Writing After Tragedy

by Michael Hendery


It starts with simple declarations. Active shooter on campus. Gunman attacks nightclub. Explosion near finish line. These alerts course through social media and across the chyrons of news channels. Think about how your body responds. Some catch and hold our attention, usually those with the most cinematic tension. Guns. Wreckage. Americans. As more news ekes out, we are looking at once for signals of a resolution and the sobering digits of a body count. The writing aims to convey basic facts, a sense of scale, and to capture the changing textures of emotion as they surface. Reporting is valued more for its immediacy than its accuracy, providing readers with evolving portrayals of terror, allowing them to participate in a shared traumatic experience via tweets and hastily-written news articles.

The following morning, after the initial shock has waned, the writing begins to take on a new purpose, one that attempts to identify the antecedents to the massacre. Key constituents are proposed; a gunman’s last Facebook post, his ideological ties, any of the clues that might have been seized upon had we only been more cognizant. As humans we look for this structure, a causal lineage that helps us rationalize and assess. Perhaps something preventative could have been done. This fantasy of control becomes the new focus, and in doing so, we begin to move away from the profound pain, sadness, and fear evoked by the exposed fragility of human life. This is the psychological turn. We are not feeling the harrowing helplessness of inaction. We are now in pursuit of remediation. We are no longer in awe or mourning.

The rush to find answers and initiate action has become predictable in the days and weeks following mass murder, but at what cost do we accelerate into such concrete ways of thinking? After decades of terrorizing gun violence in this country, there remains no congressional consensus on assault weapons policy. Opposing viewpoints are deemed delusional one way or the other. There has been no reduction in the number of alienated individuals willing to shoot strangers. The only significant development around this issue seems to be that we are no longer surprised when it happens. We have become inured. What role do writers play in this process? What stories can we tell that might disrupt the expected narrative, and ultimate fruitlessness, of the post-tragedy time period?

While language can expose and clarify our thoughts and feelings, words too can conceal our experience. Consider how language intersects with emotion. In response to stimuli, be it breaking news or banal interactions in our daily lives, our bodies react with sensations linked to fear, anger, and other core emotions before any words enter our consciousness. Our internal language—questions such as “what is happening in my body right now?”—can be used to welcome these emotions, an invitation to deeper, unfiltered experience that, though it may test the bounds of our comfort, can also deliver us a natural working-through of competing feeling states. This takes time and focused energy, two resources that most of us feel are in short supply in the modern age. And so, our language can also be used to distance ourselves from those sensations that seem too powerful, complex, or unsettling to bear. Questions like, “why is this happening?” or “what can be done?” act to disconnect us from our sensory experience, often inciting a new feeling of restlessness and a premature call to action. As meditators over the course of millennia (and more recently, psychologists) have taught us, a protracted suffering occurs when we cling to some desired outcome rather than more thoroughly experience conditions as they are, with all of the challenging, conflicting emotions that arise as we pay careful attention.

Articles written in the wake of tragedy too often engage in questions of Why? and What can be done? This form of writing creates spurious order by weaving together loose strands of presumed cause and effect into a discernible, yet illusive, tapestry. Meanwhile, a much-needed emotional gestation is overlooked, an organic mourning process that grapples with our inevitable mortality and colors the world in discordant hues. What if our writing acted more as midwife than pathologist, aiding in the delivery of untidy creations, soiled and screaming, but ultimately more closely connected to the authentic human experience? In those now-familiar period following a massacre, perhaps we can trade our fantasies of certainty and invincibility and give voice to the inescapable vulnerability that all humans encounter in times like these.

Dr. Michael Hendery is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the psychology department at Southern New Hampshire University. He is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.