Updated: Jan 19, 2021
It was Tuesday at 10:10 AM. French class. We’d just spent the last 50 minutes reviewing for a test we had the next day. Madame Thomas, a short, peppy woman with blondish-brown hair, bounced around the room in her black skirt and kitten heels, shouting out l’examen demain over the clanging bell signaling the end of the period. We gathered up our things and headed for the door. My lunch period was next and I had physics homework to do while I ate.
I moseyed into the crowded hallway and was headed for the stairs when my friend, Morgan, ran up and squeezed through the herd of students next to me. She asked me if I heard about the plane crash. Apparently, a plane had rammed into a building in New York. In my mind, I pictured it happening, a small plane—maybe like the ones Buddy Holly or Patsy Cline crashed in—flying into an office building like a balsa wood plane hitting a living room wall. Maybe the pilot wasn’t paying attention or just lost control. I was sorry that people were probably injured or dead, but at the risk of sounding insensitive, I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal. At least until I descended the stairs into the cafeteria. There, on all six TV screens around the room, was the footage of American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the World Trade Center, on loop, in slow motion, like an instant replay from a football game. It took me a minute to realize what I was looking at. Then, it took me even longer to make sense of what I was seeing. The financial center of the free world had been maliciously and deliberately attacked. Forget about my physics homework. Forget about l’examen demain. I nibbled at a bag of potato chips and stared at the TV for the rest of lunch period, still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that life in America as I knew it was gone.
* * *
People say that every generation has a moment where time stood still, where an event took place that dramatically altered the way the world worked—not just for them, but for everyone. For my grandfather, it was standing in a line that went around the block of men signing up to join the Army after Pearl Harbor, how those who couldn’t fight because of medical issues left the recruitment building in tears. For my dad, it was hearing the announcement over the loudspeaker at basketball practice that John F. Kennedy, someone he admired not just because he was the President, but because of how much he seemed to love kids, had been assassinated. For my generation, it was September 11, 2001.
These vivid, potent recollections, from a psychological perspective, are called flashbulb memories. What sets flashbulb memories apart from just general recollections of an event are that they zero in on where a person was when they first heard about an event, not the details of the event itself. It’s why my grandfather could still see the grief-stricken faces of the men rejected from the army as clear in 2001 as he could in 1941. It’s why my dad can still smell the freshly waxed gym floor on the day Kennedy was shot. It’s why I can still hear my French teacher’s voice in my head when I think of the last moments before I learned the World Trade Center had collapsed.
I was sixteen on 9/11. Last week, watching the events unfold in Washington D.C., I couldn’t help but think about kids who are the age now that I was then. Unlike my generation, they will have more history-making moments to choose from than they can count. Then I realized that no matter which event stands out in people’s minds, the fact that there are so many cultural moments to remember points to a significant issue. Our entire experience of these events is fragmented. Everyone who is old enough to recall 9/11 remembers exactly where they were when they first learned about the attacks. It was a monumental, life altering event that took place on one day, in one moment in time. The pandemic isn’t like that. There was no single moment that unites all Americans. We might individually remember where we were when a very personal change took place for each of us in response to the coronavirus—a statewide shutdown, being laid off, school being closed, having a family member get sick. But there is no date that will be memorialized, no annual reading of names at a specific mark in time. Just as we have been unable to physically experience life together, we have likewise been unable to have one unified, shared experience.
And that’s why we need to start writing these stories down. Now. While they are fresh. Because in time, life will resume something resembling normal, and their potency will diminish, unless we take the time to capture them.
Take some time to write down your memories of the last year. Don’t censor them—you can always edit later, or at the very least remove anything that is too personal before you show it to others. Don’t make the mistake of telling yourself that it doesn’t matter. Having an account of these events as part of your personal literature will someday be invaluable, even if no one else ever sees it. But let’s say you do want to write down your account for the purposes of sharing it with others. Let’s talk about how. In her book Stories That Stick, Kindra Hall identifies four key ingredients every personal story needs to impact readers. I want to break them down and use them as a template for taking your “flashbulb moment” and making it vivid and engaging.
#1 – An identifiable character You are the character in your own story, and your voice is your biggest tool. Whatever your event is, it’s a very personal moment—which means you need to sound as much like yourself as possible. Don’t completely forgo the conventions of good writing for complete informality, but don’t be afraid to tell your story as if you are telling it to a friend.
#2—An authentic emotion
The key word here is “authentic.” The best way to create an emotion in your writing is to make readers feel it for themselves, and the simplest way to accomplish that is to just tell the story. Don’t tell them that you “felt angry” or “felt sad”—demonstrate through your word choice and use of detail (more on that in a minute) how you felt. This is the easiest path to evoking that same response in your reader. #3—A moment
In the movie Fallen, Denzel Washington plays a cop investigating the mysterious final words of a death row inmate. The clues lead him to the basement of an abandoned cabin where another officer committed suicide more than 30 years before. As he descends the stairs into the dark and cobweb-infested basement, the narrator says, “There are moments which mark your life…moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same, and time is divided into two parts: before this and after this.”
Stories are primarily about life being disrupted and how people reorder their lives as a result. There needs to be a moment in your story where you recognized that as a result of the event, your life was completely changed. What was that moment in your story? Was it when you got the phone call that a family member had COVID? Was it when you saw a Black Lives Matter protest taking place in your neighborhood? Or maybe it was the fear you felt when you saw your state’s governor on TV announcing a lockdown. For me, I realized that the pandemic had changed everything when my boss at the marketing agency where I worked announced that all of our networking efforts were canceled indefinitely. But that wasn’t “the moment” in my story.
That happened when I scrolled through my Facebook feed a few minutes later and saw this post from a friend:
That was when I knew that even though the shift was fragmented across the country, even though we were each experiencing it differently, something big had happened. Pinpoint the specific moment when you felt the jolt inside your brain that told you everything was different. #4—Specific details Concrete details are superior to abstract words. This is what I was talking about a few minutes ago—you will be able to make readers feel your emotion more acutely if you forgo “feeling” words and instead go for vivid sensory details. What single detail stands out the most in your memory? When you think about what happened, what smell, taste, sight, or sound is most dominant?
Right now, I am reading Young People of the Pandemic, an anthology of writings by children and teenagers that capture their experiences during COVID-19. There are many evocative pieces in this book, but 13-year-old Teddy Cooper’s entry is a standout for me: “The moment that I realized the extent of this pandemic was when I was driving with my dad along the Bronx River Parkway. I saw something that I have never seen before, which was the parking lot and building of the Westchester County Center full of rows of medical tents. Fearless health workers were treating the sick patients of Westchester. Just a few weeks earlier, I was at that very arena, and now, it was serving as a hospital for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Teddy pulls all the elements of a good story together. His voice is honest and down to earth. He communicates a clear moment—seeing the medical tents at a place where he had just attended an event—when he knew everything had changed. His description of the parking lot captures the shocking image in a way that makes us see it clearly. Most of all, we feel this boy’s disbelief and fear without him having to use those words at all.
On 9/11, my AP US History teacher (remember him from last week’s post?) instructed us to write down where we were and what we were doing when we first learned about the attack on our country. He told us that years from now, we would tell our children and grandchildren about this day.
While I’m not a parent, that statement came true when one of my teen Sunday school students at church came up to me before class and said, “Tell me about 9/11.” Someday, when a younger person asks you about the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the election of 2020, or the events that took place last week, what story are you going to tell?
Writing Prompt: Write your story of a moment from 2020-21 that changed everything for you.
If you need help fleshing out the details of your story, my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook contains some great exercises to get you started, including tools for character development and setting. Click here to grab a copy for free.