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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?

6 Comments
  1. ABE #

    I have to know what it feels like before I can write it.

    If not exactly the same thing, then SOMETHING in me that resonates. Being stuck with empathy helps.

    For 9/11: the previous day was my birthday, and husband was home early: he had been laid off after 22 years as a PhD chemist in industry.

    We were still in shock from that, when I came down the next morning to start homeschooling the kids, to find him watching TV – and saying “I don’t think you’re going to be doing school today.” The kids and I never turned the TV on in the mornings. I was always absurdly grateful he was there that day. Even when it was the beginning of a year without him working.

    Unless you have lived under a rock (or are too young), there is enough in life’s experience, if you figure out how to use it, to provide a foundation for writing about almost anything.

    September 11, 2013
  2. TXRed #

    I was sitting in the O-Club at the CAF AIRSHO in Midland, TX, when they interrupted the show narration to broadcast the President’s announcement that we were going after Bin Laden in Afghanistan. The roaring, growling, cheer that rolled over the airport was something I’d never heard before or since. There’s one novella in particular where I tried to channel a little of that emotion, the release and power of someone at last crying “havoc” and letting slip the dogs of war.

    The other feelings I captured in personal essays. Bits may have slipped into my fiction, but only in that one story have I deliberately invoked those feelings.

    September 11, 2013
    • A memory I’ll be pulling on for an upcoming work goes back to the Iran hostage crisis. I was at Texas Tech then, going to law school. There were a number of retired USAF officers and non-coms in my class. Others were spouses of USAF personnel stationed at the base in Lubbock. We were sitting around one of the tables in the break room when word came in about the hostages. Each and every one of the retired personnel got up and broke into a run. They were heading to the nearest phones they could find and didn’t care if they had to push professors out of the offices to do it. Within minutes, they were on the line to their former COs, etc., trying to find out what they needed to do to report for duty. Some of them had been out of active duty for years. That didn’t matter. All that did was their country needed them. That scene, adapted to the story, will go into the upcoming project.

      September 11, 2013
  3. I was struck by the power of indirect reference to disaster. I was in California at the time and my company in Maryland was operating the data center for the Port Authority of NY/NJ as an outsourced service. There, in the war room of our data center, the screens for the Port Authority data feeds went down. We immediately began working the problem of what was causing the outage as an IT issue. That lasted for several minutes until someone turned on a TV…

    Somehow, seeing it happen in real time and not knowing what you were seeing, the disaster unfolding hiding its real face for just a few moments, made it even more of a sucker punch.

    It reminded me forcefully of the sinking of the Titanic, where the one ship within sight didn’t get the SOS but could see the rocket lights and thought they were celebrating something. When the lights vanished, they assumed the ship had simply passed out of range. And so it had, only straight down.

    I found those moments of witnessing disaster, still innocent, to be very powerful.

    September 11, 2013
  4. Stephen J. simmons #

    The situation and circumstances leading up to my currently-ongoing divorce made “Family Obligations” both necessary and possible.
    What else has made it into my writing …
    The helpless drive to *do* something as I helped my mother in her hopeless attempt at performing CPR on my cousin (who had crashed his motorcycle into a tree in our front lawn in excess of 80 mph).
    The knowledge that on a submarine, running *away* from the electrical switchboard that had just blown up – and was continuing to spit fire – could mean death for everyone onboard, and the only path toward life lay in running *toward* it.
    Getting called to the CO’s stateroom the night before pulling in to learn that my father had died three days before — on my birthday.
    Funny. Most of what I write is comedic. But I can’t recall anything funny that has influenced my writing …

    September 11, 2013
  5. I know what happened to a major supporting character in “Forge” after his capture by the bad guys was directly influenced by the fact that I had both bronchitis and pleurisy when I first drafted the scene. I couldn’t stop coughing, and every cough felt like a knife in my side. Let’s just say I shared my pain!

    September 13, 2013

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