Memory and writing
When Sarah and I were talking last night, she told me that she wasn’t up to blogging today. She couldn’t think of anything because her brain is fully engaged in what will soon become the next book in her DarkShip series. Since I want to read the book sooner rather than later, I told her I’d fill in today. What I didn’t expect was that today would be so difficult for me. So, bear with me. This isn’t going to be a political post and I promise I will bring it around to writing.
Twelve years ago today, I woke from a sound sleep and stumbled into the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee. As was my habit, I turned on the small TV on the drainboard while the coffee perked — just in time to see the first jet slam into the World Trade Center. Like so many others around the country and around the world, I spent most of the day watching as events unfolded. I stood in line for more than six hours to donate blood, listening to the news coverage on a radio and then watching it on a TV one of the local merchants brought out for us to watch.
I finally understood what my parents must have felt as they huddled around their respective family radios and listened to the news coming in about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Our bubble of safety had been burst and life would never be exactly the same again.
Seven years and one day later, I received a call from my son who was a student at Texas A&M and a proud member of the Aggie Corps of Cadets. He wanted to let me know that on 9/11 of that year, he and some of his friends signed their contracts to join the Air Force. I wasn’t surprised that he’d signed his contract. I’d known for years that his goal was to go into the military upon graduation. I was extremely proud that he and his buddies had signed up on the anniversary of the day that had such an impact on their lives.
Sure, there’s fear as well. I’d be a fool not to worry about him. But he has followed generations of military men in my family to proudly serve his country. That pride outweighs the fear — usually.
So what, you ask, does this have to do with writing? In some ways, it has everything to do with writing. Part of our job as writers is to connect emotionally with our readers. It doesn’t matter if we are writing about something that happened in Ancient Greece or in the New York City of today or on some far-off planet in the distant future. What matters is that our characters will still have emotions (unless they are robots without that particular interface or a race like Vulcans) and there will still be people wanting to serve their countries or parents/spouses/friends worrying about their loved ones going off to do something potentially dangerous.
We write these scenes by drawing on our own memories and emotions. Standing in line as I waited to give blood that day twelve years ago, I listened as two executives tried to get through to anyone who might have heard about their fellow employees who might been in their offices in the WTC. I saw their faces crumple as they learned that a woman they knew hadn’t made it out. I saw the hope as others called friends or family, learning either they hadn’t been at work or had managed to make it out. I might live in the DFW area, but there are a lot of New Yorkers who have moved down here for business and every one of them were deeply affected by what happened that day.
I can pull on my own emotions — the disbelief, the anger, the sadness and more — as I write scenes where one of my characters has lost someone close to them, especially if that loss is through violence.
There are other memories I draw on as well, depending on what I’m writing. The memory of what it felt like to hold my son for the first time. The fear as that giant crab chased after me on the Jersey shore (okay, I was maybe three and the crab was big). The anger when a certain idiot fireman — who happened to be standing under the brass numbers on my house indicating my address — asked me what the address was as the ambulance carrying my father pulled away from the house and the pain as I punched a hole in the wall instead of punching one in the fireman’s face. Then there was the sense of urgency to get the hole fixed before my mother came home from the hospital and saw what had happened.
Good memories and bad. They help make us the people we are and the writers we can become. Just as an artist uses paints or pens and pencils to put their emotions onto paper (or other media), we use words to “paint” our picture. We find ways to work out our frustrations with co-workers or neighbors by sometimes redshirting them in our books (c’mon, I can’t be the only one who does that). We use these memories and the emotions they evoke to help make our characters more real.
Without going into politics or even focusing too heavily on any of the events that have happened on previous 9/11’s, what are some of the memories you’ve channeled to help make your writing more believable or to help evoke emotions in your readers?