Essay by Martha Nichols
Storytelling as a Collective Search for Meaning
I often startle awake in the middle of the night, editing a piece of writing that doesn’t exist. I stare into the darkness, still recasting sentences in my mind.
Last week in Boston, I woke up every night in this ghostly editing mode. Within moments of opening my eyes, I couldn’t remember what the writing was about or why I kept going through the motions. The night of the bombings, it had to do with book reviewing. I think. On Saturday, after my family visited the memorial for the victims downtown, I was sure I understood something BIG, if only I could change this word, this paragraph.
It was a surreal week. Awful. The deaths and injuries, the days of wondering what the hell is going on are we safe oh please, the five-city lockdown during gun battles a mile from my home—none of it made any more sense than my dream creations.
And yet, I’ve come to realize that those struggles over phantom words are never wasted. Writing is how I organize my thoughts. Revising is how I figure out what I don’t know. Even going through the motions, in my sleep—in the constantly evolving and unraveling stuff of dreams—I’m grappling with some nebulous thing that may eventually surface.
I’ve kept a journal since college, scribbling in notebooks during the heat of many a personal crisis. But I rarely make such writing public. Last week, though, my blog posts almost spiraled over the edge, leaping boundaries I normally wouldn’t consider in the instant replay of something so upsetting.
Those days in Boston seemed to call for an immediate public account. I live here. A student from my magazine writing class appeared on 60 Minutes because he once hired Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a lifeguard. Dzhokhar went to the high school my eleven-year-old son will attend. As with anyone who has personal connections to 9/11 or Columbine or Newtown or protests in Syria—or any other national trauma that ripples around the world—our many stories convey far more complexity than a single news report.
Noisy as my Twitter feed was on April 19, during that long day spent shut inside while one of the suspects hunkered in a boat, those tweets offered the best lens on a very off-kilter Boston. My family watched TV, of course. But even while the endgame was unfolding near my son’s old karate studio, our boy tracked the tweets on my phone instead.
People all around him were experiencing the same crazy, scary thing in every possible way. Updates from the AP and Boston Globe sped by mixed with one-word scatological tweets (“FUCK”), veiled threats “signed America,” earnest messages of support for the people of Boston, “Yay!!!!!!!! He’s alive!!!!!!!,” and jokes about boats on dry land in Watertown.
I let my son send out his own tweet via my Twitter account:
This is martha’s son. I h8 staying inside. i could have gone 2 camp and done fun stuff! We’re watching the news & i’m okay. Bring him alive!
My boy said he was okay then, although he’s not completely. I’d like to edit out his fear, my irrational guilt, my inability to protect him—this entire event. We both wish it had never happened. Yet, simple erasure isn’t possible.
During the lockdown, the closest we came to a safety valve was laughing at the gallows humor of some tweets: Best 2 days of boat ownership? Day you buy and day you sell. Worst? The day a terrorist decides to hide in it and get shot up by a SWAT team. Or when a local TV reporter howled, “This is Watertown, not Bagdad!”
It would be nice if there were only one storyline for this tragedy, but there isn’t. We’ll have to keep revising, many times over, in order to come to terms with what’s happened. Journalists will continue to interpret the evidence; essayists, poets, and fiction writers will tell other kinds of stories.
The stuff of dreams, indeed, and not happy dreams, but each a shard of a much larger truth. We need fictional accounts, first-person recollections, nonfiction investigative features. We need stories by legions of literary writers and journalists, because collectively searching for meaning will help us all recover.
On the Saturday after the lockdown, my family took the subway into Boston to join a friend for dinner. On the way to his place in the South End, we stopped at the memorial on Boylston Street. In front of the barricade, three white crosses stood draped with flowers and flags, labeled with the names of each of the people who’d died. Photos and baseball caps and T-shirts and more flowers were piled around them—and words.
It’s not a coincidence that I’m currently reading Stanley Fish’s brilliant little 2011 book How to Write a Sentence. For Fish, the sentence is a “structure of logical relationships” rather than just a subject and predicate; it’s the most basic unit of storytelling.
“Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead,” he writes. He also instructs:
Think about what you do when you revise a sentence: You add something, you delete something, you substitute one tense for another, you rearrange clauses and phrases; and with each change, the ‘reality’ offered to your readers changes. An attempt to delineate in words even the smallest moment—a greeting in the street, the drinking of a cup of coffee, the opening of a window—necessarily leaves out more than it includes….
How to Write a Sentence is full of statements that appeal to my inner editor, that reviser of phantoms who never seems to sleep. Still, in at least one fundamental respect, I disagree with Fish. He compares his love of a great sentence to “appreciating a technical achievement” such as a good wine or an amazing feat of athletic prowess.
Me, I’ll take the paragraph. A great paragraph links all those individual stories together. If each sentence is “a little world made cunningly” (here Fish cribs from John Donne), then a paragraph expands that world, allowing for at least the possibility that meaning requires more than individual achievement.
One little world depends on another little world and another and another. I witnessed that at the memorial in downtown Boston, in the faces of the quiet, camera-clicking crowd. We were there together, sharing in a public tragedy and in one form of healing.
My family had no flowers or banners with us to add. So the three of us each wrote a message on the back of old movie ticket stubs that I found in my pocket. The gruff memorial attendant waved my boy through, saying “put it anywhere you want.”
My son jittered in place for a second, ablaze with determination and nerves. Then he scattered our paragraphs among the petals.
- How to Write a Sentence—and How to Read One by Stanley Fish (HarperCollins, 2011).
- The tweets quoted are from @Athenas_Head and @ClintSquier.
- "Boston bombing: Near scene of manhunt, a mom sends son back to school" by Martha Nichols, Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 2013.
"I have no idea how to hand over the whole bundle of my existential knowledge to my son. I don’t want him to grow up too fast, yet he wants and needs to know what’s happening. I appreciate the “Tips For Edgy Parents At Home In Lockdown Mode With Kids” emailed around by his school, and they are sensible. But I resent them, too.... They don’t satisfy my need to shake a fist at the heavy overcast sky or the Fates or God or whatever butterfly wings determine our lives." — "Boston Lockdown"