The greater the event, the larger the disconnect between what we feel as human beings and how we look at things dispassionately as reporters. I remember well arriving back in the city in 1977 after telling our families that we had become engaged and emerging from the Holland Tunnel, not into the twinkle glare of the downtown streets but into darkness limned with the foreboding shadows of buildings black-on-black, New York City absent all electrical power. For just an instant I thought how amazingly different the place looked, how bright the stars, how dark the streets. But almost immediately everything coalesced into a single thought: how big the story!
I do not know any reporter who truly managed to feel that way about the events of September 11, although all of us knew it was indeed the biggest story we would ever cover. It was also the one in which the human part of us stayed in the forefront, right there beside the notebook. The pain was too great, the loss too enormous, the shock too overwhelming. Most of my colleagues stayed whole during the days that followed, feeling the event and covering it at the same time. This is relatively rare but, in this case, absolutely necessary, not only, I think, for the mental health of the reporters but for the verisimilitude of the stories they produced. I have never been quite as proud of being in the business as I was during those dreadful days, when newspapers, magazines, and television all produced exemplary work. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, The New York Times would win more Pulitzers than it ever had, and Newsweek would be honored with the National Magazine Award for best magazine in its circulation class. This was no accident. The story of what happened to the people in those buildings and to the United States was so enormous that it called upon the best within all of us to respond. Some people did that by combing the wreckage, cooking for the rescue crews, setting up funds for widows and orphans. In my business we did it by writing the truth, beautifully.
For me personally the opportunity to do this was something of an accident of timing. I had been in the newspaper business for many years, as a reporter, an editor, and finally a columnist, and while I had loved it almost insanely, I had always hoped someday to write novels. I'd managed to work on my fiction while I was a columnist, but eventually the challenge of keeping on top of the news and on top of three young children and ricocheting wildly between the two while trying to live in the invented world of fiction became too much for me. In 1995 I left The New York Times and, I thought, the world of journalism for good. One of the most enduring memories of my life will be walking my last night down Forty-third Street, past the New York Times building, the globe lamps with the old English logo glowing black against the white light. I felt as though a door had slammed at my back, and while I'd blown it shut myself, it was still not a good feeling.
For the first year I was a recovering journalist, not a recovered one. Occasionally news would break out and I would feel a frisson, like a phantom limb: I know about that! I have some thoughts! And once one of the children, in that inimitable way children have, went to the heart of it when we were watching the report of a doctor murdered at an abortion clinic. "Who's going to write about this stuff now that you're gone?" he said, chewing thoughtfully on a Fruit Roll-Up.
But the children also agreed that what they called "that look" had disappeared. I had not even known that there was a particular look, but when they reprised the semiconscious mother of seasons past it turned out to be the look a woman might have while listening to an account of a bad call at a basketball game or a hilarious episode of flatulence in the fifth-grade classroom while simultaneously thinking of welfare reform or gun control. According to their reports, I now appeared to be attending at least some of the time. Certainly it had become easier to attend to the business of writing fiction, and I found myself inhabiting the world of my third novel in a way that had been more difficult to do with the two before it, falling in and not climbing out every other day for a visit to a homeless shelter or a wild six hours banging out a screed on capital punishment. It was a good life, and whenever I was asked whether I missed being a journalist, I always answered, "No."
Excerpted from Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen. Copyright© 2004 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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