What is A Writer’s Role in Tragic Times?

Once again, a young man has opened fire at a school, killing students and teachers. Once again, it’s in my state, Oregon. Once again, TV stations are showing nonstop coverage of the tragedy. Once again, I dropped everything to watch after I saw the news on Facebook about the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Then I went outside and hacked the wild berry plants crowding my deck until I had filled three garbage cans with thorny branches. At that point, I could not write. I had to do something physical.

But we’re writers. Eventually we have to deal with the news in writing. Back when I was working for newspapers, my task would have been to “cover” the event if it happened in my area. Gather facts, interview people, take pictures, type it all up for in the next edition. If it happened in another town, the task would be to find someone with a connection—somebody who went to that school or worked there, someone with family involved, someone from our town going to help. Beyond that, we would talk to local school officials to find out what they’re doing about security. Do they have a plan if a shooter shows up, how is the news affecting local students and staff, etc. We might talk to mental health professionals and get quotes from local officials. We might write an editorial about school safety, mental health care or gun control. Of course print is too slow in these days of instant information, so the stories would be published online first.

Journalists all over the country have been doing those things since the shooting, all working as quickly as possible and putting in extra hours. Do I miss those days? No. I miss the adrenaline rush, but I hated bothering people in crisis for quotes, pictures, names and facts. I know we need it. People need information, and journalists are devoted to providing it, but 25 years of that was enough for me.

If you have a connection, an insight or a source that you can turn into a freelance article related to the school shooting, pitch it to an editor today. If you can turn that story around quickly, you could end up with a byline and a check this week. If you wait until next week, it will be too late.

If news is not your thing, you can still find ways to address events like the Roseburg shooting in your writing, whether you write articles, essays, poems, novels, scripts, or something else. Maybe at first there are no words. I wrote an instrumental piece for the piano after the Sandy Hook shooting, and playing it again yesterday gave me comfort. Eventually the words will come. We may not be able to provide physical healing like the doctors and nurses treating the victims. But we can help heal broken spirits by offering comfort, trying to make sense of things, or expressing what other people don’t know how to express. We are the scribes, taking notes on history as it happens. We also can offer the gift of distraction, a story to carry us away from the pain for a while or a laugh to remind us we’re still alive.

Today, I urge you to write something about the shooting in whatever form feels right. Write for yourself if not for publication. It helps. We’re writers. That’s what we do.

Now let’s go write.

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