In keeping with the memories of dark times we share this week, here is a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on writing stories after 9/11. Erika Dreifus casts an intelligently inquiring eye over the issues of politics in writing, political correctness, what used to be called the ethics of appropriation—in general the swirl of thoughts and inhibitions that somehow got in the way of writing about massive public tragedy in America. This essay was written just two years after that sunny September day. One wonders if things have changed, if these concerns still roil the conscience of young writers trying to grapple with the unspeakable or if they have learned to hear Albert Camus’ stern admonition, quoted by Erika below, “to forge themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.”
Erika Dreifus has published stories with connections to 9/11 in The Healing Muse, Midstream, and Mississippi Review Online, among others. Her story collection, Quiet Americans, was published by Last Light Studio in 2011. Erika is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review, and she serves on the editorial advisory board of J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She also publishes her own amazing online writing resource site, Practicing Writing.This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the “Why Write?” Conference held at Columbia University in New York City, 28-29 March 2003. The essay was published originally in Queen’s Quarterly 111/1 (Spring 2004). DG is grateful to Philip Graham for drawing his attention to Erika’s work.
Having previously earned a PhD in Modern French history, I was in my first semester of a low-residency MFA program in creative writing in September 2001. Before I left for work on Tuesday, September 11 (I was teaching at Harvard at the time, and I had a full day of interviewing freshmen interested in my seminar on historical fiction slated), I submitted a new short story for my online workshop (2 other students) and instructor’s review. So fiction-writing will, for me, remain inextricably linked with the events of that day.
I was born in Brooklyn, and although I’d been living in Massachusetts for many years, most of my nearest and dearest were in the metropolitan NYC area that day. The following semester, I found that 9/11 was creeping into several of the stories I was submitting to my workshop. I was shocked by some of the reactions that this work received, and I was flummoxed further by discussions I found elsewhere. I welcomed any and every opportunity to explore all of this. Hence, my interest in calls for papers and conferences, and my need to think through all of these issues in writing.
KEEPING SILENT? WRITING FICTION AFTER SEPTEMBER 11
By Erika Dreifus
I noticed an announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It publicized a forthcoming panel at St Edward ‘s University in Austin, Texas, that would examine “Artistic Response to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks.” The announcement provided contact information. I sent e-mails to St Edward’s University. I could not attend the panel. But I wanted to know more.
I wanted to know more because “artistic response” to crisis in the public sphere – especially literary response to national and global trauma – has long fascinated me. From my undergraduate explorations of the intellectuel engagé to my own current work writing fiction I have not escaped the precedents, predicaments, and larger purposes surrounding “response.”
After September 11, 2001, these issues resonated in theory and practice. Sometimes it has seemed that I’ve spent nearly equal time, since then, writing fiction and arguing about it.
I’ve argued with colleagues and teachers, who objected to even the most carefully crafted allusions to the attacks in my fiction. Most surprising were the comments of one workshop classmate. Responding to one story I’d written six months after September 11, he wrote that while he, a Southerner, probably couldn’t understand “how you Northerners are dealing with [September 11], it really did have an effect on everyone. And personally, I am not ready to read short stories referring to [itl yet.”
After I’d recovered from seeing myself and my subject – rather than the actual work – faulted, I continued reading: “I feel like there should be some sort of grace period before it is ok to use that in fiction. It just doesn’t feel right. Like you’re trying to capitalize on that emotion … “