Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Peace in Amber

Writing this blog post is going about as well as writing PEACE IN AMBER went. A lot of staring at a blank screen. A lot of writing followed by just as much deleting. That weird sad and hollow feeling I used to get at my grandmother’s lake house in the summer, that feeling of not knowing what to do next, but feeling like you’re supposed to do something, and then feeling queasy and upset about the free time and the utter lack of drive or desire.

Yeah, that’s how I wrote this short story. It’s how I feel writing (and deleting and re-writing) this blog post. It’s how I used to get thinking about 9/11 and how I felt standing on the docks of North Cove Marina with my wife, Amber, a few years ago.

I’d been back to NY quite a few times since 9/11. I never went down to the World Trade Center, though. I avoided Lower Manhattan altogether. I didn’t even know I really had issues going on until I met my wife and started exploring my feelings more. I mean, I knew something was up when I was taking a boat south from NY the week after 9/11, and a military jet screamed overhead, and my heart pounded for half an hour afterward. Sweaty palms and panic attacks and all that stuff. You think (at least I thought) PTSD was for soldiers. Or you feel shame (at least I did) at feeling mentally weak and not being able to hold it together.

I don’t have any unique ownership of any kind of trauma. There are many people who had it worse that day, including my best friend, who features in this story. And proximity means nothing. My mother and a lot of other mothers watched on TV and worried about their loved ones. Distance can be worse in its own way. There’s a feeling of being out of control, of being too far away to lend assistance, a feeling of helplessness. Everyone has their own demons. I guess my problem was that I denied having any for so long. It’s weird how writing even tangentially about the day like this has me crying, and it’s how many years later? Still . . . it is what it is. That day fucked me up. I live in denial. I try to write about it, but I can’t.

I’ve looked for excuses. When I lost my dog Jolie, I was able to write about that. And it helped. So I started probing this old blister, seeing if it was time, if it’d healed, if maybe that was just air beneath. I wrote the first few chapters of a book that was going to be something like a memoir. Just accounts of my life anywhere it touched the sea. It started with me sitting on the top of M/Y Symphony in New York Harbor, kissing a stranger, the lights of Manhattan like fireworks frozen in place, this amazing new life stretched out before me of living in the greatest city on the planet, working on three yachts owned by a hedge fund billionaire, living by myself and captaining his 74-footer, and serving hor dourves to the rich and famous while we did laps around the Statue of Liberty.

Within weeks, that dream life would turn into tragedy. My memoir went no further than that perfect moment on the brow of Symphony. I wrote a chapter about my childhood on Figure Eight Beach, learning to sail a little Sunfish. I wrote anything but about that day. Instead, I tried to freeze my life in place or move to an earlier time. Avoidance. Avoidance. Bottle it away.

When Amber’s job took us to North Carolina, I got a job at Appalachian State University’s bookstore. It allowed me to write in my spare time, and it also came with the perk of a free class each semester. One of the first classes I signed up for was a summer course on science fiction. We studied Ender’s Game, The Left Hand of Darkness, Watchmen, and Slaughterhouse Five. I’d read most of these previously, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five back in high school. But it was different this time around. I read the book twice for class, not understanding it the first time around but really seeing it the second. It’s a strange and yet powerful story. The main character is dissociative, but he believes his fiction so clearly that the reader is left doubting what’s real and what isn’t. We are brought into Billy Pilgram’s insanity even as we learned what caused it. It’s impossible to judge him after that. We are left judging only war and the absurdity of sending youth to slaughter, generation after generation.

When someone from Amazon’s Kindle Worlds program asked me if I would consider writing something in Kurt Vonnegut’s world, I said I would think about it. I’ve become somewhat linked with fan fiction and the Kindle Worlds program by allowing fans and fellow writers to play in the world I created with Wool. But I’d never written any fan fiction of my own. How is someone like me supposed to write in a world created by a great author like Kurt Vonnegut? What would he even say about any of this? It’s impossible to know, but we’re talking about a guy who turned his friend and fellow science fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon, into the inimitable Kilgore Trout. We’re talking about a master of satire and humor and cynicism. A man with an incisive wit who could cut right to the emotional heart of a subject. Writing fan fiction in his world was a tall order. It seemed impossible. But then I thought of a way to make it even worse.

I emailed a reply to this offer and said I would write something. I decided right then that I needed to write about 9/11. I needed to get it out of my system. Writing it as a piece of fan fiction fooled me into thinking I could somehow defuse the weight of the topic. Taking on the heavy task of playing in Vonnegut’s world gave camouflage for the difficulty ahead. Most importantly, there was something meta and right about finding catharsis while modeling a story on Vonnegut’s work of catharsis. I was going to write about 9/11 in much the same way that he wrote about Dresden. Except, I was going to lose the dissociative aspects. And rather than write from Billy Pilgrim’s perspective, I was going to explore Montana Wildhack’s response to being abducted and finding herself in an alien place and under a glass dome. I knew what this felt like. I was going to write about that kiss on the brow of that boat, but I was going to push into the tragedy that took place just a few months later.

A quick confession: I wrote the first draft of Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue in 7 days. The draft was over 70,000 words long. In the next 7 days, I cleaned up the draft and added another 30,000 words. The book you read today took two weeks to write. I can pour it on. This is not how Peace in Amber was written.

I promised the piece by a certain date. For those who know me, you would expect that I turned it in weeks ahead of time. It’s what I do. Not this time. The date rolled around, and I had written and deleted over 30,000 words. Two times over, probably. For once, I didn’t keep what I deleted. I made it go away forever. And I felt like shit every time.

This is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It might also be the best thing I’ve ever written. I immediately shared it with a handful of people who I thought would understand the piece. My mother, my wife, my best friend who was with me that day. To be honest, it terrifies me to think that anyone else might read this work. I don’t know if I want anyone to. I’ve never felt so conflicted about a piece before. Never felt so miserable and yet satisfied to have something out in the world. But if I need to know if this story has served as the catharsis I’d hoped it might, here’s the test: Writing even this. And staring at the “publish” button. And feeling my palms sweat. And seeing what I do next.

24 replies to “Peace in Amber”

If you were trying to make me want to read this, you succeeded in a big way.

I’ve been working on a story for a year, a horror story kind of thing, and it’s been through point of view changes, additions, subtractions, everything. But it wasn’t till I started thinking about hearing Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for the first time right before 9/11 that I started to get a sense of what it might really be about.

The first book came easy. This one has been just the opposite. This realization of what it was really about makes it an incredibly messy and difficult thing to try. And yet I keep thinking about it. It has a pull. You have to respect that, don’t you?

We are part of bigger stories than we can ever imagine. Your link back to Billy Pilgrim is brilliant. He could be here, now, for the first time. For the millionth time. I love it. It’s an insight.

Thanks for everything, Hugh. For your honesty, for sharing these vulnerable thoughts with others, for persevering. You’re giving a lot of people hope.

Okay, now I have goose bumps. Read lots of Vonnegut when I was a kid. You inspire me so much! About to get my first fiction book published on Amazon and it has a little element of that spookiness. Thank you for being you!

Hugh, as you published an article about the life-changing stabs of trauma, I posted one about the life-altering slashes of grief. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your honesty. I am glad to know that I am not alone on this day.

Sincerely,
Alycia

The morning of 9-11 still leaves wormholes in my head when I do anything more than skim the surface. Just like the Challenger explosion, MLK’s assassination on the balcony with his friends frantically pointing at an invisible gun, Robert Kennedy’s picture lying on the floor with blood pooling out of his head and the hotel employee’s grief and panic written all over his face, and JFK’s murder played over and over and over while Walter Cronkite pulled his glasses off and wiped tears. Old scabs are just that – old scabs, until you work at them and pick them to make them bleed and feel again. Ultimately, this will scab over, heal, and get to where you can see and feel the scar, but you don’t bleed quite so much…. It’s taken 50 years for me, and these scabs still ooze a little. love ya, bub….

All I can say after reading this post is… I understand. And I know you know what I mean. I’m staring at my own version of this now, having written and deleted more words in a manuscript than I ever have before. Thanks for the post. It’s always nice to know you aren’t alone.

This is why your writing is so wonderful to read. As a reader, I can feel how even you are a swept away by the story. It is obvious you put thought into your stories, but it seems as if you are able to allow the story to go in unexpected directions because you do not back down from those uncomfortable places. Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors and I’m looking forward to reading your work very much.

What Will said!
Whatever your intentions, this blog entry has made me determined to read “Peace in Amber” and I will! I hope this writing of yours will bring you peace Hugh =)
9/11 was a big day for my family, in a totally different way, on the opposite side of the Earth.. as it was the day we left our country to start a new life in a new place, as refugees, not hopeful emigrants… and the trauma of leaving Africa behind will never leave me..

If it terrifies you, that means you’re doing it right. I think the amount of thought/time you spend on something is a far better indicator of quality than number of words, because the easy words are by definition, not hard to write. The words that are hard to write, the ones that are born and die several times before sticking around, are the ones that have earned their place. I can’t wait to read this, if you struggled with it this much, it must be something special (and I’ve loved everything I’ve read of yours so far, so that’s saying something).

You are very brave to share this experience and the aftermath with the world. It’s an important and useful thing that you do, digging into the way it felt… and still feels, to be human and hurt.

This is why we write.

Thank you.

Deep breaths, Hugh. Take your time. Published or not, you’ve already done the hardest thing, the writing of it. If it stays just for you, that’s okay.

Thank you for sharing this. I hope you find peace, Hugh. You’ve certainly given the world so much of value through your writing. I’m going to purchase PEACE IN AMBER right now. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

I’ve seen your photo of where you used to dock in Lower Manhattan, so it is not surprising that 9/11 screwed with your head and heart in a big way. But maybe that emotional turmoil is what allowed you to begin your new life as a bestselling author and devoted husband. You seem to understand escapism in a big way…maybe 9/11 is why?

I’m proud of you, Hugh. As you’ve written above, writing can be miserable, but you did it. Congrats. I can’t wait to read it.

I saw 9/11 on TV as a freshman in college. While it affected me, I’m not sure how real it really felt. Not like it has you. I’m sorry to hear about that.

Good for you, pushing through. I was reading a really cool article about the 20-mile march philosophy and working even when it’s hard and miserable and found that method to be pretty amazing. I say this after, just an hour ago, sitting in the car at the end of a road trip trying to explain to someone why my current WIP is no where near finished when my goal was Christmas. I have a lot of writer friends and some of them are “fast” writers and some are “slow” writers and I think the hard chipping away at a project seems to hit the fast writers much harder.

Can’t wait to read the new story!

As a fellow writer – and speaking as someone who also agonizes over each page- I always remind myself that there are people out there walking the streets who also have a story ( or multiple stories) to tell and yet THEY don’t have the tools they need to get it out of their soul the way I do. The story is inside of them but their mind hasn’t got the creative wires correctly connected to form the words. Or they do KNOW the technique needed to get the paragraphs to connect but they aren’t sure it will come out on the page the way they want it to and there’s that fear of showing someone what they attempted to do and that that person will smirk at the attempt……and so they don’t even try and the story- no matter how heart felt and touching it may be- remains locked inside their soul, stuck in the cold darkness. I hope someday a few of them will still pursue the feeling. Conquer the fear and get the tale on paper. Somewhere out there are people willing to read it.

Interesting story. You certainly can (normally) write very quickly, too. I was in Manhattan on 9/11 and felt the after-effects of PTSD too, but since I didn’t really understand fully what was going on as I journeyed around the city to get home, it was delayed for me.

The other (and worst) PSTD I ever felt was when I was in college and a serial killer struck. Even after the killer was caught, I would search my entire apartment before feeling safe–and I found out that everyone else I knew, even my professors, did the same thing. After that, I finally understood the feeling that soldiers must have–that you might get killed, and you have no idea when that moment might strike.

Well, that was cheerful!

Godspeed Hugh. I don’t expect I’ll ever know how to write about that day from forty miles west, but I’m glad you found your own way.

i always like to think, oh, i’m kind of savvy in an individualized way:) like, oh, i know what’s going on inside me, but the articulation that writing requires is like taking a razor and cutting all that: oh, i know away, and those times when I get to the real there, it leaves me breathless in a kind of: the pain and wonder and mystery of it all kind of way… it’s actually humbling.

not sure if that’s what you meant:) but that’s what it made me think of, and thank you for the post. it’s deep.

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