Earlier this year I saw the musical Ordinary Days. Overall I enjoyed it, but there was one detail that really bothered me. The show is set in New York City, but most of the themes are true of city life in general. Then a very New York-specific moment in the song "Let Things Go" made me roll my eyes so hard that I nearly tore my optic nerve.
"Let Things Go" is about mild hoarding tendencies. The character Claire is wondering why she has held on to so much of the junk she has stashed in her closets. I related to Claire and the song. For a little while. Then, at the bottom of a box of souvenirs and other stuff was a sweater. THE sweater. Claire slowly pulled the sweater out of the box and examined it lovingly and with a sadness that was not merited by any of her other clutter.
My immediate thought was, "That's a 9/11 sweater." I tried not to audibly groan.
Later in the show my suspicion was confirmed. The sweater belonged to her husband (? Fiance? Boyfriend? Whatever) who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
This is similar to how I felt watching an episode CSI: NY in which Gary Sinise's character talks about a beach ball that he has in his closet. The beach ball is precious to him because it contains his wife's breath. She was the one who blew it up for a beach vacation prior to her death at the World Trade Center on 9/11. (Even if you overlook the melodrama, who comes back from a beach vacation without deflating their beach ball, anyway?)
I've seen similar devices used a few other times: A character lost someone on 9/11 and this detail is revealed after a single important item appears or is mentioned.
Writers, stop doing this. Please no more 9/11 sweaters and beach balls and coffee mugs.
I'm not saying that people shouldn't write about 9/11. The examination of tragedy is one of the noblest purposes of art. I've seen and read a number of things that explore 9/11 in moving, thought-provoking, and sometimes even funny ways. There is a lot to the topic to explore.
What I don't like is the use of 9/11 as a character development shortcut. Need some pathos? Just add some 9/11!
You have a character in New York. You want them to be sad or fearful or otherwise damaged. Give them an object. Briefly explain the significance of that object as it relates to someone who died on 9/11 and voila! Instant back story!
Adding a few lines about losing someone on 9/11 to a story that otherwise doesn't really have anything to do with 9/11 (or even, to any depth, its impact on the character at hand) cheapens the actual tragedy. If you want to write about 9/11 write about 9/11. Don't casually bring it up like you might mention a favorite movie or last Thursday's weather.
In addition to oversimplifying the tragedy, a 9/11 sweater or similar IMPORTANT SENTIMENTAL ITEM also oversimplifies loss.
I have never known the loss of a loved one to neatly consolidate itself within a single object. If someone was significant to someone else's life those memories are in everything.
Even after certain items have been replaced, the replaced items can inherit memories too. A new item's similarity or jarring difference to what someone had been before can trigger as many thoughts (although different ones) as a deceased person's actual belongings.
In real life a character wouldn't just be a 9/11 sweater. If a sweater is truly all that's left to remind someone of a loved one who died then there is a story behind why. If that is not a story you are prepared to tell you are best to avoid the topic altogether.
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