We were originally going to move over to the new site today, but then we looked at the calendar a little more closely. Ah, 9/11. So we’ll move tomorrow. Today I want to remember and share a few things about my journey with you as well.
I vividly recall seeing one of the towers collapse live on CNN this day in 2001. I remember sinking to my knees in shock and horror.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” I whispered.
My daughter came up behind me. “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
My hand was over my mouth. I told her the truth: “A lot of people just died.”
I’m not a native of New York City. I can’t imagine what someone who lives in the city—who had a loved one die or was running from debris or just watching terrified from the periphery—felt that day or how they’ve managed to cope in the aftermath. I guess most of them did what we all have to when life tuns out harsher than we could’ve dreamed: develop a thicker skin and try to move on.
Even though I’m not a native of NYC, I am a New York state resident. I remember the most ominous looking sky the day after the attacks, with positively stark, gray, fat clouds rolling overhead. I remember thinking they were overfilled with remnants of the terrible day-pieces of city and other people’s lives descending on my hometown like a traveling cemetery, demanding that all of us pay our respects. They affected me, those clouds and the unnatural storm that preceded them. They made me anxious, and they made me hear the ticking of the clock more loudly than ever before. I began taking my dreams a lot more seriously. I looked at the faded fortune cookie slip I’d kept for years, the one that said, You are a lover of words. Someday you will write a book, and I thought, “Someday is now.”
And so I began.
The first draft of my story was pure garbage and as boxed as dry mac-and-powder-cheese. But at least I was doing it. I wrote the first few chapters of a second draft, and began to feel moderately proud of my work, in April of 2002. I finished the manuscript after about a year, then spent nearly another year editing it, getting feedback, and cutting 150 pages worth of information from its fatty body. I sent it out to a list of top-notch agents and received back a pile of rejections, though many of these were also top-notch. (“We loved your style of writing and unique voice, and would be enthusiastic about seeing future manuscripts.” “There is something about your prose that is unique and captivating. You’ve got great potential.” And my favorite, “You’re a luscious writer, with loads of vivid details and language…this is the kind of story I would want to write.”) Despite the lovely rejections, I began to doubt the wisdom of my fortune cookie, because the truth was that I had no idea in the world how to turn those letters into anything other than THANKS, BUT NO. By this point, it was well into 2004.
It took a while—I had a mini dark moment of the soul, I’ll admit—but eventually I decided to follow one agent’s advice and let my voice grow as it seemed to want to. I tried writing other manuscripts and even got about 300 pages into one, but my first story kept poking at my insides, “Psst. This was a really good idea. Unique. Grow it. Make it more and then try again.” I had plenty of false starts, trying to weave old and new. It just wasn’t working. I sunk into a study of craft, studied some more, consulted good people. Finally I realized that if I wanted to salvage the heart of the story, I’d have to pretty much start all over again. I went into deep-think mode in early 2005, came up with a way to grow the story that seemed to have been bluntly staring me in the face all along, sighed with relief and then began brainstorming new threads. I’ve been working on my born-again story for almost a year now, and I’m committed as ever to finishing it.
Days like this remind me how it all began. They remind me of that death-shroud cloud and that life is short. They remind me I still have a lot of work to do but that it’s important–SO important–to continue.
I was recently asked to write an essay about art—about why art is important following loss. What I wrote seems to fit this day, so here it is:
Life is not always kind to us individually, or to our families, our towns, our country or our world. But it’s important not to let cheerlessness grow within us uncountered, because it can choke out hope. Art is a great remedy for this kind of bewildered, lost feeling, because when we’re in the midst of art we’re reminded that life has purpose and that purpose is often joyful. It doesn’t matter if you’re creating art or admiring someone else’s, or whether the art itself appears in a deft brushstroke or a poignant melody or an apt phrase or a lingering touch between two dancers. What matters is art’s ability to take us outside of our own experience for a while to remind us that there is meaning beyond despair. Art is able to do this like nothing else because it stems from passion, and passion is–at least for me–nearly the very opposite of hopelessness.
I guess this is what motivated me to write after 9/11 and what brings me back to my wip, regardless of what might be happening around me. Passion. Hope. Find it, then use it well and use it often.
Write on, all.