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.