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Writing for the Catastrophic Moment

posted: 3.28.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

As I prepare for a presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I reflect on moments in my teaching when I focused on current events for writing and discussion. Yet my own writing this year gives me pause.

I have spent much of this last year writing and thinking about 1968, the year I was ten and the year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  That moment—in history and in childhood—felt excruciating, and forty-three years later, writing about 1968 feels no less painful.

From this work, I learn that catastrophic events take time to process, and that writing can help with processing. But I also learn that writing in the moment of catastrophe is a challenge, no matter the amount of experience or practice.

For a moment, I imagine myself in the place of students in developmental writing. We may have absorbed catastrophic events via multimedia, participation witness, or our knowledge of people (perhaps family) who may be participants, witnesses, or casualties.

Some of us will write brilliantly, moving recursively through the steps of the writing process to compose our reflections and our manifestos. Others may need to write over and over again, often without outlines, crumpling up or deleting our rough drafts without rereading them—and without saving them for others to read. We discover that we cannot describe that catastrophic moment at all.

I imagine in that moment that I, the student, must face me, the teacher—both of us flummoxed by catastrophe. I hear myself say: “Shall we try to write together, then? Writing often helps in difficult moments. Shall we try to write right now? We can write about the catastrophe or not. We can share our writing aloud, or not. I can read your writing later. Or not. What do you think?” In response everyone takes out our pencils and pens, and opens our notebooks. We write together until the end of class.

I remember the day I was the teacher I describe above: September 12, 2001. I also remember the day I was the student: April 5, 1968. In 2001, we wrote together in silence. In 1968, in fourth grade, we did not write, and I have always remembered the silence around the catastrophe of King’s assassination. The most important element was choice. Writing may help us to process catastrophe, and sharing writing might contribute to our process. Indeed, this very moment, some of us are writing eloquently about the catastrophes of 2011. Some of us will be proud to submit this writing to others to evaluate.

Still others need to process the moment, and may feel incapable of producing a text for someone else to assess.  We may feel incapable not because of deficiencies in either writing ability or character development—but because our words cannot yet wrap themselves around the experience. Or worse still, we may not be offered an opportunity to choose to what to write.

Yet we must write, and our writing processes must be honored, for who knows what writing may arise months or years after a particular class has ended. Writing can allow us to grapple with the catastrophic moment— especially if—for the moment, we may have no idea of future possibilities. We write our way through discomfort—and even through excruciating pain. The sense memory will matter, for we have learned why we must write, and how our writing can carry us forward, through this current moment, for the future.

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Categories: Developmental
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One Response to “Writing for the Catastrophic Moment”

  1. Aaron Kerley, University of Cincinnati Says:

    One hurdle I’ve encountered with students is what I call the utter nakedness of writing publically-they are too self concious in that silence to write; we feel we must fill the air with noise and ostensible activity, rather than quiet reflection. I wonder whether this is a function of the privilege of the verbal rather than the written. Is this where the student confronts not only “…words cannot yet wrap themselves around the experience” but the anxiety about the act of writing itself as a meaning making process?