I read something incredible today, and then I read the first thousand words of it again aloud to Bre, my voice breaking over the last few lines. It’s a story of tragedy coming, and then of the tragedy itself, one of such magnitude it cannot be absorbed.
What I read is “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy,” by Michael Paterniti, about the crash of Swiss Air flight 111, published in Esquire in 2000. I saw a link and took a peek at it on my phone, and then stopped the four other things I was doing and read every stunning word. I don’t read on my phone. But the prose was so astonishing and the story so well told that I couldn’t stop long enough to find it on a bigger screen.
Sometimes when I read writing this good, it sets in motion writing of my own. And sometimes it simply does the thing that words can do. It makes me feel the story in my own flesh.
I write fiction now, but I didn’t start out that way. I used to think the real world was so interesting, how could you ever stop just writing it down. Why would you make it up? I started out wanting to write like Michael Herr and Joan Didion and Truman Capote and Tim O’Brien, beautiful, brutal, and true. Now, there is a deep and complex conversation among writers and readers of nonfiction about writing truth and telling stories and which matters most and how the two meet and depart and entwine. I don’t know exactly when I shifted over into the realm of invention, but I do know that my writing is still driven by wonder at the things that are most real. And driven too by wonder at how the smallest molecules of what is real can be coaxed by a pen into bonding differently than they did when you first saw them.