Notes from the Green Couch

Greg Manning on writing about 9/11

Greg Manning's wife Lauren was badly burned in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Greg found a way to write about it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From: Karlan @
To: Writers House web surfers

Dear friends,

In front of the Green Couch is a brown chest. On top of this brown chest are books and publications. I know that someone at the Writers House occasionally rotates which books are displayed, not because I remember the titles, but because the stacks change size and the books change colors. There was, however, one book that stood out: white cover, obscured by an e-mail in faint gray text. Love, Greg & Lauren jumps off the page in pale red. Below, a sentence from the letter is highlighted in the same

Notes from the Green Couch

pale red: "For those of you who may not know the story she was entering the lobby of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when a _____ ____ from the elevator shaft."

For no particular reason, though the cover struck me every time the book maneuvered its way to the top of the pile, I never read a single page. Now, as I sit on the Green Couch having just finished listening to Greg Manning's luncheon visit to the Writers House in September 2006, I look at the brown chest and sadly realize the book is gone.

On September 19, 2001, Greg sat in front of his computer to write a thank you note. It had been eight days since terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center - sending a fireball down into the lobby where his wife Lauren stood on her way to work - and he wanted to express his deep gratitude to everyone who had provided him and his family with love and support.

Though he made a career in the financial information industry for Canter Fitzgerald, Greg Manning understood the importance of writing to one's wellbeing. After all, he had been the former editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian and took enough writing courses at Penn to be an English major. So, when a compulsion to write took over, so overwhelming that not writing provoked physical pain, he did not deny it - he surrendered to it.

As Lauren lay in the hospital - 82% of her body burned, rendered incommunicable - Greg continued to write letters. He needed to for himself. He needed to for others. Dozens going on hundreds of relatives, friends, and friends of friends had begun to count on Greg's e-mails. They were a source of hope and comfort in a time where hope and comfort were suddenly taken away. They were a way of being "in the room" with Lauren as her body - a 'deceptively peaceful' angel shrouded in white - underwent a laborious healing process.

Knowing his writing meant something to others was vital to Greg's survival - made it easier to keep writing. The constant feedback renewed his energy each day. Greg was writing out of necessity; writing because his story needed to be told; writing because this was "the single most compelling story he had ever witnessed." And with this came an absolute compulsion to tell the truth. He challenged himself to record every detail - to do it right, without exaggeration. He emphasized this point time and time again to his audience - he needed to be completely honest with his readers. Tortured by the image of a smiling Osama Bin Laden, relishing the devastation he masterminded and inflicted upon so many innocents, Greg's honesty helped restore and preserve dignity that the terrorists tried to destroy.

Friend and fellow Daily Pennsylvanian alumnus Steve Fried saw Greg's letters and knew they needed to be shared not just with a selected e-mail list, but with the world. He told Greg that his electronic diary needed to be turned into a book. Greg needed Lauren's permission when she woke up (if she ever woke up) but knew a book was the ultimate end to his writing.

Weeks later, when Lauren finally woke up, and Greg proposed the idea of a book, she did not hesitate in her answer: "The story should be told."

In the hours between Fried's book proposal and the next letter, Greg worried: would he still be able to write now that his audience could be anybody, anywhere? These concerns quickly evaporated; Greg wrote a significant majority of his book after the initial conversation about publishing the letters.

Nevertheless, Greg's initial anxiety was far from unjustified. When the stakes are raised for a writer, the process of writing can become much more difficult. There is the apprehension that readers will react negatively. There is a new consciousness, a pressure to write at the highest level every night despite your mood. But Greg never experienced any of these feelings. He had let himself go to such an extent that he trusted whatever he thought to go on the page - he "surrendered to the writing impulse." There was always a message to tell, and he always knew when he was finished writing for the day.

All writers dream of being able to trust their thoughts and ideas so much that they can write anything without a second thought or regret. As a writer, Greg experienced something remarkable. But the price he paid for it was devastating. To watch a loved one be sedated for two months, never knowing if you will ever be able to speak with each other again, could never be worth a remarkable writing experience.

Greg's family escaped the tragedy of September 11 scathed, but fortunately intact.

Until my next note from the Green Couch,