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Writing about disaster

“The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience– it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes.” -Maurice Blanchot, The writing of the disaster

I started writing this post a couple months ago, after reading the work of several MatadorU students who had been involved in, had witnessed, or had narrowly missed the most publicized disasters of the past year: earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, bombings in Morocco and elsewhere, and tornadoes and floods in the US.

What struck me about all of their narratives–and what made it challenging for me to offer them feedback they’d be able to handle and, perhaps, apply–were the ways in which their experience impacted them, making it seemingly impossible for them to separate the individual who experienced the disaster from the individual who was writing about having experienced the disaster. Reading that sentence, the distinction may seem a small one, but it’s not. Those two people are a bit like Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, if you’ll pardon the gross liberty of this metaphor: they’re the same but they’re different, inhabiting different personae for distinct purposes.

I’ve been thinking about this post and what I wanted to say since then, and finally decided to see if I could finish it. Given the past week’s events in Oslo, hashing out a framework for what might make disaster writing more effective certainly seems relevant and worthwhile.

I asked a couple of well-read writer friends if they could share some quality “disaster writing.” Turns out, none of them really could; there’s not a lot of good disaster writing out there. Like “plight writing” (which I’ve written about elsewhere), disaster narratives tend to fall into one of two broad categories: (1) direct victim narrative or (2) disembodied ‘witness,’ who narrates as mouthpiece for the victims; he/she may not even have actually witnessed the disaster or even its immediate aftermath, but may narrate as if he/she did (this is the kind of narrative Blanchot refers to in the epigraph above).

Both types of narrative constructions have severe limitations, so let’s look at each of them in turn.

1. Direct Victim Narrative

The problem with the direct victim narrative is that it may have little, if any, literary value. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: Why are you telling this story? If it’s for personal catharsis (and here, you have to be ruthless, perhaps painfully so, with yourself and your motives), then perhaps the story needs to stay in your journal… or in the safe space of a therapy session.

That sounds harsh, I know.

But there is an accepted arc for direct victim narratives, and that narrative belongs in specific outlets, such as police reports. The direct victim narrative continues along a predictable trajectory: Everything was normal before; then there was disaster; there was a shaken or shattered worldview; then there was shared ambiguity about what to do after the disaster; and finally, there was a take-away lesson, usually about gratitude for being alive. Even the most infrequent reader can predict the stock phrases of this narrative: “It was like my worst nightmare.”; “I had never experienced anything like it”; “It doesn’t seem real. This only happens to other people … or in movies.”  These are all weak narrative constructions because they are default reactions people have to almost any kind of major disruptive event, and in stories about such events, they are the equivalent of cliches. The reader is so conditioned to read these types of reactions that they don’t experience any sort of new awareness of disaster’s impact as a result.*

2. Victim by Proxy Narrative (aka The Disembodied ‘Witness’)

Print and TV media specialize in the victim by proxy narrative, which is particularly noxious because it pretends as if the person narrating the story experienced the disaster directly OR was inside the mind of the person who did, when that is almost never the case. Even when it is the case (Anderson Cooper reports from Haiti), the perspectives and the real-life stakes are quite different for the person who has an “out” from the disaster than the person who has no refuge, retreat, or respite from it.

Also, this type of narrative tends to sort people and phenomena into clear-cut categories of “good” and “evil.” There is no room for the nuance in this narrative.
And nuance is always everything.

The point of discussing this–of coming up with a simple taxonomy of disaster writing– is to understand it better and avoid its traps, both as a writer and as a reader.

When you have some time, read this piece by former Matador editor Tom Gates, which is about September 11. If you were to plot this essay on the same narrative trajectory I outlined above, it would, by and large, conform. But he subverts the expectations that typically accompany that narrative by doing a few unexpected things: 1. He opens the essay by focusing on something utterly mundane, something that is outside of himself and his own emotions. Metaphorically, that something (Mexican workers yelling back and forth) establishes a few different themes, and these themes are drawn out across the entire story. 2. He breaks up what would be a potentially boring linear narration (We saw this, and then this happened, and then this happened) by making a deeply personal confession to the reader: “Thoughts started to crank through my head that I didn’t want to have. Were the people in the planes alive? Would the people at the top half be able to get down? Would helicopters fly to the roof or was that something that only happened in movies?” This “confession” sets the story up for the even bigger confession that is to come, the one about his relationship with his father. 3. The last two paragraphs show how vulnerable the writer is and, almost incredibly, introduce a moment of humor. Since that comes at the end of the article, it serves as a kind of relief for the reader.

The thing is, you can’t fake this or force it. Ultimately, I’m not even sure you can learn it. It seems to me, though, if editors would be more discerning about the kinds of disaster writing they publish, the literature would be richer for it.

*Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying these stories shouldn’t be told. My former career was as a creative arts therapist, and I used writing with patients who had experienced acute trauma and personal disasters, including sexual assault. Writing these stories according to that predictable narrative arc can be powerful in a therapeutic sense… what I’m saying here is that they’re not necessarily stories that should be told for literary purposes.


13 responses »

  1. Very interesting post – especially since literary stones overturned did not reveal many examples of good disaster writing (aside from 9-11 which just hits too close to home for me to be reading about it much). I’d be interested to learn if any of your readers can recommend some since my day job as health reporter has sent me to post-quake situations in Pakistan and Haiti, both really difficult assignments.

    • Conner-

      Well, now that you mention it, I really enjoyed your blog posts from Haiti, which were different from the formal reporting you were doing on assignment. Based on your experience, what do you think are some key elements of writing “well” about disaster?

      • Ack – good question and one which motivated me to look back on those posts and give it a good think. It’s certainly complex and as others have noted, tied up with our own emotions and experiences, and how we consume news (+/or how it’s forced upon us). In my limited experience, I would say disaster writing can be improved generally by:

        – cultivate local sources: this is especially important for those who are ‘parachuted in’ to cover a disaster. Each natural disaster is different, the societies they affect complex and likewise unique, and disaster writing that is informed by various sources who can provide context over time is important for providing that all-important nuance.

        – taking a long view: the society struck by disaster existed before the disaster, exists during the disaster (albeit in crisis form), and will exist after the disaster (albeit altered somehow). In other words, broadening focus beyond the actual disaster is key, I think.

        – get away from the pack: In Haiti, I lived in a tent camp with the Cuban medical brigade in central Port-au-Prince. We had no running water, only a few hours of electricity a night, and fretted about leakage in our tents with each raindrop. (Likewise, in Pakistan, snow had to be removed – lest our tents collapse – at 3 in the morning.) Our camp was permeated with the smell of burning garbage, the sounds of gunshots, and we shared our camp with several refugee families. This provides perspective that is hard to achieve when you’re in a hotel (sometimes quite fancy!) with the rest of the press corps.

        – have a couple of outlets: I was reporting for a peer reviewed medical journal while on assignment, but also wrote for a medical blog and my own blog. having these different outlets allowed me to write longer analytical/scientifcal articles about health services provision (the journal); gave me space to keep a running commentary about day to day health provision (the medical blog); and provided catharsis (my own blog)

        Lastly, I think an underlying element should be to avoid melodrama. A good lede is everything but should grab readers with its nuance and style, rather than with high drama – after all: isn’t EVERY disaster dramatic and tragic? So I think it’s important to tease out what distinguishes the one you’re covering.

        For those who are interested:

  2. Fascinating read, Julie.

  3. This in-depth analysis is very interesting, useful and makes a lot of sense. Maybe this should be a MatU lesson and assignment.

    • Thanks, Christina. I like the idea of using this as the foundation for a Pro Module, though I do think I need to find some solid examples of disaster writing to serve as models.

  4. Really enjoyed this, Julie – a prescient topic very elegantly addressed.

    I’m interested in how disaster is portrayed, but also in how we actually consume these portrayals, especially when it comes to news coverage (particularly video, images) – I wrote about this after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this year. I think that in the same way editors could do with being more discerning about the disaster writing they choose to publish, consumers could probably (sometimes) do with being more thoughtful about the way they read or view disaster coverage.

    Re: good disaster writing – not sure it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but Tom Junod’s “Falling Man” piece ( does spring to mind. The way he writes about the actual events of September 11 – through the lens (literally) of a photographer – seems to be a good narrative ‘trick’, and the piece is nothing if not nuanced.

    Enjoyed the Tom Gates piece, also – thanks for pointing it out!

    • Miranda-

      Absolutely… and I felt keenly that I wanted to address this issue of consumption, but it felt like its own ball of wax, and I didn’t even get to all the aspects of writing/presenting disaster that I wanted to address (Conner’s comment and her experiences made me think of this). And I did, actually, think of “Falling Man,” which you introduced me to and which is exquisite. And I think it is a fantastic piece of disaster writing, but not the kind of disaster writing to which we are accustomed– but that may be why it is so fantastic and so instructive. It is motivated by the author’s interest, but it is not self-involved. It is specific to the disaster of 9/11, but it is investigative, looking at ripple effects of disaster long after the first shock has occurred. It also wasn’t written as or immediately after 9/11 was happening/happened, so the sense of acute drama isn’t there (a relief). I think it’s just a fine, fine piece of writing and your mention of it reminds me that I’d like to read more of his work (and to catch up with yours!) 😉

  5. Amazing post. It’s funny, as I was reading, I was thinking about how I’d never even considered all the points you were making – I’d never thought about “proxy narrative” and the media, for example, although it makes perfect sense. But from the second I read the title I was also thinking about Tom’s 9/11 piece; I go back and read it every September and every time I have the same reaction, and it was fascinating to read your deconstruction of it and realize just why it has such an impact on me every time.

  6. Excellent post, which I have just stumbled across. I like that you specify the difference between disaster writing as literature versus disaster writing as personal, academic, or scientific non-fictional account. Although well-written historical and academic accounts can also have literary value (I recall that Freud’s psychoanalytic works in their original German are considered among the great works of German literature).

    As someone who studies and works within the world of disasters, there are some books I particularly like, such as Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On; John Barry’s The Great Influenza; Leigh Jones and Rhiannon Meyer’s Infinite Monster; and Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable. Ripley’s book is also excellent because it addresses some of the misconceptions and myths (such as people becoming hysterical) many have about how people act during crises/disasters. I think it important that those who want to write fictional disaster accounts have understanding of these myths so as not to keep perpetuating them.

    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for adding some important thoughts–and some great resources–to the conversation. I haven’t read Shilts’ book in years, but my memory of it is that it does achieve the literary value measure. I look forward to reading some of the others you mentioned, as I’m not familiar with them.


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