“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.