Thoughts of Sept. 11 find way into book

A Towson writer pulls together Marylanders' words

August 14, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

There were no words to describe it, people said.

Not true.

Apparently, there weren't enough words to describe the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On assignment, schoolchildren wrote about those awful sharking planes. Grandparents, still acutely familiar with Pearl Harbor, had something to write. Nonwriters became instant writers, and there were no job requirements: all you needed was a pained heart and a computer. Global e-mail trafficked in 9/11 reactions. An epidemic of journaling and poetry broke out. A question arose: How to harness all this writing in the name of history and, perhaps, healing.

How? Books. Multiple books. In the publishing community, every book project became a rush job. According to Publishers Weekly, as many as 150 Sept. 11-related books will be on the market shortly - not including the six-month-anniversary books already published and those on display this month at any area bookstore.

Fall titles range from war correspondent William Langewiesche's acclaimed American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (North Point) to children's books such as Christine Kole MacLean's Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms (Dutton) to Marvel Comics' six-issue series focusing on the New York Police Department. CBS News and The New York Times will also weigh in with heavyweight entries. Oral histories, reporters' diaries and photography books also will be published - even a book reproducing watercolors of Ground Zero.

In Maryland, a book of poetry called To the Words (Etruscan Press) was published in May. About the book and the public's immediate reaction to the attacks, Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier wrote last month in The Sun:

"People sought out poetry almost instinctively. We did this in part because of a belief that poetry, like prayer, might provide consolation or understanding."

Poetry dominated the 400 submissions that Rus VanWestervelt and a team of volunteers pored through these past eight months. VanWestervelt, a writer and Towson University teacher, is the project director of Maryland's entry into the book frenzy surrounding the tragedy's first anniversary. September Eleven: Maryland Voices (Baltimore Writers' Alliance, $16.95) will be published Sept. 15. The initial press run is 500 copies.

Collier, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Parris N. Glendening are among those who have contributed their words to the volume, which includes 200 pieces of poetry, prose, journal entries, letters, and a musical score. Mainly, ordinary Marylanders responded to the statewide call for submissions by the effort known as "The 9/11 Project." Someone named Tiff Reid wrote a poem called "Garble":

Sadhateragegriefhurtreliefearterroranticipation

Smokeorangeglassscreamshriekbodiesruinscrashcollapse

I want to write something sappy and uplifting

Instead of mourning

But I can only weep one word at a time.

Many students volunteered their work. A 9-year-old named Morgan Madden wrote about her day in school on that day:... I touch my school box and it is shaking

because I am shivering.

I watch everyone else in class.

By the looks on their faces,

I know they feel scared, too ...

"This book," says VanWestervelt, "will provide future generations a window into how we truly reacted to Sept. 11."

Much to read

In Towson, his hometown, the 37-year-old VanWestervelt looks emotionally whipped. He looks precisely like a man who has spent eight months reading hundreds of emotionally raw stories. He hadn't planned to direct such an undertaking, but on Sept. 11 he found himself frozen. He couldn't write. But shouldn't writers have something to say on such an occasion?

He called his mom. She was having no problem writing; she was churning out pages and pages in her journal. It wasn't a contest, but still. "Frozen to the face," says VanWestervelt, using an expression mountain climbers use when they become paralyzed with fear. "I could not `let go' to get to that higher place and write about what happened."

Others would have to speak up.

Like many people, VanWestervelt started receiving e-mails from friends as the tragedy of Sept. 11 unfolded. It seemed the state wasn't having writer's block, either. He was stunned and moved by the outpouring, by the human craving to communicate, share and console.

The idea for a book was born - but not a collection of forced fiction or writers "trying to get inside the minds of the victims," as VanWestervelt says. No eyewitness accounts, either. The anthology would be written by people who probably didn't know a soul who died when the four airplanes crashed.

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