I was surprised to find some 9/11-related emails in my Inbox this morning from my Dad. As a life-time New Yorker, they literally hit home. Weirdly enough, they also re-enforced the answer to a question I've been reflecting on: what is the core purpose of writing? There's a whole kaleidoscope of reasons we do it, but this story gets to the center of the onion for me.
Disappearing Into Ground-Zero
It's been 20 years since the World Trade Center Towers were attacked. I was less than two weeks into middle school when it all went down. The bubble of childhood comfort I'd known my whole life was popped. Everyone in the world, and especially everyone in New York, no matter the age, remembers, to some degree, the multi-week cocktail of anxieties.
I had a paranoia somewhat unique to me. My father was a structural engineer who suddenly got flooded with requests to inspect buildings down on Wall Street. Just days after the crash, he'd disappear for long stretches of time. He'd leave early in the morning and come back when I was asleep. My parents filled me in with some details, but I don't think I ever processed the real nature of what he went through during that strange moment of history.
Today, my Dad went through his old Outlook Express folders back from 2001. In addition to some of the technical reports he wrote-up, he found a chain of emails between him and his brother (an OG digital nomad, who left the U.S., and traveled the world to teach English online). My dad wrote to him, almost daily, with detailed "field-notes" of what was happening in New York.
Experience Frozen in Words
My dad is an engineer, not a writer. But the circumstance was so surreal that he felt compelled to write thousands of words on his experience wandering the wreckage. His audience was his brother. He named his works with simple titles like, "I'm Going In." These emails were the un-filtered versions of what he would tell his kids. He didn't realize that he was freezing his experience in time for us to read one day in the future.
Here I am two decades later, not far from the age he was when he wrote them. It reminds me of an overlooked power of writing. A power often forgotten among the fleeting moments of the Internet Age. Words enable time travel. Writing prevents experiences from getting sucked into the black hole of fading memories. I'm reading vivid and emotional descriptions of Ground Zero that weren't suitable for an eleven year old me.
Field-Notes from a Forensic Engineer
His technical reports covered engineering, but his field-notes captured what it was like walking through a city in shock: blocked roads, subways closed, military men at every corner, asking for credentials and searching bags. Smells shifted between twisted steel, fire, garbage, rotting food and vomit. The sunlight pierced through the clouds of haze that would transform with the wind.
An eerie feeling consumed him as he approached the city from the Long Island Expressway. It's most defining shape was gone. The Twin Towers were more than an office and a symbol. They were a pre-GPS navigational device, a kind of North star to get the locals around. It's absence contributed to the dis-orientation everyone felt.
Outside of the Javits Center, as well as the hospitals on 1st street, were packed like a shoulder-to-shoulder street fair. The amount of missing people posters was "incomprehensible," and the personal details on them, if you stopped to read, were "heart-wrenching." The camaraderie was high, but so was the paranoia. You could find finger-sketched messages on soot-covered cars, messages of both hope and revenge.
The nearby Pakistani restaurant had to be guarded by a fleet of cops. It seems like even clear-headed liberal people got sucked into a surge of Islamaphobia. Everyone was on alert. No one knew if more attacks were coming. He saw a group of men in turbans getting into a van, and someone else writing down their license plate number, just in case.
The electricity was knocked out on nearby buildings, so his team needed to climb sixty flights of stairs on foot. The tops of towers were completely littered in paper: letterheads, folders, business cards. Were these people alive? He dialed the phone numbers when he got home, and some answered. He learned that business cards from the blast made their way all the way down to New Jersey.
He brought my brother and I to the first Met game since the attack. Apparently he was paranoid about going, but my brother and I insisted. We were all baseball addicts at the time. They made a dramatic comeback against their rival Braves, which symbolized the city's resilience. We needed that win. Not only did Liza Minnelli sing "New York, New York" at the 7th inning stretch, but we caught her as she was getting into her limousine after the game. I yelled "Great job!" to a cultural icon from a past generation, and she responded in a theatrical way, clenching her heart with a "Thank you very much!"
Write for Your Grandchildren
Some of these experiences were forgotten, some were fuzzy, and some were vivid. I knew 9/11 was a big part of my dad's life. For months, he volunteered to investigate steel through scrapyards in New Jersey. I heard stories told in his own words. But, I never got to experience them through his written word.
Something special happens when ideas are communicated without an audience, without a conversation. It feels as if you get a peak into someone's unfiltered, uninfluenced mind. It's the best way to know someone.
The feeling I get from reading this confirms my hunch on the ultimate purpose of writing: to freeze your experiences for your children, grandchildren, and beyond. Writing is a way to immortalize your experience. It lets your descendents know what you went through in an honest, unfiltered, near confessional way.