I’ve had this blog for six months now, and this is the first entry where I’m going to talk about what I’m writing.

My novel, tentatively titled A PETAL OF CHRYSANTHEMUM, features the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I started plotting this back in the summer, and began writing in earnest in September. Before the first draft was finished, I knew there wasn’t enough emphasis on that event, but the concept of going back to make substantial changes paralyzed me. To some extent, it still does.

My wife was born and raised in Japan. I spent a great deal of time there myself. Our ties to Japan run deep. We have friends whose hometowns were affected by the tsunami. I remember March 11, 2011 very well. I didn’t get much work done that Friday. While this was simply a tragic event for most everyone I worked with, for me, it was like watching the towers collapse on September 11th. No, more than that. I sat before my computer reading news stories, English and Japanese alike, watching a live stream from NHK television, the images of fire, destruction, flooding, the displaced, all bundling together to drain the joy, the happiness right out of me. My boss even offered to let me go home to be with my family.

Everyone who came to speak with me in my office that day knew I was distraught. The way my eyes wandered, my lips trembled, my words came slowly, softly.

Today my wife shared this video with me, and I’ll admit it–it took the wind out of me just like March 11th. I had to wipe my eyes a time or three. And after viewing this, that’s when I realized that the pervading uncertain feeling I had about my current work in progress had to be confronted.

I’m starting over. Sort of. Imagine reading a book about a fireman in NYC and his various problems with self-loathing and relationship issues. You get halfway through this relationship drama when 9/11 happens. And while the rest of the story is, in fact, a post-9/11 story, don’t you feel that you’ve cheapened the tragedy a bit by padding the beginning with this relationship drama?

The tsunami was real. People suffered and died. Indescribable damage was done to regions of Japan. Entire cities and families were literally washed away by surges of water topping one hundred feet. I can’t go lightly on this. I can’t treat it cheaply. I’m going back and starting with the tsunami, bringing it to the forefront, not relegating it to a background element, a mere an obstacle in my protagonist’s way.

I have to do it right, or not do it at all.

3 thoughts on “3.11

  1. Wow, the tears…

    “Nations have interests; people have friends.”

    Thanks for sharing, both the video and the story of your motivation. It reminds me of my own purpose in writing — which has nothing to do with the tsunami, but that doesn’t matter. The stories that make a difference will have different seeds, and as you said, as long as we stay true to them, we have done our duty as writers.

  2. Ben,

    Good for you.

    You’ve chosen a difficult setting, but your thoughtfulness will steer you in the correct direction. Just remember, it’s the little day-to-day things that make up so much of our lives. If you can tie the protagonist’s issues to those of the region, I think it will add an emotional weight to your work.

    I’m a native New Orleanian (4th generation) and was there for Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I read a manuscript by a Seattle author set in post-K New Orleans and had to ask questions like, “Where is this toilet paper coming from?” “Why is he hesitating to steal the car after the water recedes?” and “How many clean shirts does this guy own?” (The Protagonist kept changing clothes. Obviously, the author had never washed loads of laundry by hand, using machine laundry powder. Gain works best, fyi.)

    In the midst of the disaster, I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. I had a kid. I could chop down trees, pick up roof shingles, and drive hours to Baton Rouge to get groceries.

    Weeks later, Hurricane Rita threatened to pound us. That day, I was struck with temporary alexia. For about 12 hours, I could not read a single written letter or number. I had to leave work. I was driving and the signs were incomprehensible, as if I was in Asia or Eastern Europe again.

    The bizarre effects of living through a natural disaster follow its victims throughout their lives. This summer was the first time in 6 years I felt comfortable having popsicles and canned tuna in the house (long, long story).

    Good luck,

  3. I know how strange it can feel when you know things were significantly different than written.

    I had a similar experience once with a story set in Alabama, where I grew up. The author hadn’t even bothered to look Alabama up in an encyclopedia and I’d bet money that he couldn’t even pinpoint it on a map.

    It turned me off and I couldn’t even finish. It wasn’t even that it was insulting–I have no problem laughing at Alabama’s quirks!–it was just completely unbelievable.

    People died in that tsunami. I owe the survivors more than that.

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