The paralysis of shock

When I was still teaching full time in the late nineties, I wrote only in the summer. It was a stupid way to approach the craft, but as Frank Sinatra said, I did it my [stupid] way. Despite this approach, by the summer of 2001 I was finishing a novel that seemed important, filled with meaningful situations of great significance to all of us. Then 9/11 came and nothing seemed important or meaningful or significant.

I stopped writing. I didn’t mean to—I just couldn’t see any reason why I should continue. The everyday concerns of my characters—even their potential demise—paled in significance to 3000 deaths and a country under siege.

Now I call myself a writer (mainly because I don’t like writing “retired” on my 1040) and I write every day, all year. This morning it was difficult—eighty-four average people living in a civilized country were massacred by one murderer with a truck. The victims were not combatants—they had not signed on to participate in a war. In fact many of them were children—and as we will undoubtedly see, this story will become more horrific as more details emerge. My new “important” novel seemed a lot less important.

Yesterday I went to a luncheon at which local author Stewart O’Nan spoke about writing. His overriding theme was where do books come from? and he told the story of asking a librarian for a book on the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, only to learn that there was none. Now there is one—he wrote it.

I thought of his anecdote last night when news of the massacre in Nice began to filter in. I had just blogged about the flap over the Canadian National Anthem at the All-Star Game and immediately regretted the post—it seemed trivial to fret over a slogan when so many were dead. And I wondered if, seventy-two years ago, other writers felt the same paralysis when they read accounts of the circus fire, if they too felt that anything else was trivial.

I won’t be the one to document last night’s massacre, and I won’t be the one people talk about years from now when they refer to the one writer who truly expressed the tragedy and pathos. But somebody is going to do it, and that writer is going to have work through other tragedies as they come along and not fall victim to the paralysis of shock. Events like last night’s deserve to be chronicled in a respectful and incisive manner; and no offense to the reporters on the scene, but the victims deserve better than live updates from the scene and platitudes from world leaders.

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