When I was twenty-five, I attended a writing conference. In stuffy meeting rooms and scratchy business casual, I grasped for clues on how to write about my father’s death. One lecture promised to unlock the secret formula for a spring-loaded plot.
“What is the worst inciting moment for a book?” the speaker asked rhetorically. “9/11.”
It checks all the wrong boxes: random, unbelievable, maximally chaotic, all falling action thereafter. 9/11 distracts. 9/11 has baggage.
Flushed with naïveté and provocation, I raised my hand. I was seconds from clarity. “How would you start a book if it is about 9/11?”
Well, she just wouldn’t.
For years I have twisted this literary Rubik’s cube with dismay. In some ways, mine is just another grief story. But growing up the daughter of a 9/11 victim, my life has always felt singularly peculiar, worthy of documenting for posterity — a life that thousands of other families had too. The advice of all my writing instructors in a snarl: Write the story you have to tell. Conversely: Why you?
My catastrophizing mind spins unhelpful narratives. I had been dealt an impossible task: a life experience too strange for nonfiction. I want to give up.
9/11 seems like history worth documenting, yet the literary genre is sparse. 9/11 mostly appears in reportage, textbooks, oral histories, commercial memoir dripping with patriotism or heroism. The latter chafes my liberal sensibilities and my distrust of silver linings; the rest feels like raw material. Imagination, as it relates to 9/11, has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists. I crave craft—the heartbreakingly gorgeous page-turner that earns the tragedy a new meaning.
I look to another inconceivable tragedy, Google all the Holocaust memoirs I remember reading in school. The same few names appeared: Wiesel, Levi, Frank. One of my favorite books, remembered as real, was fiction. I thought that memoir bore witness to history; maybe that is the exception to the rule.
Beyond the revulsion of terrorism and complications with plot, why do we turn away from 9/11 as narrative? What do we need to read and write and process this?
Memoirs that bear witness to history cannot, teleologically, be timeless. There are competing audiences — those who lived through it and those who did not. Just as a book dates itself by referring to pop culture fads or the latest technology, so too it ages with buzzwords, assumed shared experiences, or the quaint ignorance of events to come.
Both audiences may fatigue of compassion and empathy. Reader’s block. For readers born after 9/11, the trauma itself cannot read as fresh; 9/11 is no longer the worst thing that happened to me, to us. Readers who lived through 9/11 too easily self-identify — people cry when I tell them how my father died. I fear I’ve lost some readers here already. (Need a page break to collect yourselves?)
A writer cannot restore an entire readership’s ability to care; the best I can offer is the comfort of a good book.
Back when I was chasing plot tips, I lacked the conviction that I could decide the story I had to tell; 9/11 simply happened to me. It is only years later that my logic takes the defiant turn: tread a new narrative.
Just as 9/11 undermined Western hegemony, so too should it challenge the dominant Western narrative structure. American readers have grown comfortable with plot-driven arcs and certain tropes; storytellers are encouraged to create anew, within these parameters. But perhaps such a cataclysmic event warrants a different way of storytelling: de-familiarizing the narrative gives different audiences a similar space to process trauma.
9/11 literature could benefit from dystopian world-building and magical realism, to confidently recast the world as we understand it, to tread a path unconcerned with “realistic” narrative arc. For readers born after 9/11: the impossible made real, normal. For readers who lived 9/11: this strange world offered without explanation or indulgence; the narrator commands that you bracket your story to inhabit this one. Perhaps 9/11 has ruined the narrative arc, and our craft should reflect that.
The subtext of these editorial aversions to 9/11? When the writing is good enough, none of this will matter. Lyricism, honesty, and clarity can cut through cliché. Good prose makes grief memoir from sob story, romance read from love letter. A strong narrative voice can hold the reader’s hand quietly through trauma. A direct admission can be the antidote to flat memories, rendering them ever more stark and poignant.
In some ways I’m grateful they didn’t tell me straight. This authorial puzzle challenged my self-confidence as a young writer, only to show me ways I’ve been too deferential. Questioning flippant dead-ends has forced me to clarify my writerly intentions and make craft choices with conviction. The dominant narrative of 9/11 breeds reader’s and writer’s block alike. If I encounter resistance as a writer, let it be my own.
 See Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World, which discusses the false universality of plot-based narrative.