Tuesday, September 11, 2012

JD Salinger, 9/11 and Writing as Therapy

In the summer of 2001 my obsession with the JD Salinger and his Glass family stories took a productive (and, some might say,  inevitable) turn when I decided to start my own little masterpiece about a funny/sad/smart/tragic bunch of geniuses. Like Wes Anderson--who would beat me to it with the Royal Tenenbaums that December--I decided to cannibalize/invert/update the story (and that will most likely be the only time I can legitimately compare my work and his...). Instead of a dozen or so separate short stories about Buddy and Seymour or Franny and Zooey,  or Seymour and a bananafish, I mashed them all together into one. There were other differences, too. My protagonist was female (she was the "Franny" character), with three older brothers (Seymour, Buddy and Zooey. I didn't want to completely re-create the story, so I cut out a few siblings--the Walt and Waker and Boo Boo character equivalents would not make an appearance in my book). I set it in real time--2001, but kept the orginal location, however, of New York City.

And so for a few weeks in late July and early August, I began meandering around the story as I was trying to re-imagine it. This is not unusual for me. I am the queen of false starts.  I play with style and format, with tone and voice. I can start and stop a piece a dozen times before I find something that works.

Then one gorgeously clear and blue and calm morning in September I was on the phone with my mother. I can't remember why she called me at work, but I do recall that at one point, near what would be the end of our conversation, she suddenly stopped what she was saying to comment, "Huh. Something is going on at the World Trade Center."

The next thing I can remember is watching the second plane hit. My coworkers and I had gathered around a television set someone's office. I don't recall how we got there, who made the suggestion, or even how we finally figured out that that "something" was a plane smashing into one of the buildings. But there it was. The other thing I remember clearly was how it felt as if the floor beneath me was wobbling as next we heard about a plane hitting the Pentagon, then one falling from the sky in western PA.

What's next? 

Did I mention that at the time, I worked for a government agency in Harrisburg, PA, with a private office and a ton of free time on my hands?

So in the days following --days that are silent in my memory. Clear and blue and sad but always silent. I can recall images --of course those of planes and steel buildings on fire, of smoke, of a tattered American flag and steel girders sticking up amidst the rubble like a broken ribcage--but no noise. I don't recall music or conversation or car horns or dogs barking.

And so I wrote. Page after page after page. I shut my office door and clattered away on the keyboard. Writing. September through December 2001 were probably the most prolific months as a writer that I've ever had (or ever will have). I had to write, I remember thinking. I had to fix the work. You see, I had already started writing a story which was set in NYC. And now, well, NYC wasn't the same. And I knew I couldn't get away with pretending it was. So everything I thought and felt and saw got mixed in to that story. For better or worse. Everything got folded into this story.

I am sure it's terrible. Clearly I was too close to the gamut of emotions I was running through every hour to have any meaningful perspective. Closeness is never good for fiction. Time, distance. Some objectivity. I had none of those things at the time.  But it didn't matter.

I never finished it, not that I think I was supposed to. Therapy, I think, is pretty organic and fluid. You give and take what you need to move on and hopefully, you heal.