The Challenge of Writing . . . When There Are No Words

It was one of those landmark days, the kind of day where people later ask, “Where were you when that happened?”  The kind of day that leaves its mark, whether you want it to or not, intractable, like a brand on your soul.

It was Tuesday, January 28, 1986, two days after I had celebrated my birthday.  I was in junior high that year, and my love for all things astronomy had me fired up and eager for the events that were to take place on that cold, blustery winter morning.

loveofastronomybeginning

 

It was big news and a highly anticipated moment–the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, complete with its seven-person crew, including the first teacher ever to venture into space, Christa McAuliffe.  But it was a school day, after all, and at the time of the launch, I was in Earth Science class, taking a quiz.  The teacher, a bald, bespectacled man in his midfifties who gave us quizzes twice a week, without fail or exception, had the radio turned on, with live coverage of the launch.  It was hard to concentrate on the quiz.

challengerist

 

At 11:38 a.m., EST, liftoff!  The voices on the radio buzzed with excitement.  I remember putting down my pencil, looking out the window, imagining . . .

challengerliftoff

 

But not for long.  I didn’t want to flunk the quiz, so I proceeded to the next question.  I read it once, twice, finding it hard to focus on the words.  As I finally honed in on the answer, the voices on the radio began to shout.  At first, I tried to ignore them.  I figured they must have been excited, that’s all.  But the shouting didn’t stop; it intensified.  Something clearly wasn’t right.

That’s when the words, tinny, with a hint of static, filtered through the classroom.  “The space shuttle Challenger has exploded!”

What?  I was sure I was misunderstanding, my hearing compromised by the distance and volume–the radio was a good thirty feet away from me, and not turned up very loud.  But then I looked at my desk mate, Anita.  She and I had known each other since we were toddlers.  We’d gone to kindergarten together, lived a half mile apart, on the same suburban street.  The expression on her face told me immediately that I had not misheard.

challengerexplodes

 

Pandemonium on the radio.  Our teacher turned the volume up, and I thought of the absurdity of trying to take a quiz at a moment like this.  The flight had lasted all of 73 seconds before disaster struck.  The commentators were all shouting, exclaiming, already speculating what might have gone wrong.  In the desk in front of me, Joe and Tony, two good friends, looked back at Anita and me, open-mouthed, wide-eyed.

There were no words.  What could anyone say?  We just sat there, staring into the empty space of the room, at the radio, as if we might be able to will the reporters to say something different, or perhaps turn back time to just before the launch, and warn the crew not to fly.

turnbacktime

 

There are no words.  I said it again and again in my mind.

There are no words.

********************

That night, at home, I watched clip after clip of the nightmare.  It stung and horrified on an almost personal level, as I had entertained the idea of becoming an astronaut when I grew up.  I loved adventure, the planets, the endless blackness of outer space, the promise and mystery of a universe waiting to be discovered.

planetswanttobeastronomer

 

I didn’t want to continue watching the shuttle explode, over and over, but I couldn’t seem to help it.  I stared at the television screen deep into the night, hoping for the impossible.

Finally I went to bed.  But I couldn’t sleep.  I thought of the crew–how long were they even aware that there was a problem on the Challenger?  Did they have ten seconds’ warning?  Five?  Two?  Or were they caught completely by surprise?  And the families, the loved ones . . .

newspaperwhataboutfamilies

 

There are no words.

But then I thought about that.  Was that really true?  The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger was a catastrophe, something that would never be forgotten, but life was full of moments, both good and bad, that so often seemed beyond the purview of language.  Even little things, precious things, were hard to put into words:  a first kiss, moving away from home for the first time, falling in love, saying good-bye.  And didn’t everyone experience their own personal canyons and tragedies?  The death of a loved one, the betrayal of a close friend, the loss of a lifelong dream, blown apart like shrapnel on the wind.

sayinggoodbye

 

How could any of these experiences be captured, truly, in words?

Life, I thought, as I lay there, awake, unable to close my eyes.  How can anyone really write about life, the things that matter?  The things that resonate?

Even then, as a junior high student, I knew that, for me, writing was akin to breathing.  I couldn’t imagine a life without it.  But most of my stories as a kid were adventures, space explorations, without much depth or emotion.  I sensed I was arriving at a crossroads.  The way I felt lying there, the thoughts swirling in my head, the ideas and motivations abounding, I wanted so much to be able to convey it all in a story, through the power of the written word.

otherworldsbutwantmore

 

Words often seemed so lacking, so trite.  How could raw emotion, the depths of the heart, be expressed through them?  Could they?  Or was the whole thing futile?

wordstrite

 

That night, I resolved to try, to learn, to find a way.  And if I didn’t, or couldn’t, I would keep trying, and never give up.  I wanted to do more than just send readers on grand explorations to other planets or faraway eras.  I wanted to be able to move them, to have them see themselves on the page, to laugh and cry and engage with the characters.

sendtofarawayplacesnearend

 

I thought of other stories I had read, where this wonderful thing, this literary sleight of hand, as it were, had happened, where I magically was able to relate to some black-and-white construct on the printed page, the bones and cartilage fleshed out with muscle and skin and heart, imagined and created by a writer decades, or even centuries, ago.

literarymagicsleightofhand

 

My hopes and goals as a writer have not changed since that long, sleepless night thirty years ago.  Perhaps all writers, all artists, feel this way.  We want to create something meaningful, something that reaches others and moves them, makes them laugh at the triumphs and cry at the losses, makes them pull for our characters and root for them as if they were old friends.

We want to be able to fill in the gaps, to convey on the page the pain and suffering, the gladness and joy, the broken dreams and irretrievable, lost hopes of childhood, the promise of a better tomorrow in spite of it all.

sunrisebettertomorrowend

 

We want to write, and communicate, and share, and express . . . when there are no words.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

69 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. authormbeyer
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 03:32:16

    Powerful. You have the power in your writing to take me back to that day. I was teaching an eighth grade English class. They had been watching the launch in Mr. Mack’s Science class down the hall and around the corner. They knew I was a sci-fi space nut and they came running down the hall at the passing bell unable to wait to tell me what they had seen. I didn’t cry or anything then… that is a bad thing for classroom discipline with a male teacher… but only because I didn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. You brought it all back. You made me cry about it… finally. And I have to thank you for making me feel those things through your writing, those things I needed to feel. I was teaching on 9-11 too. But, that’s another story.

    Reply

  2. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 06:26:10

    Right now, I only have one word: yes. Thank you.

    Reply

  3. UByDesign
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 06:40:32

    Life is full of memories, good and bad… Events that are hard to describe… Excellent description, in words…

    Reply

  4. DaisyWillows
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 10:02:09

    So much passion. You are one of life’s true empathises. You want to give true justice to the depths of a humans emotions. Inspiring words and top notch writing x

    Reply

  5. Karen's Nature Art
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 12:51:29

    Beautifully written… Thank you.

    Reply

  6. laurelwolfelives
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 13:27:40

    You really do have a way of making it feel as if it was happening right now. I remember it well. The one thing that always bothered me (that wasn’t released for years) was that the astronauts were still alive when they hit the water.
    And, you’re right. What words could describe that day? There is a plethora of words but silence is what overcame me.

    Reply

  7. deborahanndykeman
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 17:11:24

    I stood in horror in my living room, a young bride, as I watched the lift-off, and then…We were living in upstate New York, the Cobleskill area at the time…and it WAS blustery and cold. Yes, no words, but you said it very well! Great post! Have a fantastic Saturday!

    Reply

  8. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 18:51:35

    An excellent account of that day Mike. I had just arrived at work, opened the Gallery door and heard the terrible news. Those “landmark days” stick with us.

    Reply

  9. Karina Pinella
    Mar 06, 2016 @ 14:00:21

    Definitely a momentous event when you’re jarred to be reminded that life is relatively brief. Enjoy now or never.

    Reply

  10. Thehungryballer
    Mar 06, 2016 @ 17:08:33

    Tragedies are inevitable. And I agree with you…sometimes words fail to express the magnitude of a situation, and then that overwhelming experience blows inwardly . Thanks a ton for posting this !

    Reply

  11. Andrea Stephenson
    Mar 06, 2016 @ 18:19:05

    Very powerful Mike, your description of the hopes and tragedy of the Challenger launch could be true of so many events and the way you relate this to our hopes for what we can achieve in writing.

    Reply

  12. amymorrisjones
    Mar 06, 2016 @ 22:03:37

    It’s interesting how different age groups have their “disaster” memory–for my parents, it was the Kennedy assassination, for me, the Challenger. Those a bit younger talk about 9/11. The interesting thing is, though, that we all want to *talk* and *write* about those experiences. Thankfully we have artistic mediums that allow for expression when simple recounting of events seem inadequate. Thanks for the interesting post!

    Reply

  13. teagan geneviene
    Mar 07, 2016 @ 13:11:31

    It’s good to see another post from you Mike. They are always so beautifully done.
    For me, it’s not a “block” or dry spell… It’s stress. There are words, ideas, and full stories in there, but they can’t get around the stress. Glad to see you writing.
    Hugs.

    Reply

    • evelyneholingue
      Mar 07, 2016 @ 15:21:40

      So agree with you, Teagan. Hugs.

      Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 07, 2016 @ 19:19:08

      Thanks so much, Teagan! I’ve been knee-deep in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers (going along slowly, but I’m getting there:), so I haven’t had as much time to devote to blogging as I’d like. I really love to blog, so I don’t technically “need” the reminder, but hearing from you does indeed serve as a reminder about why I enjoy the WordPress community so much. It’s wonderful people like you who make this so worthwhile!

      Reply

  14. inesephoto
    Mar 07, 2016 @ 15:18:29

    It was my day off. As you say, it was a highly anticipated moment around the world, not only in the US, and I had the news program on to watch the launching. I didn’t get it when I saw the explosion. I had a smile on my face another couple of seconds. Then I just cried. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply

  15. evelyneholingue
    Mar 07, 2016 @ 15:21:11

    Moving post, Mike. I share your feelings about hope and how you tie the Challenger tragedy to writing. So glad to read you again. I’ve been somewhat away from my blog, too, since I’m finally finishing my new YA novel. Other projects in between as always.
    Take care.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 07, 2016 @ 19:14:57

      Hi Evelyne! Great to hear from you.:) It’s been on and off for me as well with my blog, and for the same reason.:) I’ve been working hard on the sequel to The Eye-Dancers–still quite a bit to go, but I’m making good progress! I will absolutely keep on eye out for your new novel!:)

      Reply

  16. Ste J
    Mar 08, 2016 @ 09:39:02

    Defining moments of history always have plenty of white noise to them, such as the TV analysing it straight away despite knowing nothing etc but those personal moments that come from being speechless and then examining that moment, those are what bring an event home. A collective feeling that everybody can relate to. Challenger has always been a name synonymous with exploration and so the name carried on in you and many others.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 08, 2016 @ 20:18:35

      That’s a great point about the name itself–there was something very evocative and powerful in the name “Challenger.” And thanks so much for the reblog! Very much appreciated!

      Reply

  17. Ste J
    Mar 08, 2016 @ 09:45:33

    Reblogged this on Book to the Future and commented:
    The experiences that forge a writer are many, Mike’s post offering recollections are a fascinating insight and one that I read twice, thus proving something, although what I know not.

    Reply

  18. Resa
    Mar 08, 2016 @ 18:45:31

    Totally excellent article!

    Reply

  19. Lyn
    Mar 08, 2016 @ 20:21:12

    Thirty years ago…and yet it almost seems like yesterday. I remember seeing the news clip over and over again throughout the day. It just didn’t seem real — it still doesn’t. Excellent post, Mike. As you say, “There are no words.”

    Reply

  20. jjspina
    Mar 09, 2016 @ 01:06:28

    This was a horrific shock to all USA! It does seem like only yesterday that this happened. Nice post, Michael! 😊

    Reply

  21. Sherri
    Mar 09, 2016 @ 22:45:20

    Oh Mike, I remember this tragic day so clearly etched in my mind as in yours. 1986 was the year I moved to America with my then 3 year old son to start our new life there for the next 17 years. I remember sitting in my living room in my flat in a small town in England and again, like you feeling horrified, speechless. For you still in school, I can only imagine the terrible shock to hear the events unfolding on the radio like that. And then I read through until your final paragraph. I will remember the message in your words which give me hope to carry on with my memoir and not give up and to remember to keep writing no matter what. To remember the reasons for doing so, even when, sometimes, there are no words. Powerful, beautifully written post, as always Mike. Thank you so much for this…

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2016 @ 01:40:19

      Thanks so much, Sherri! I’m so glad the post was helpful.:) Writing can be the most gratifying thing in the world, but also the most challenging! Keep writing! You will get there.:) I have to keep reminding myself the same thing with the sequel to The Eye-Dancers. It’s going okay–but there are some days where I truly feel stuck.

      Reply

      • Sherri
        Mar 11, 2016 @ 13:48:21

        Thanks Mike, and yes, the very same to you! Oh I know that feel…I was going to ask how things are going for you with your sequel. That ‘stuck’ feeling is hard to get through, but you will get through it, and then the words will flow again. I have every faith in you! I say this to myself too, haha! Have a lovely weekend Mike catch up again soon 🙂

  22. Stephanae V. McCoy
    Mar 11, 2016 @ 00:00:52

    “This literary sleight of hand,” is exactly what this post was to me. To begin with such a tragic event permanently etched into our memories and without diluting the gravity of the situation to end on such a passionate note was magical. I was more than 8 months pregnant (my first son would be born in several day’s time) when watching the Challenger liftoff then subsequent explosion it was as if time stopped because I couldn’t believe it happened.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2016 @ 01:42:05

      Thanks so much, Steph! And yes–the feeling of time stopping is a perfect way to describe that day thirty years ago. It’s still such a vivid day in my memory. I am so glad you enjoyed this post.:)

      Reply

  23. Christy Birmingham
    Mar 12, 2016 @ 23:30:02

    Mike, you have explained the Challenger tragedy in such a powerful way here… You ironically choose amazing words while emotionally struggling… and that is a sign of a great writer.

    Reply

  24. kutukamus
    Mar 17, 2016 @ 20:06:53

    Some mishaps
    So that others could see
    Thou shalt write
    To eternity 🙂

    Reply

  25. Coral Waight
    Mar 18, 2016 @ 23:53:17

    Thanks for following my blog. I absolutely love this post.

    Reply

  26. Julie Butler Chanteuse
    Mar 19, 2016 @ 07:42:40

    Lovely piece Mike. Also a nice tribute to rise who lost their lives that day. I agree in terms of the artist aspect. As both a writer and I singer, my goal is to reach people and if I’m really lucky, to elevate them if only for a moment in some small way. I really enjoyed this flashback Mike.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 20, 2016 @ 00:46:59

      Thanks so much, Julie! And well said.:) I think “elevate” is a great way to put it, and I certainly strive for that as well! Reaching people, moving them with your words and work and creations is absolutely one of the high points of the artistic process.

      Reply

  27. Anna Waldherr
    Mar 21, 2016 @ 17:44:33

    A powerful and moving post. You will go far.

    Reply

  28. restlessjo
    Mar 24, 2016 @ 07:37:08

    Thanks, Mike! 🙂 No need to say more.

    Reply

  29. ritaroberts
    Apr 01, 2016 @ 12:41:47

    Such a moving story Mike. This, as of many tragedies which happen always stay in the mind as we say to ourselves, WHY does it always happen to these brave people who risk their lives for future science. We can only pray for their loved ones who are still grieving. Keep writing you have a wonderful flare and the capability to move the emotions so well. Thank you for following my blog will follow back

    Reply

  30. reocochran
    Apr 03, 2016 @ 23:23:25

    Being shocked and speechless only happens once in awhile in our lives, thank goodness. The essence of that clock- (and heart-) stopping moment just cannot be described. You did well, but may admit words cannot describe this fully. My family and others in the 60’s had hit after hit, the triple deaths in short amount of time of those famous icons. I thought that would be my worst period of my life, but 9/11/01 was worse with the enormity of it all, Mike. It took many people a year or more to recuperate from this evil attack.
    It is hard to believe how the years flew by.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 04, 2016 @ 00:36:58

      Very well said, Robin. And I couldn’t agree more about the years flying by. It almost seems I closed my eyes last night in 1992 and woke up the next day in . . . 2016!

      Reply

  31. sherazade
    Apr 10, 2016 @ 16:21:40

    Capisco poco ma le “tue”parole ci sono!
    Ciao! Shera

    Reply

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