On Sept. 11

When I turned on NPR in the kitchen that morning, Robert Seagall’s voice was somber and uncertain. It lacked the confidence, I soon realized, that comes with knowing what you are going to say. He was reporting off the cuff, and I turned up the sound while my bagel toasted. He repeated the events: a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers in New York, then a second plane, hitting the second tower. I understood that these were grave events, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand what he meant, that a plane had crashed into the tower. I couldn’t conceive of it, and for the first time ever I thought that the radio wasn’t conveying what I needed to know. I turned on CNN, and watched, transfixed, as they replayed footage of the burning towers, of the planes hitting them.

At some point I knew I had to leave for work, craved, in fact, the analysis of my current events-obsessed colleagues at the business newspaper where I was as an editor. I felt the loss of information as soon as I turned off the TV. The disconnection made me uneasy. I hurried to the train. I remember studying each of the other passengers and wondering if they had heard the news yet. I remember wanting to tell them, the man reading yesterday’s news in the paper, the other 20-somethings looking dazed and still asleep in the rocking of the train. The cars seemed quieter than normal.

I did not feel scared until I exited Montgomery Station downtown and was immediately engulfed by throngs of workers walking the opposite way — into the station. Everyone was going home, and I was pushing through the crowds to get into the Financial District. We did not know yet what was happening, or why, and all those people were going home because it seemed safer. I felt that I was the only person walking against the tide, though surely I could not have been. I made it to my office and immediately my colleagues and I asked each other, “Did you see?” Some had managed to arrive without having heard news of the events. We began scrounging about the office for a radio. We were a small paper that, unlike many news organizations, did not have CNN going in the office. There wasn’t even a TV. I think eventually one of the editors went to Walgreens and bought a clock radio. We listened all day, heard the emotion in the newscaster’s voice when he announced that the first tower had fallen, then, later, the second.

When enough reporters and editors had arrived, we met in the conference room. Our editor began by saying if any of us felt uncomfortable being there and would rather go home, that we should go. That I should go home had not really occurred to me until then, and I felt a twinge of fear. No one left. It was decided that we’d drop what we’d been working on, and get to work finding out what businesses with offices in the towers had Bay Area ties. We were a local paper, looking for a local angle. Because this is what we did every day, every week, this is what we did that day. We paired up, with editors and researchers feeding leads and information to reporters who made the calls. I remember the adrenaline of it; frantically looking up companies on the web, struggling to figure out what businesses had been in which towers. A reporter might hear something from a contact – speculation that a particular Bay Area businessperson might have been on one of the planes, for example, and then the race was on to find out as much as we could about that person, their business, and what the loss of he or she might mean to the company. The adrenaline carried us through early afternoon; that and perhaps some fear – we as a country still believed there might be other hijacked planes out there and we had heard that at least one had been headed for San Francisco. All of those workers fleeing downtown that morning, that was what they had been avoiding. We in the newsroom had considered possible targets, read these rumors online. The Transamerica Pyramid was two blocks from our building, the Bank of America tower (the tallest tower in San Francisco), three. I imagined these scenarios, as well as the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, that day and for many days and nights following.

By afternoon, the act of trying to spin this loss of life, destruction and fear into news stories began make me feel ill. One of the seasoned reporters noticed my discomfort and reminded me that it was our job to report the news, that people needed information, now more than ever. I understood that, and in some way felt proud of our obligation and yet — I had never felt so revolted by my profession. I suspected I was not cut out for the job, yet I continued to research, dig up phone numbers and plan additional coverage with the other editors.

By mid-afternoon I needed a break. I rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked out into a desolate city. The sun shone cruelly over everything. I walked around the Financial District for 20 or 30 minutes and in that time, I passed not a single person. Restaurants and stores were closed, office buildings locked. Many had makeshift signs in their windows that read “Closed for national tragedy.” The beauty of the day was at odds with events at hand, and with my emotions. I am not a religious person, but I wondered if God was cruel or whether he was mocking us with the sunshine and warmth, or whether, in his kindness, the weather was meant to soothe a grieving people. I remember thinking that the weather was beautiful in New York, too, according to the images I had seen, and that there must be some kind of solidarity in that. In retrospect my thinking about the events of that day was strange and disoriented, I suppose because the events themselves were so disorienting.

Not long after my afternoon walk, I decided to go home to Billy. We had spoken on the phone that morning. Unlike me, when Billy heard the news on the radio, he understood immediately the gravity of the situation, and pulled his car over to listen. His company had sent workers home right away and he’d been in our apartment watching news coverage all afternoon.

By the time I reached our apartment I felt truly ill, sickened by the horrifying deaths of all of those people, and by the daylong attempt to turn tragedy 3,000 miles away into local news.

My instinct was to hide in the apartment for the night, to try to push the news away with some kind of diversion, but our good friends invited us to their house for dinner. I remember thinking I didn’t want to go, that I couldn’t eat — but when I arrived I felt so grateful for the company and the shared discussion and the homemade meal. 

Events of the next weeks and months and years point to our collective jitters as a newspaper, as a city, as a country. Our office was evacuated for bomb scares several times in the weeks after Sept. 11, and we received mail containing fake anthrax powder in the newsroom. The cover of a special publication I had been working on about fast growing companies had to be scrapped because it (not so subtly) depicted a rocket taking off, complete with fireball to indicate speed and power. It was deemed insensitive. Always when I think back to that time, I remember the heart-quickening sound of the helicopters that flew so frequently overhead. There were war protests. I dreamt more than once that terrorists flew a plane into the Golden Gate Bridge, and that I climbed the hill near my apartment to watch it burn. One night I dreamt that I sold a photograph of the bridge engulfed in flames to the Associated Press, and I awoke feeling sick about it. On the way into work I encountered war protests that had turned into riots. One morning a protester flung a newspaper box across an intersection and it skidded to a stop at my feet.

October writing links

Hello, reader. Here’s a little tidbit for you: I’m a mad documenter of the past. This, no doubt, has something to do with having two historians for parents. I grew up knowing words like “archive” at a very young age. Anyway, I’m always trying to preserve moments in time. For example, October.

I thought I’d share the writing-related links* from October that most moved, inspired, thrilled, saddened, and in the case of two book reviews, surprised me. In other words, worth reading:

Alexander Chee‘s wonderful essay on Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.

An excellent question posed on Practicing Writing. I could probably write a blog post about my experience with age in my MFA program. Oh wait, I did. All I can say is, if you’re not in your 20s, make sure you visit the program and/or find out some specific age demographics before you go to make sure it’s a good fit.

The decline and fall.

A pretty rough review of John Irving’s latest novel from Michiko Kakutani. One of several harsh book reviews I’ve read recently. This one follows the nearly complete evisceration of Richard Powers’ entire body of work in the New Yorker. I’m not against negative reviews…it’s just, well, it’s always unsettling to read a harsh one, particularly when it’s the work of an established writer.

Scrivener, the helpful writing software, is offering a discount to NaNoWriMo participants. The more you write, the cheaper it gets! I don’t use Scrivener all the time, but I absolutely love it for organizing lots of shorter documents, or trying to get my head around a big project. I’m a big fan of the cork board.

This has made the rounds but it’s an amazing story of almost giving up on writing (but not!) and so I include it here.

*There’s a nice little feed of what I’ve been bookmarking on de.lic.ious on the right side of the blog  that you can see if you click through from that handy feed reader you use to keep up with all the bloggy goodness out there. But if you’re in a hurry or just don’t feel like clicking, I’m here for you. Thus the October roundup.

Daily papers walking the plank

There’s an eye-opening column on Business Week’s web site that suggests that a major American city’s daily paper is due to close, from a business perspective, in the next 18-24 months. Guess which one’s at the top of the list?

Big hint: Top stories have recently included several (front-page) cheers on the awesomeness of “Ratatouille”, a story that liberally quotes a fake newspaper and, ahem, why women like uncircumcised men.

What’s even more eye-opening than the column are the comments below it, which range from, basically, “American newspapers are useless, the Internet is better,” to “the SF Chronicle is a left-wing propaganda machine that doesn’t report news, the Internet is better.”

Reading to travel, traveling to read

I had trouble waking up this morning, and even after my usual mug of Peet’s French Roast, I’m still not quite awake. I’ve been web surfing before I buckle down on my freelance projects, hoping that procrastination will lead to perkiness…. one of my cyber-stops? Slate.

A series on Slate that I’ve been reading all week has reminded me that I love to read travel writing. It’s been a while since I read any with real enthusiasm; I think writing a travel memoir last year sapped my interest temporarily. But travel writing used to be the kind of nonfiction writing I devoured more than any other, and aside from fiction, the kind of writing I devoured more than any other. I had to restrain myself yesterday in posting some of my favorite nonfiction books — I could easily have made the whole list from travel writing. In fact, it’s not necessarily the travel that I enjoy so much as the idea of place. I like when place is a character in a book, whether it’s travel writing or memoir or fiction. I think I’m just susceptible to location and landscape, and my own writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, tends to have a heavy focus on such things.

Anyway, Slate has been running a series in their “Dispatches” section written by three guys cycling through Central Asia. It’s compelling stuff; chance meetings, danger, strange stories, bike woes. Check it out.

Gay Talese memoir

Gay Talese, one of the writers at the forefront of the “new journalism” of the 1960s, has finally finished his memoir, A Writer’s Life, after 14 years. There’s an article in today’s New York Times about Talese and his quirky, often extreme writing habits. He is apparently incredibly meticulous and a notorious tinkerer. (Hey, my kind of writer.) He has, according to the article, compared writing to “driving a truck at night without headlights, losing your way along the road and spending a decade in a ditch,” which is perhaps the funniest, but also most depressing way of considering the craft that I think I’ve ever heard.

on journalism (from the creative vantage point)

An excerpt from “The Art of Creative Nonfiction,” by Lee Gutkind, that will surely amuse my former co-workers, (as it amused me):

“Traditional journalists learn early in their education that creativity or imagination in newspapers and magazines are basically disallowed. Reporters with any real literary talent will have it squeezed out of them by stubborn and insensitive editors. Disillusioned, they will write secretly at night (becoming closet poets or novelists), or they leave the profession to chase their muse or some other dream. � What the reporter/writer feels or thinks personally about the nature or truth of the story is irrelevant. Curiously, most everyone in the newspaper business will admit that objectivity is impossible, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the intensity of their belief in the principle.”

I should mention that I am finding, from some students and professors, (and now from this book) a sort of sweeping disdain toward “journalism,” despite the fact that many of these same professors publish frequently in well-known magazines (apparently not considered journalism?) and that many of these same students presumably wish they were published in well-known magazines, or even newspapers, for that matter. In my fiction class today, one student, by way of introducing himself, declared that he was a failed journalism major and that he “hated writing to the lowest common denominator.”

Fair enough, I guess, but I am fairly certain that this guy never actually worked at a newspaper or magazine.
So far, I’m finding this attitude more interesting than abrasive or annoying. Sometimes, like in the above passage, I even find it amusing.

“unspeakable vileness”

A quote from Balzac that sums up last week at work:

“Anybody who was once caught up in journalism, or is caught up in it still, is under the cruel necessity of greeting men he despises, smiling at his worst enemy, condoning actions of the most unspeakable vileness, soiling his hands to pay his agressors out in their own coin. You grow used to seeing evil done, to letting it go; you begin by not minding, you end by doing it yourself. In the end, your soul, spotted daily by shameful transactions always going on, shrinks, the spring of noble thoughts rusts, the hinges of small talk wear loose and swing unaided. The Alcestes become Philintes, character loses temper, talent degenerates, the belief in works of beauty evaporates. A man who wanted to take pride in his pages spends himself in wretched articles which sooner or later his conscience will tell him were base actions.”

From Balzac, “A Harlot High and Low”

New Voices

I’ve written little here recently, or, well, since March. That’s the result of a week-long trip to Japan, a parental visit, a mad dash to write a travel article for an Egyptian travel magazine, and, after all that, some general lethargy. That’s likely the result of some grey weather here in SF and my usual moodiness.

But this weekend that abated, and the sun’s shining warmly, even in the Sunset.
I’ve just finished reading an anthology of short stories, Best New American Voices 2003. It was stellar. Even now, the some of the stories stick with me. Work like that has the double impact of inspiring me and discouraging me…because the stories were so damn good.

Today I got caught up in reading about the mistakes, bad judgment and downward spiral of a New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair. The NYT published a whopping 4 pages worth of investigation/corrections on this guy. Unbelievable. I expected, after reading all of that, to feel better about the New York Times and a major journalistic slip-up, but I felt much worse. The article made it seem as though there’s a large contingent of editors there, none of whom communicate. The article left me wondering how any of what happened with Blair could possibly have happened.

Norman Solomon

I read an article today on E&P online describing one columnist’s view that the media can’t publish/air anti-war views out of fear of alienating their readers. In contrast, he said, British newspapers are going whole-hog with the anti-war writing. Granted, more of the population of Britain is  against the war than is the case here. But I think this guy has a point. So, I read a few of his columns. He’s a little biting for my style, but his point is well taken:
Norman Solomon