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

%d bloggers like this: