Ten days ago two explosive devices were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am sitting at the same desk where I worked last Friday during the daylong manhunt that led to the arrest of the second suspect in the bombings. The first had been killed in a late-night gunfight just three miles from the house I share with my husband. I learned of the events when I turned on my computer at 5:30 the next morning and saw the news headlines. Usually I try to write in the early hours, but I was unable to write after that. At six, my neighbor Mary called to tell me that her husband had heard a disturbance in the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep. Did I know that we were supposed to stay home and lock the doors?
My husband woke next and I told him what had happened. His cell phone beeped with a text message announcing that the mental health clinic where he works was closed. In fact, all businesses in the area were closed. We double-checked the locks on our doors, opened the window blinds just enough to let in a little sunlight, and spent the entire day inside the house.
You might ask: What does this have to do with writing?
It’s been ten days since the bombings and I can’t seem to shake the effects of what happened. This is not surprising; everyone in Boston seems to know someone who was affected by last week’s events. An old friend of mine had just left the finish line a few minutes before the blasts; she saw the explosions from her office nearby. A receptionist who greeted me last Saturday at a local business told me that her uncle, a police officer, arrived in Watertown just after the gunfight. The woman who took my blood at the doctor’s office on Monday said that she knew people working in area hospitals who would be haunted all their lives by what they’d seen and heard. Paul Martin, a Paralympic athlete who has run the Boston Marathon numerous times and whose memoir, One Man’s Leg, was the first book I edited, sent an email saying that his college friend had lost a leg at the finish line. And a few minutes ago I felt my body stiffen when a helicopter flew over our house. Two helicopters flew low over our neighborhood last Friday, just before the second suspect was apprehended. I realized later that one of those helicopters must have been carrying the thermal imaging equipment that located the suspect beneath the tarp that covered the boat where he was hiding.
No, I haven’t shaken any of this yet.
But what does this have to do with writing?
It is the haunted feeling that I have right now, the same feeling I have had for the last ten days, that compels me to write personal essays. It is a shaken feeling, or a curious feeling, or a constant reliving whether conscious or not, an inability to let go of an event, a memory, or even just a thought. The event might have occurred yesterday, or it might have occurred thirty years ago. But on some level I have not been able to shake it. And so, eventually, I write about it.
Michael Steinberg, the founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre and author of the award-winning memoir Still Pitching, is one of the writers-in-residence at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, where I studied. He often tells me that writing personal essays is, at its heart, a form of inquiry. You start with the intention of revisiting a memory, re-telling an event, or relating an observation, but really you are searching for what it all means. Your goal is to find, as essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick would say, the story behind the situation. The process is never as simple as you think, at least for me it isn’t. But in the end, if you stick stubbornly with your subject and explore it with all your guts, you learn what is behind your need to write about it – and it’s not always what you expect.
When I revisit some of my early attempts at writing personal essays, I can see that I was able to describe the “who,” the “what,” the “where,” and the “when” – not surprising for a former journalist. But I had trouble with the “why.” Why was my topic important? What was the point? Why had it stuck with me? What did I have to say about it? What was the best way to say it? And why should anyone else care? I hadn’t explored my topics deeply enough to tackle the demons and find the connections; I hadn’t taken the risk that writing teachers tell you to take when they say: go for the jugular.
It was when I started taking that risk that the writing came to life.
So, will I write about what it was like to sit in this house, which seemed to get hotter and hotter as I became more tense and trapped, during the manhunt after the bombings at the Boston Marathon?
I don’t know. At this point it doesn’t feel like my story to tell. The grief is all around me, as are the tales of heroism and redemption that we all cling to at times like this. And those tales are other people’s stories, not mine. I am just a witness.
Being a witness is important. Very important. But as essayists we need to do more than witness – we need to find meaning and an artful way to express it so that our readers can find it, too. And that takes time.
But boy, is it worth it.