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9/11 turmoil and triggers

Michael Gardner from New York City is spending August at Tower View rewriting a series of stories that take place on and after 9/11 into a novel. (Photo by Ruth Nerhaugen/contributor)

By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

Against all odds, Michael Gardner is a writer.

He has been immersed in stories all his life. But making the transition from listener to storyteller, while also holding down a demanding, full-time job as a paramedic in New York City, is not an easy thing.

This month Gardner is getting a taste of the writer's life at the Anderson Center. He is among a handful of emerging writers and artists chosen for a four-week residency at Tower View funded by the Jerome Foundation.

It's a major change of pace for a man who typically works night shifts as a paramedic so he can spend afternoons and evenings as a writer.

"I was not raised to be a writer or artist," the son of a working-class family said. At the same time, "I grew up in a house full of books. Words and stories ... reading was a part of life."

He graduated from public school and attended an Ivy League university, where he grabbed classes that sounded interesting. It bothered him that, unlike many of the people surrounding him, he did not know what he wanted to do with his life.

In fact, Gardner said, "I was terrified by people who could define themselves as writers at 18 or 19." Those students all seemed to have read a canon of classics he knew little about.

"I let that discourage me, and turn me away" from being a writer, he admitted.

For a couple of years after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island Gardner worked in advertising, a job that cured his fear of "the rat race" and led him back to school. He had worked as an emergency medical technician in high school and decided to become a paramedic.

An odd benefit of that role, he learned, was the way just doing his job put him in an incredible position to observe and to gather people's stories.

It also honed his skills as an interviewer.

"A huge part of the job is getting a history of the illness," he explained — everything that led up to the chest pain or other ailment that prompted a call to 911 for emergency help. Answers to health-related questions were embedded in stories about people's lives, their jobs, their marriages.

"A great deal of time when you ask questions, you find that people want to tell you a lot of things — because people aren't being listened to. They unload on you," Gardner said.

Another fact of life for a paramedic is downtime. He was able to read a lot of those classic books, and to start writing.

Gardner's stories started out as emails to close friends who shared his intellectual curiosity. Eventually he began sitting in on fiction writing workshops at the New School of New York, and finally he started creating stories.

He considered writing a memoir, but the voice inside his stories wanted more freedom to express itself.

Over the past six years or so Gardner has accumulated nearly a dozen notebooks filled with stories.

Looking at them, he came to realize that he wasn't writing short stories, but was creating a single story in an episodic style.

Gardner's book is a novel that takes place in March 2002 in New York City. His narrator, a man known as Flaco, is a paramedic who was working during the terrorist attacks on 9/11. On that day Flaco's partner went into one of the Towers, but he did not.

The story picks up six months later when an incident triggers some of the emotional turmoil Flaco has been feeling.

"When the towers came down, for a while people put everything on pause," Gardner explained. Their focus was on getting the city back on track; they did not dwell on what happened. Not until later.

The novel has two main sections. First is eight hours of Sept. 11, 2001. The rest is Flaco's experiences working nights in what Gardner describes as "a time-frozen half-mile stretch of city."

Ultimately, Flaco realizes he must deal with the emotions he's been putting off since the day the Twin Towers fell.

Although Gardner was working as a paramedic on 9/11, he said the story is not about him. "There are times when Flaco is standing where I stood," he said, "and times when Flaco is two blocks closer."

He uses his knowledge as a paramedic and his experiences that day to help the reader know what it was like, but Flaco is fiction.

During his month at the Anderson Center, Gardner is rewriting the individual, fractured chapters in his notebooks into a narrative with a single voice, or as he describes it — "one undeniable novel."