Imagine you could have conversations with a loved one who has passed away. What if you could tell him/her about the shape of your life since they left. Who would it be? What would you say? Or, more importantly, what would he/she say to you? “Conversations With My Father” is a creative writing endeavor based on this idea. It explores the ways in which the extrapolated memory of loved ones can impact the construction of meaning, the development of truth, and the understanding of one’s self. This project also provides insight into the grieving process after a traumatic event by chronicling the complicated and emotional plight of a 9/11 victim’s family member. Centered around a series of fictional conversations with my father who passed away in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, these interactions unfold via various modes of communication (handwritten letters, emails, text messages, etc.) over time. A double-sided book format allows one version of the narrative (“Conversations With My Father”) to unfold in reverse chronological order, beginning with my imagined death in the future and ending on 9/11. The alternate reading, entitled “Conversations With My Daughter,” offers a slightly different perspective, beginning on 9/11 and ending in the future with my mother’s (imagined) death. The genre-blending narrative intentionally blurs the line between fiction and reality by incorporating these imagined exchanges with real (personal) artifacts related to the events surrounding 9/11. Collectively referred to simply as “Conversations With My Father,” these renderings provide insight into the ways the mind reconstructs the past and, perhaps, how it influences one’s present and future self. It also adds to the ongoing discussion surrounding the implications of the events of 9/11.
Where were you on 9/11? Were you at home watching television? Were you in New York? Perhaps near the towers? Or were you in an airport waiting to board a plane? Maybe you were working or in school. If you are old enough to remember that day, chances are you gave a vivid answer to that question.
It seems as though every generation has a few moments in history that remain frozen in time. These moments are the ones for which everyone has an answer to “Where were you when…” Bearing witnesses through radio, television, and/or social media has elevated the impact that these moments have had on our collective consciousness (LaCapra 2014). I can still visualize where I was when I saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explode. I was in my fourth grade classroom. Miss Tiunis had just rolled the big tube TV into the room. Completely unexpected, I had no idea then how that moment would remain forever etched in my mind. Similarly, the events of 9/11 have been carved into the memories of millions of people around the world.
The question becomes, then, how is our collective memory shaped by the stories we tell after a tragic event? How will future generations make sense of something they were not present to witness? Post 9/11 literature, both fiction and nonfiction, provide new understanding, perspective, and insight into that event.
“Writers are treating 9/11 in increasingly imaginative ways; however, this is where time does matter. The historical moment is not yet ‘over,’ temporally or psychologically. The international consequences of that day continue to unfold, migrate, deepen, and shift. The ground is still settling, and with it, our narratives” (Frost 2010).
We all have a story to tell about that day, but what about the days that followed? The weeks? The months? The years? How long did the impact follow you around? What about today? How often do you think about the events of September 11, 2001? Do you have daily reminders? Yes, we all have a story to tell, and “Conversations With My Father” is my story. It is my way of adding to the dialogue and reflecting on my relationship surrounding one of the most momentous events in history.
I arrived at my office in Chelsea on time, right around 9:00 AM. My express bus commute had been uneventful. Typical. Routine. As I exited the elevator onto the 12th floor loft of the small PR firm where I worked, I could hear low murmurs of voices from various corners of the room. Some were in groups gathered around their computer screens. I could see people out on the fire escape. World Trade Center. Plane. Hit. It only took me a second to put the words into the correct order in my mind.
“No. My father works there,” I blurted. I ran outside, pushing past the others. Right around the same time that my mind was able to register what I was seeing, the second plane hit.
Confusion and fear took over. My legs collapsed and I fell slowly to the floor. It was hard to breathe. I don’t remember anyone saying anything to me. It was chaotic. A hot wave of anxiety flushed over my entire body. I called my mother. Her voice was piercing and filled with terror. In between her shrieks and cries I could hear “He’s OK….Owen talked…to him…in his office….he was gonna leave.” I remember saying Yes and OK over and over again as I cried and nodded in understanding of what she was saying. “I have to go, Laura, in case he calls.”
When I watched the first towers collapse followed by the second, I was only thinking one thing: Is my father still alive? In that moment, I told myself “yes.” At the time, there was no concrete evidence to prove otherwise.
That would not come until many months later.
While thousands of people in lower Manhattan were running away, I was running towards the site of impact. In a way, I feel like I’ve been running ever since. Trying to find my father, perhaps. Trying to find myself? Trying to piece together the fragments that remained. While the world struggled to make sense of the events that were unfolding, I was struggling to accept the possibility that my father did not survive. I clung to the hope that he had somehow managed to escape for as long as I could. It was quite some time before I allowed myself to let go of my hope, to accept the reality that he was gone.
He died in those towers.
I would never know how or when, but one day in early October, I finally acknowledged the fact that my father died on September 11, 2001. That same night, I had a dream or a dream-like conversation with him. He told me about how wonderful heaven was and how much he missed my mom and that he wouldn’t be coming back to visit me anytime soon. It was very real for me. I could see his face and hear his voice clearly. While not a believer in the supernatural, I don’t look back on this experience as an encounter with my father’s spirit. But, rather, I see it as a genuine representation of my mind and heart’s projection of my father.
Inspired by that experience, my creative project, “Conversations with My Father,” is, in a way, an extension of the relationship that was cut short. It’s an exploration of what was, what might have been, and what never could be. It attempts to make sense, create meaning, and discover the truth about what happened that day and what has been happening to myself and the world ever since. It also attempts to uncover how the events of September 11, 2001 may impact my future.
My creative project, “Conversation With My Father,” is important when considered alongside a number of literary contexts. While it’s obvious to situate the work within the context of other 9/11 literature, it is also necessary to understand how it relates to the epistolary form, genre-blending, grief writing, and the memoir. “Conversations With My Father” was created with an informed awareness of the existing literature within each of these sub-genres and with a conscious effort to add value and understanding to the study of each. For the purposes and scope of this thesis, however, I have focused my efforts on the relevant 9/11 literature.
My research includes a diverse sample of works which demonstrates the broad range of representations and strategies employed by writers attempting to capture the events of 9/11. Because of the nature of my project, these works include both fiction and nonfiction selections. Although I categorize the following works as “9/11 literature,” many of them cross over into various other sub-genres: Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, David Llewellyn’s epistolary-style novel Eleven, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, In the Shadow of No Towers, and Marian Fontana’s A Widow’s Walk: A Memoir of 9/11 have been instrumental in informing both my creative and research processes.
Much has been written about the emerging pool of post-9/11 literature. Representations ranging from comics and poetry to novels and plays have been dissected and reflected upon (Frost 2010). Common threads in these analyses include the push-pull tension between personal and historical portrayals, the struggle in creating meaning and understanding around an event with such magnitude, and the emergence of hybrid genres in an attempt to effectively capture the jarring reality of the attacks (Randall 2011).
What does it mean to have witnesses and to recall an event that felt incommensurable, inaccessible, and incomprehensible? Is it possible to speak in a voice that exceeds the personal, to use a public voice, to launch a political critique in literature? What form can such literature take, negotiating as it must between the event itself and the dictates of genre, tradition, and the impulse to find an audience? How, in brief, does literature after 9/11 represent the possibility of witness, the political or public sphere, and its own literary status? (Keniston & Quinn, 2008).
My project, which may be partly described as an epistolary memoir layered with fictional exchanges and historical artifacts, adds to this discussion by examining how the events of 9/11 are remembered by those personally impacted. Today, more than 16 years after the attacks, the focus is less on the historical details of the how and why, but more on the impact on individual lives and the forever altering of society.
The notion of a struggle within the literary community to effectively and appropriately portray the events and aftermath of 9/11 is not unsubstantiated. Randall asserts, “…there is a developing suggestion that fictional realism might not be the most efficacious or suitable genre and that more hybrid forms – the graphic novel, the essay/memoir, the film-poem, conceptual art – are better suited to represent the attacks” (2011). For this reason, the employment of a nonconventional hybrid form situates my project alongside widely-known works that push the boundaries of genre in pursuit of accurately representing 9/11. “Literature…has only recently begun to enter the fields of tension between documentary and fictional, objective and sympathetic, and visual and textual modes of representation” (Dawes 2007).
On September 11, 2001, the lines between truth and fiction became blurred (Keeble 2014). I was forced, like many, to question my entire belief system. It has become commonly accepted to acknowledge the events of 9/11 as some of the most impactful in our nation’s history. My connection to this transformative moment in history has given me a unique vantage point from which to share my story. My personal search for meaning, truth, and self plays out alongside the nation’s ongoing quest for sense in the senseless. Keniston and Quinn support this idea in Literature After 9/11 with, “…literary works reframe and focus the meaning of 9/11 by employing representational strategies that emphasize the desire for (and construction of) meaning, and that dramatize the continuing resonance of 9/11 in the collective life of the United States and beyond” (2008).
How will the world remember the events of 9/11 long after all eyewitnesses have passed? How will victims’ family members share their stories with future generations? How might re-imagining these events (and my father) aid in the creation of meaning and understanding? What insights into my own grieving process and personal development might be gleaned from this process?
Like the events of 9/11, my project straddles the lines between the real and imagined by leaving unanswered questions for the reader. “Real” letters, poems, photographs and other 9/11-related artifacts are intertwined with fictional dialogue between me and my father (see Appendix A). These exchanges occur via both handwritten and typed letters, emails, and text messages. The handwritten letters from me to my father were written on lined loose leaf paper (inserted as images in the final product) and the letters from my father to me were exclusively written on plain white paper (also inserted as images (see Appendices B and C). To represent the email and text message exchanges I utilized simple tools readily available on google docs, such as the “insert table” feature (See Appendices D and E). They were crafted with the intention of both remembering the events of my personal experience (pre and post 9/11) and re-imagining my father as he was and as he might be today. As an added layer of inquiry, I have created communication with my father that passes the present day and spans years into the future in an attempt to capture how my thoughts and ideas might further evolve alongside the thoughts and ideas of the world around me. All communication dated sometime in the future is highlighted with a black background and uses white lettering (see Appendix F). This stylistic decision was made both to signal this shift in time as well as to suggest the use of a futuristic communication platform not yet known. Lastly, the work employs a double-sided book format which allows for experimentation with the unfolding of the narrative. One side, entitled “Conversations With My Father,” reads in reverse chronological order beginning with my death and being reunited with my father. It then navigates its way back to the events of 9/11, ending with a note written to him on September 10, 2001. Again, the reader is challenged to come to conclusions about what is real and what is fictitious. The other side of the book is entitled “Conversations With My Daughter.” This version of events is told chronologically and begins with a note from my father to me dates the morning of 9/11 and ends with the (imagined) death of my mother. All but the first few pages of each version are identical. In this way, questions related to efficacy and impact are considered.
When my father died on 9/11 my story became a part of history. Though I didn’t realize it right away, I would soon come to understand that my experiences would be sought after and used to capture a unique perspective of that historic moment. From newspaper and magazine articles to radio and StoryCorps interviews, I quickly discovered that people wanted to hear my story. They wanted to know what it was like to lose a loved on September 11th. For the purposes of this project, I have become my own research subject, exploring some of the same (and some additional) questions that others have asked of me. Long before I imagined writing a thesis, I had unknowingly begun collecting the pieces that would become the subject of my research and creative work. This section describes the theoretical framework that informed my process.
Autoethnography has been described as “a genre of writing that involves personalized accounts in which authors draw on their own lived experiences, connects the personal to the culture and places the self and others within a social context” (Maguire 2006). Although not new, in recent history, this type of qualitative research has received increasing attention and scholarly merit within the social sciences and humanities arenas (Bochner & Ellis 2016). My quest for exploring the impact that 9/11 has had on my life and how sharing my experience with others might influence future understanding, has led me to the creation of “Conversations With My Father.” By reflecting upon both my creative and research processes, the qualitative research method of autoethnography is employed. Throughout my research and creative process, I kept both hand-written notes and a blog of my progress (See Appendix G). This has allowed me to reflect upon my journey (see Reflective Analysis section) in order to better understand the impact that the creation of “Conversation With My Father” has had on me as well as the implications it may have on the way the world remembers 9/11.
The Creative Form
My creative project may be categorized as autofiction, blending elements of both biography and fiction. Jensen notes how writers of this particular genre of life writing must respond to the “demands (for) repeated self-revelation and intimacy with the truth of one’s own life history in a way that (traditional) memoir may not” (2011 ). She continues with “…. writers of autobiographically-based fiction….process the truth of their pasts in order to reanimate and rewrite that past via a variety of imagined potentialities” (Jensen 2011). By choosing to use this unique form of writing as opposed to a traditional memoir or novel, I have had the opportunity to question my decisions related to the recreation of my father in a way that would otherwise not have been explored. By taking on his voice and delving into the future, I was able to step back and consider the choices I made and how they relate to my memory and both past and future experiences. The insertion of 9/11 artifacts provided me with a sometimes sobering reminder of the reality of my experiences. As mentioned in the literature review section, using a genre blending-format is not uncommon in 9/11 literature and my choice to do so has been informed by this knowledge.
The Creative Works
The full texts are accessible at the following address:
My thesis is about 9/11. But it is also about my father. Through this journey I have come to realize that since his death, I have been unable to separate the two. My story, however, is still unfolding. Like my mind’s image of my father, my own identity has been linked with the events of September 11, 2001. It is a part of me. Ironically, this process has allowed me to step back and take in my past from an outsider’s perspective, even just for a short while. Having to recall and articulate what my family and I lived through gave me the opportunity to consider what it was like for someone not directly impacted by a personal loss, and to understand that others who were affected are likely to have had completely different experiences.
Since my father’s death, I have felt a strong connection with others who have suffered a sudden or tragic loss, particularly those who have lost a loved one on 9/11. However, I now know that our recollections and experiences are uniquely our own. The father I remember is not the same person my brothers remember and certainly not the same person my mother recalls. But this is not because our memories have either failed or served us to varying degrees. Rather, it is because each of our experiences with my father were different. Similarly, the experiences of others surrounding September 11th were, and are, different. So, too, are their memories of such. I have learned what many people before me have already discovered: we all see, hear, and experience life differently. And, therefore, our memories of a shared experience differ.
For me, the grieving process after my father’s death has been more like a slow leak rather than a flood. Society’s normalized rituals of saying goodbye and attaining closure did not exist for me. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I was compelled to continue my ‘conversations’ with him. There was no definitive end to that relationship.
Now, more than any other time in history, with the increasing pace of technology’s advancement, it is sometimes difficult to decipher what is real and what is fake. In this way, my project parallels what is happening in the world today. I know that on that day I questioned what my eyes were seeing, doubted what my mind was telling me, and had to reconstruct what I believed to be true about the world around me. This is evident from the journal entry I wrote on September 12, 2002 which, in part, states, “I feel like I’m seeing the world for the first time. Everything I look at is as though I’ve never seen it before.” Through this process I have been able to see myself and the world from a new perspective. The truth, for me, is both subjective and objective. There are many truths: a different one belonging to each of us. The questions related to what was, what might have been, and what never could be are whatever we believe them to be.
Lastly, my hope is that this work provides future generations a reference for understanding what they were not there to witness, and other families of victims of the September 11th attacks a small sense of comfort.
Armstrong, Luanne Aileen. “The Ecology of Identity : Memoir and the Construction of Narrative.” University of British Columbia, 2006. https://doi.org/10.14288/1.0055258. This doctoral thesis is a great example of an autoethnographic process used in reflection on her memoir. It is useful as a reference point for performing my own reflective practice and also offers insight into personal-narrative writing theories in general. This reading serves to inform my methodology decisions and practice.
Bochner, Arthur, and Carolyn Ellis. Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Lives and Telling Stories. Routledge, 2016. This book is useful in examining the ways in which writers can share their personal experiences with others in an effort to connect with others and uncover more about themselves in the process.
Bradley, DeMethra LaSha, and Robert Nash. MeSearch and ReSearch: A Guide for Writing Scholarly Personal Narrative Manuscripts. IAP, 2011. This book reads like a how-to for scholars, such as myself, who are looking for a simple way to execute autoethnographic-like research methods. This is useful for me as it gives insight into the process as it relates to my creative project.
Brown, Megan. American Autobiography After 9/11. University of Wisconsin Pres, 2017. Brown looks at recent memoirs and considers the reasons why this genre has been so popular in recent years. This offers me insight into the reason for my personal need to share my story.
Couser, G. Thomas. “Genre Matters: Form, Force, and Filiation.” Life Writing 2, no. 2 (January 1, 2005): 139–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408340308518293. This journal article talks about the thinning lines among various genres of “life writing.” It discusses the modern debates over what constitutes fiction versus nonfiction writing and how memory and history interplay in telling one’s stories. I am interested in gaining a better understanding about where my unique genre sits, relative to current works.
Däwes, Birgit. “On Contested Ground (Zero): Literature and the Transnational Challenge of Remembering 9/11.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 52, no. 4 (2007): 517–43. This paper explores the response to 9/11 from a global perspective. It compares literature from international authors.
Denzin, Norman K. Interpretive Autoethnography. SAGE Publications, 2013. Denzin explores and demonstrates, through his own experiences, the process of using one’s life story as an autoethnographic research method. This offers me a framework with which to work my reflection and evaluation.
Foer, By Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Paperback) – Common. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, 2011. Foer’s 9/11-related novel provides inspiration for my creative project through its unique textual structure and storytelling technique.
Frost, Laura. “Afterwords.” Bookforum.com. (Dec-Jan 2010). As a New Yorker who witnessed 9/11, Frost’s powerful and succinct essay offers some insightful pondering on the course of 9/11 literature and asserts that there is still much more to be written about in regards to 9/11. Her piece serves to provide a broad overview of such literature and substantiates the call for my creative project.
Gheorghiu, Oana. “The E-Pistolary Novel: Print Screens of Media-Driven Thoughts in David Llewellyn’s ‘Eleven.’” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, May 16, 2014. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2543477. This scholarly paper examines David Llewellyn’s epistolary novel, Eleven, for both content and form. It analyzes the ways in which Llewellyn uses the mode to create a unique experience for the reader and comments on how this traditional form has been modernized by use of email rather than letters to convey the bulk of the story. It aided me in my own exploration of the use of alternative modes of communication in my creative work.
Jensen, Meg. “Getting to Know Me in Theory and Practice: Negotiated Truth and Mourning in Autobiographically Based Fiction (J. G. Ballard, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jack Kerouac, Louisa May Alcott and Me).” Literature Compass 8, no. 12 (December 1, 2011): 941–50. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00850.x. In this work, Jensen explains (and demonstrates) how one might use textual analysis and self-reflective practices to understand more about our past. These suggestions are useful when writing a genre-bending work such as mine where the lines between truth and fiction are blurred.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. Rutgers University Press, 2005. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/16070. Kaplan takes a psychological approach to the study of a variety of film and books related to major traumatic events in history (the Holocaust, WWII, etc.). The author also offers a personal response to the events of 9/11 in light of earlier trauma as a grounding for the book. It explores the connections between the personal and collective response to trauma and what their representations in media and literature mean. The book’s discussion about how one’s personal reaction (to trauma) is influenced by the nature of the traumatic event as well as society’s reaction is of particular interest to me as I reflect upon my response to the events of 9/11 and how it has been (and still is) portrayed by others.
Keeble, Arin. The 9/11 Novel: Trauma, Politics and Identity. McFarland, 2014. This book focuses exclusively on the analysis of 9/11 novels. It seeks to identify commonalities in the ways they represent this traumatic event and question what that means for our society, as a whole. This is helpful for me as I seek to understand the reason behind (and develop) my own stylistic and metaphorical choices in the composition of my creative work.
Keniston, Ann, and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn, eds. Literature after 9/11. 1 edition. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Keniston & Quinn provide an analytical look at post-9/11 literature through various lenses including political, cultural, historical, narrative, and genre contexts in order to establish a means by which to categorize and sort the various works that have been produced since the attacks. They use the nature and structure of the works themselves to guide the analytical process in an effort to make sense each work’s intended and realized purposes. The book situates my creative project at the center of the discussion surrounding the search for meaning and understanding.
LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. JHU Press, 2014. This work explores the social, political, and cultural implications of trauma through (mainly) Holocaust-related accounts, both personal and literary. This is helpful for me as I consider how 9/11 has impacted the world around me relative other to other historical events.
Maguire, Mary H. “Review Essay: Autoethnography: Answerability/Responsibility in Authoring Self and Others in the Social Sciences/Humanities.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 7, no. 2 (March 31, 2006). https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-7.2.106.
“Mixed-Media Literature.” Nathan Holic (blog), December 9, 2010. https://nathanholic.com/reading-list/in-search-of-the-great-millennial-novel/characteristics-of-millennial-fiction/mixed-media-literature/. This writer’s blog is a useful reference tool which explores various topics including narrative voice, hybrid narratives, and graphic novels, among other related topics. It also provides interesting links to other potential reference websites, books and creative works.
“Narrative Innovation in 9/11 Fiction | Brill.” Accessed December 20, 2017. http://www.brill.com/products/book/narrative-innovation-911-fiction.This recent book acknowledges the numerous creative liberties in much of 9/11 literature. It considers how these breaks from the norm provide authors and readers a means by which to translate such powerful events and the aftermath.
Randall, Martin. 9/11 and the Literature of Terror. Edinburgh University Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r2089.This book gives a timely retrospective look at the ways in which 9/11 has been represented in the first ten years since the attacks by analyzing poetry, plays, film, fiction, and nonfiction works. It focuses on defining how 9/11 portrayals have evolved over time and explores the distinctions seen between “eyewitness” and “general viewer” accounts. Lastly, the book makes note of the surprising “literary success” of the 9/11 Commission report, thus arguing the potential for hybrid works to best represent the attacks. As a relatively recent publication, 9/11 and the Literature of Terror provides evidence for the relevance of my creative project as a hybrid memoir/fiction work.
Versluys, Kristiaan. Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. Columbia University Press, 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/vers14936. Versluys investigates a collection of 9/11 novels and their ability to capture unique perspectives relative to the events of 9/11. It concludes with an assertion that literature related to 9-11 and other terrorist attacks around the world will continue to develop in the coming years and with it there will be an increased focus on combining storytelling with historical records. This book justifies the validity of the chosen format for my creative work.