Poet Carol Ann Davis on the art of writing and its power to heal

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, I published a column based on a conversation with fellow Newtown mom Carol Ann Davis about creative writing workshops and their power to address trauma. Davis is a poet and essayist, and a colleague of mine at Fairfield University, where I am an adjunct and she is currently director of the school’s MFA in Writing Program.

My column, along with an excerpt from Davis’s 2020 book of essays reflecting on the Sandy Hook tragedy and the effect it has had on her family and community, can be found at Hearst Connecticut Media web sites, including this link.

As I crafted the column, there was so much to wrap my words around and inevitably I could feel some of what I had intended to say slipping away. It’s perhaps the nature of a day as overwhelming as Dec. 14 always is for people in the wider community here. A pervasive sense of loss haunts all of Fairfield County in relation to the day. Its public spaces are dotted with many of the playgrounds built in remembrance of the 20 children of Sandy Hoo who were lost that day, a string of colorful and safe play areas that extend past the one my family used to frequent, set on a sandy beach in Stamford, into play spaces in neighboring New York and New Jersey, each with featuring a motif or element designed to honor the children the spaces are named for – a butterfly, a firemen’s bell.

View of Lake Lillinonah, Newtown, Conn.

When I walk my dog to the lake down the street from my house, I often rest on a bench dedicated to Jessica Rekos, who, like my son, enjoyed horseback riding, and who also loved whales and water, and who never reached her 10th birthday, the age her parents had promised to buy her a longed-for horse of her own. Last night as my family returned in the evening dusk from the grocery store, on the lookout for light displays, appreciative as we always are, of both the understated and the outrageous, we also drove past the 26 lanterns lit each of the past several years on the town green in remembrance of the 20 children and six educators who lost their lives that awful day in Sandy Hook.

This is just to say that the whispers of loss are everywhere in Newtown, as they were throughout the county of Fairfield the year of the tragedy. We lived in Stamford then, but I remember driving to Jones Family Farm in Shelton to cut down our tree that year and wondering for only a moment what important personage was being conveyed in the funeral procession driving slowly along the highway with heavy police escort. Then I realized it was almost certainly for Jesse Lewis, 6, who earned his hero status by shouting for his peers to run, by being so brave in the presence of horror.

It’s too much for the heart to bear some days, and I am so peripheral to the core tragedy. Davis, whose children attended Hawley Elementary School in 2012 – the school nearest Sandy Hook and the school my son would attend if her were not transported to a special needs school each day – has written about her own family’s grief and efforts to shoulder it in her new essay collection The Nail in the Tree. Davis notes that her family’s story, heavy with pain as it is, is the “not-suffering, happy-ending story.” What the level of pain inside the center of the story is, we can imagine, if we are empathetic and try. Certainly, it seems to me, that our most rudimentary ethical bonds as fellow members of the human family call on us to try. But we can never know.

How can creative writing help? How does poetry and writing workshop help? Davis says it brings us back to the original poetry circle, the sharing of personal and collective history around the fire.

“Poetry is supposed to be builder of community, a way to convey history,” she says. “When we share it, we remember.” And in remembering, in the unison of our voices, even when those voices are speaking our pain, we draw strength.

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