I love this image of a droplet as panorama mirror. What if we writers could expand that notion beyond the confines of a sentence? How might we structure a coherent narrative out of a multitude of distinct episodes that will allow readers to experience a large-scale event? This question of how hounded me for years while I reported and wrote “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift.”
My work on “Saved” started with a naive sense of relief. My previous book spans 400 years of history on the Hudson River where American industry came into its own. “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America” explored the rise and fall of respect for hands-on work and craftsmanship, told through the stories of people making their lives and their livings on the river across four centuries. The stories in this new book, though, had taken place in the space of a single day. I’d hoped this would make the telling easier. It didn’t.
Every book project generates its own challenges, of course. As a collaborator/proposal doctor/writing coach I’ve shepherded many authors through the painful process of structuring their sprawling, sometimes amorphous material. In the case of “Saved,” however, everything I’d learned about reporting and writing narrative seemed either impossible or unable to serve this particular story well.
I needed to capture the essence of a spontaneous, risky, and selfless evacuation by water of nearly half a million people from Manhattan following the September 11 terrorist attacks. This complex, multi-layered story involved as many as 800 mariners who had coordinated tactics on the fly, with no top-down leadership. They’d worked dockside and aboard approximately 150 tugs, ferries, police and fireboats, sailing yachts, fishing and dinner charters, as well as miscellaneous small runabouts. In fact, by the time Coast Guard officers arrived on scene — with the evacuation already well underway — they made the wise choice to help boat crews’ efforts rather than control them.
There was no clear hierarchy among vessels. There was no registry of evacuees. The maritime evacuation that day turned into the biggest in history — larger and faster even than the famous boat lift at Dunkirk, the beachfront rescue in 1940 of 338,000 Allied troops trapped in France between Hitler’s army and the sea.
What was the best way to do this story justice? I had collected moving and cinematic eyewitness accounts. How could I interweave them?
Considering readers’ powers of abstraction
I searched out models for ways to manage a multiplicity of people recounting experiences after the fact. Several disaster narratives proved instructive, including Sheri Fink’s Hurricane Katrina chronicle, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital,” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” about the first atom bombing, and Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember” about the last hours on the Titanic.
In the earliest pages of Lord’s account of the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic, he presents the reader with a rapid-fire list of names. This litany early on conditions our reading, signaling that none of these individuals will take the narrative’s center stage for long. Instead, all these characters wash on past. They are like the dots from the Pointillist painting — constituting the scene in aggregate.
Born in the 1880s, the Neo-Impressionist Pointillism movement called upon painters to apply small dots or dashes of pure, unmixed color directly onto a canvas, relying on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones.
In a moment when my manuscript was headed straight for the rocks, I discovered that adopting a Pointillistic approach to writing panoramic narrative could save it.
I focused my attention on readers’ needs, interests and curiosities. Centering these concerns governed my choices for ways to thread together multiple moments of dramatic action. I played with juxtaposing scenes and exposition, relying on the reader’s capacity to fill the holes in the telling. What details from one “chunk” of information might bleed usefully into adjacent chunks? What gaps could readers bridge in their own mind’s eye, with their powers of abstraction and simultaneous perception?
I kept asking and re-asking two critical questions:
1) What, exactly, do readers need from the author, who plays master to a book’s whole universe, and the narrator, who takes readers by the hand and guides them through the story’s unfolding?
2) When do readers need what they need?
The answers to these queries guided me whenever I was stymied by structure, offering direction when I struggled with which characters, details, and scenes to pull from recordings and research. They helped me figure out how and when to move from a close-up on a particular scene to a pull-back shot that provided framing through context, and advanced the larger storyline fueling the ongoing narrative arc. Reader-centered considerations that informed my shifts in vantage point ended up intensifying their engagement.
The reader-focused workarounds I used to structure “Saved” relied on trusting readers’ capacity for abstraction. With awareness of readers’ needs, interests, and curiosities, I found that writers of narrative can put to good use the mind’s capacity to blend thematically linked details — individual spots of color — into a full, sweeping story.
Too many characters
Powerful, engaging narrative relies on the people who people our stories. Golden Rule: Good storytelling demands establishing a deep focus on a few central characters. Right?
To properly document the history that unfolded in Lower Manhattan on September 11, I needed to plant readers into the shoes of people fleeing to the water’s edge. Caught in the avalanches as the towers crumpled, they ran until they ran out of land, and then pressed themselves up against the railings atop the seawalls along the shores of Manhattan Island. With the dust and fires spreading toward them, they had no way of knowing if more attacks were coming. Chaos reigned. But how could I recapture that intensity years later?
It was not feasible to focus on a single central protagonist, and the full, sweeping story needed to be driven by more than just a few central characters.
Over the course of drafting and revision, I began to think of the rescue effort itself as the protagonist. The evacuation, unfolding according to the familiar chronology of that blue-skied Tuesday morning, became the central character of the main narrative, while the individual participants became waves in the sea of the larger event.
Snippets from individuals’ stories of that day built up cumulatively, with each scene serving as a small point in the patchwork of a larger story.
Another mechanism I used to connect individual storylines was to identify and highlight links between characters. In disasters, geography and timing — on both macro and micro levels — affect outcomes. Differences of a few seconds or mere inches had life-or-death consequences for people I interviewed. Aerial photographs, hand-drawn maps of the wreckage, and satellite views of downtown Manhattan from before, during, and after the terrorist attacks helped me connect the dots between people and the boats that rescued them. I pored over these visuals, sketching out geographical overlaps among different characters’ timelines.
The man wandering around half burned that Rich Varela had described was likely the same man treated by firefighters serving aboard Fireboat John D. McKean, who was, indeed, the same Kenneth Summers who had recorded his story, mentioning those firefighters, as part of the Smithsonian’s September 11 Digital Archive.
Through real estate documents, I confirmed the townhouse from which a nanny and the 4-year-old in her care had fled, barefoot, as the first tower collapsed. I discovered that building was on the same street, Albany Street, where Rich Varela, a civilian with no fire training, had volunteered to help firefighters stretch hose lines after he’d been evacuated by boat to New Jersey. The horror in the faces of firefighters witnessing the fall of the second tower convinced Varela to re-board the boat from the safety of the Jersey side and return to the island on fire.
Several storylines I was chasing wound up converging aboard that same boat, fireboat John D. McKean — an FDNY vessel that evacuated passengers before returning to Manhattan to provide river water and was the only firefighting water available on the site — to land-based FDNY crews.
Ultimately, I applied all these techniques — simultaneity of perception, abiding the gaps between story threads, and employing individual characters and scenes as colorful elements in the patchwork. I came to see the story I was reporting as a set of constellations — each character a star in the display of a larger whole. Some stars stood off separately on their own while others clustered together, sharing a common fate as the cataclysm unfolded.
I found that when traditional narrative methodologies fail, it helps to remember your readers’ ability to spot constellations in a sky full of stars.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach and author.