not to be able to speed by life with the alacrity of the "normal." There is something about that picture of Jacob, pausing and looking back on the way he's come, that soothes. It suggests the Star that follows the Tower, the wisdom and vulnerability that can only be won by loss. And so, it seems to me that it's sometimes hard to tell them apart, the man and the angel.: The angel, who cheats and who refuses to reveal his name; the man who fights through his self-doubt and agony, who will not rest in uncertainty. 

And yes, I find here an analogy for going deep, for writing through our torments and confusion. Because doesn't it often happen that the hardest places to go are the ones we need to reach, the ones that open us, grow us? And isn't it true that if we write, write, write against the coming of the dark, if we lean haltingly, painfully into our weakness, that something miraculous almost always happens? If we look hard enough and deep enough, especially at sorrow or fear; if we open our human eyes and heart to what hurts us, suddenly there's a shift, and we see sadness with an angel's eyes, the long view that makes it necessary, integral, sacred.           

So I took Step One of the Program right away. I started reading. And I didn't read only stories. In addition to John Tarrant's book, I devoured poetry, which generally gets right to the heart of things. Pablo Neruda is one of my favorites, and even his essays, like those of Garcia Lorca before him, speak with a poet's fire. A fire that, like the lightening that strikes the tower, combines annihilation and redemption. This is from an essay called "Themes" from the collection, Passions and Impressions:

While the timeless firefly dissolves its phosphorescent tail into glowing dust, the students of the earth, secure geographers, impresarios, decide to sleep. Lawyers, receivers.           

Lonely, alone, a hunter overtaken by night in the deep forest, overwhelmed by the luminous aluminum of the sky, startled by raging stars, solemnly raises his gloved hand and strikes the site of his heart.           

The site of the heart is ours. Lonely, alone, only from the heart, with the aid of black night and deserted autumn, emerge our songs, the songs of the heart, as the hand strikes the breast.           

Like lava or shadow, like bestial trembling, like bells tolling without purpose, poetry dips its hand into fear, into anguish, into the ills of the heart. The imperious ornaments imposed by solitude and oblivion— the stars, trees— are eternally external. The poet in mourning black writes with trembling hand, very much alone. 

Sound familiar? It should, because Neruda is telling us the same thing (only a great deal more gracefully) that I did two semesters ago when I talked about duende: writing from the heart is a difficult, lonely affair. Creation comes at a cost; art is born at night, when we refuse to sleep through despair. Nazim Hikmet, Turkey's most famous poet, winner of the Nobel prize, and not surprisingly, a friend of his fellow Laureate, Pablo Neruda, wrote a poem called "On Living." Here's the last stanza:

© Louise Hawes 2022