When Bombs Go Off In Your City: The Process of Writing Through Tragedy

When bombs go off in your city, how does a writer respond?

This was the question Boston writers had to necessarily face last week as twin explosions rocked our city on Marathon Monday, and as the subsequent massive manhunt for the suspects put Boston on lockdown. As writers we all have the grand idea of how we should respond: We write our eloquent elegy to the victims of the tragedy, we pour ourselves out in our writing and use it as catharsis, we put meaning to these events through the words we write. That all may, and probably will, come eventually. But in the midst of a week of chaos, how should we respond is sometimes far away from how we actually do we respond.

I can only speak from personal experience, but when a tragedy hits a writer – something so great as a terrorist attack to something so close as the death of a loved one – we first respond as human beings. We are shocked. We are panicked. We are saddened. We are fraught. We cry. We call loved ones. We want to be around friends. We grieve.

But the reaction then branches from there. A writer continues on as a human and as a writer. As humans we continue to experience, but as writers we’re taking notes on that experience. As humans we continue the emotional processing; as writers we observe ourselves emotionally processing, and take note of what we feel, what we’re reacting to, what makes us sad or angry or depressed. As humans we continue to interact with a changed world; as writers we ask, “How does one interact with a changed world?” As humans we track the news because we want to be informed of updates or changes in the situation; as writers we thirst for news, for video, for pictures, for stories, for whatever we can read or see or hear that will help us put together a full narrative of the event, so that we can see some kind of meaning in the chaos. As humans, we live; as writers, we observe how we do that living so we can make our writing more real.

It’s a strange duality that occurs in a writer, this double-branched existence. But we are also creatives who have the mantle – and burden – of attempting to recreate authentic human existence through words on a page. We are required to mimic and recreate life, and that necessarily draws us into a dual existence. If you found yourself looking at the news, or having a conversation with a friend, or weeping in your empty apartment, and then said to yourself, “I need to remember this so I can use it someday,” then you are doing what you need to as a writer.