Writing Tragedy by Jack Todd

In any life, there are events that shake us to the core. Some occur when we are very young, and they remain the reach of memory. Others persist in detail so heightened that it verges on the surreal, as if painted onto our retinas by a Salvador Dalí employing a tiny brush.

When I was eighteen months old, I was trampled by a boar hog with tusks. He ripped my head open, left a deep dent in my skull and nearly took out my left eye. Had my father not been able to kick the five-hundred pound beast away just in time, he would have eaten me for breakfast.

I have no recollection of the event whatsoever, except what I was told by my parents, and the occasional nightmare, in which hogs are rooting around in my bed.

More than forty years later, I stood in the season’s first snowfall on the slopes of Mount Royal, witness to the surreal aftermath of the massacre at the École Polytechnique. As city columnist for The Gazette and one of the first journalists to arrive on the scene, it was my job to write something coherent about an event so overwhelming that even then, I understood that there was a truth about it that would lie forever beyond language.

Those two incidents represent the poles of my writing life. One is not recalled at all, the other remembered in hallucinatory detail. One is intensely private, the other entirely public. The only thing the private near-tragedy and the public tragedy have in common is that I have found them both extraordinarily difficult to write.

In one form or another, I have attempted to get that boar attack into satisfactory prose for decades; most recently, it appears as a chapter in a new novel called Rose & Poe. It was a pivotal event in my family because my mother never forgave my father for letting me get into that corral. She was laid up with a broken leg and he was supposed to be watching me, but he was distracted by a horse he was working, and my near-fatal injury became the focal point for her intense hostility toward the feckless man she married.


“… it was my job to write something coherent about an event so overwhelming that even then, I understood that there was a truth about it that would lie forever beyond language.”


This is, or should be, the stuff of fiction. On the other hand, the difficulty with my endless attempts to write the story of the Polytechnique massacre is that the tragedy is so unequivocally real. Above all, every time I try to write it, there is a sense of duty to the fourteen women who were slain that day, a need to live up to their memory – and a perpetual sense of failure in meeting that task, which carried through to my recently completed 25th anniversary piece for The Gazette.

The writer’s role in these public tragedies is particularly important in our age of disposable grief. As public tragedies are endlessly invoked, they lose their power to shock and, eventually, their ability to arouse any genuine emotional response whatsoever. Think of the crumbling towers of the World Trade Center, and the gap between our reaction today and during those first horrible hours on September 11, 2001 when we watched it unfold on our television screens.

As an event is trotted out again and again on television, accompanied by the sententious tones of the talking heads who tell us how to feel – and when we are expected to stop feeling, meaning as soon as the next tragic event crowds itself into the news cycle – the repetition drains it of its emotional charge. The result is a pro forma response, accompanied by the public expectation that we behave in a certain manner: buy a poppy, express again the shock, horror and outrage, take part in public displays of grief that have been hijacked as photo ops by politicians – and move on.

Given sufficient talent, persistence and compassion, a writer ought to be able to get behind all that, or, at least, to work at a tangent to the prevailing winds in order to tap into an authentic well of emotion and to provide new insight

“The writer’s role in these public tragedies is particularly important in our age of disposable grief.”

That is easier said than done. We have many potential responses to catastrophic events. Silence, even for writers, is one. There is something noble about remaining silent in the face of the most deplorable events – except that when you are a professional writer, the only way to avoid writing about them entirely is to walk away from your career. If you choose to write you will have to accept that you will always fall short, that you will come up against the boundaries of talent and perception, that you will always feel some more profound truth lies just beyond your grasp.

Our aspirations, the stories we imagine that we will write, are always greater than the result. When the story we are trying to get at is not one of great import, we can shrug and move on. After all, even the most deceptively simple narratives are fraught with pitfalls and opportunities to founder. When the occasion is one of those iconic moments that shape our age, especially when the core of the experience is profoundly tragic, the inadequacy of mere words is inevitably more painful to a writer struggling to live up to the demands of the craft.

Ultimately, to struggle and fail when the stakes are higher imposes a greater burden – but it is one we have to accept if we are to write at all. And with each new failure, you tell yourself the same thing:

Next time, I’ll get it right.

Jack Todd is a native Nebraskan whose flight to Montreal during the Vietnam War is the subject of his QWF prize-winning memoir, The Taste of Metal. Todd has been a columnist for The Gazette for the past twenty-five years and has also published three novels.


66 thoughts on “Writing Tragedy by Jack Todd

  1. I appreciated JackTodd’s effort to portray the tragedy of 14 murdered women in the immediate aftermath of that horrendous event, and afterwards in public talks he gave on the problem of male violence against women. I now appreciate this reflection 25 years later on the near impossibility of getting it right, yet the prevailing desire to do so.

    Cerise Morris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The famous cafeteria shoot-out scene in the TV show “19-2” (not yet shown in the English version) achieves a range and complexity of emotions and sensations that could not have been elicited any other way. I suspect it may owe something to the film “Polytechnique” and yet improve on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If it wasn’t for you Jack Todd and your great writings such as a Taste of Metal, I would have never have known what the awful costs of those that didn’t go to war and how it was for one that not only stayed away but survived. Thank you for your words and looking forward to reading more from you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Silence is the balance of our words, the musical pause that instructs the weight of our language. In remembering, it is the quiet knowing that we dare not conjure for the sanctity of our emotions. Thank you, for keeping our eyes open to the impossible truths.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Your story inspired me enough to give me the strength and courage to pull out a piece I wrote many years ago and. It was about my grandmother and the last few hours I shared with her, the most influential person in my life. I think I’ll log off now and take a moment to reflect. Thank you so much for this gorgeous post.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think it is rare for writers to admit that there are truths that “lie beyond language.” This post is so thought-provoking and eloquently written that I am now eager to read your book.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. I so enjoyed reading your blog and hope I can learn from your experiences. I am new at all this, myself, but a few friends said I have a story that needs to get out. I
    A few others said blogging might be a good venue.
    Looking forward to reading more of your work. Stay warm!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. How does someone write with coherent language the value of a human life, let alone 14 of them? They each serve a purpose in this life. My mother held together her 5 children in a single home until her death. After that, we were each separated into 5 different homes and our lives were forever changed. My two older syblings struggle with abandonment issues and severe drug abuse. Her death caused a chain reaction. Imagine 14 of her with children. Imagine you were there and witnessed it.
    Your article brought a lot of my own feelings into perspective. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. now adays writing is a thing of the past. i get mad because i cant write fast enough, when i have a good something to put down on paper. and the voice record pisses me off because it never understands me.


  9. Jack, you sell yourself short … This made me cry even as I acknowledged the truth of your words that “this is an age of disposable grief”. This post is not a failed attempt.


  10. Reblogged this on colouryourlifeandlive and commented:
    Writing is for me life…I startet writing when I was about 15 years…I startet with poem. Later I was working for a newspaper and last year I have public my first own book with poem as an ebook…
    Now I have my own blog and love it…
    Writing is for me like breathing…

    So..sit down and write and the whole world is yours…happy writing😊

    Yours Marifee

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I find your story touching my late husband was in the vietnam war. He would have enjoyed reading your story. He always told me something good always comes out of something tragic. You should read mine. Let me know what you think. Rclark-50.com


  12. Reblogged this on Running with Buddha and commented:
    This a beautiful piece of writing that kept me captive from the first sentence to its last. Similar to what the author wrote about getting it right the next time, it motivates me to write better each and every time. Thanks for sharing.


  13. Well said, Sir. I am able to truly follow and understand your point made here and I agree that articulating ones worst tragic moment in life, is indeed one of the hardest attempt, at least for me. Thank you, for sharing.


  14. Thank you for saying what I have felt inside for so long about writing the truth. It is not simple and there is no one truth. Your experience of the hog attack is a sensory memory that your parents put words to and your mother added her anger to. I think i often choose to write fiction and poetry instead of memoir or nonfiction because of the challenge that you described so well. It was a pleasure to read and connect.


  15. I love this, writing for me has always been about being raw and honest and getting out the feelings in my soul. When writing you not only write for yourself, but you right for the person reading; who if you do it right, will feel a part of your story, it will become there’s!


  16. This is such a Beautiful post, there is nothing more difficult than writing tragedy, especially a real life event. This post is totally relatable and so sooo true.


  17. I remember the first time I tried to write about a traumatic event in my life, and it was extremley difficult. It takes a lot out of you, in the end there is this sense of peace and calm, though. Almost as if a weight has been lifted off your shoulders from taking your story from your mind and onto paper. Thank you for this beautiful post!


  18. This is an extremely insightful peice. Thank you for sharing your wisdom on this topic which is so relevant for most writers.


  19. Thank you for sharing your endless struggle. All writers (even the good ones) fight anxiety associated with the ever-present, haunting voice in the background telling us our work is not good enough or we do not really know how to tell a story. I have never been published, not really. I do not believe some “Who’s Who Among American High School Students” book that only parents and grandparents pay attention to counts. I firmly believe I have not finished a coherent, complete work because that voice is louder than my own. I find much relief in knowing it happens to experienced writers too. I have long wanted to write a story about my grandmother. She was extraordinary in many ways; however, I struggle with believing I could ever do her story justice.


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