Lit Mag Helps Newtown Heal

Kevin Nance
From the July/August 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The Newtowner, an arts and literary quarterly in Newtown, Connecticut, was about halfway through the production process for its next issue on December 14, 2012, the morning Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and started shooting. By ten in the morning, twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook were dead. And like everyone else in Newtown, the magazine staff was in shock.

“It felt like the world had come to an end,” recalls editor in chief Georgia Monaghan, the mother of two teenagers in the local public schools. “We had a Kickstarter program going, raising funds for the next year’s issues, but my immediate thought was, ‘I don’t care if the Newtowner goes to print ever again.’ Nothing mattered anymore, compared to what had just happened. All of the things you ever thought were important, none were as important as your own children.”

But two agonizing days later, Monaghan, a native of Australia who moved to Newtown five years ago and founded the magazine in 2010, began to reconsider. “Oh, hang on,” she thought, “the Newtowner has the opportunity to do something special for the community, something that could really help.” In fact, she thought, didn’t the magazine have the means, not to mention the obligation, to do what it could to help the grieving town heal? “I began to see that we had a chance to deal with what happened here by doing an issue addressed to the community from the community, from the inside out.”

The editor and her thirty-member, all-volunteer staff began to consider how to proceed. A business-as-usual approach to the magazine’s new issue seemed unthinkable. They discussed the possibility of devoting some, but not all, of its pages to the tragedy, but that seemed inadequate. In the end, the staff realized what it must do: create a special commemorative issue to be distributed free as a gift to the Newtown victims’ families and, if fund-raising should permit, to each of the town’s roughly seven thousand households.

And so a special “tribute issue” of the Newtowner, released in June, began to take shape. The staff launched a dedicated fund-raising drive to raise money for printing and distribution, which ran through Indiegogo until July 1, and set about gathering submissions. But what sort of work would they include? The question was both tricky and pressing. “We don’t want to make people feel worse,” Monaghan says. “We want to express our emotions, of course, but we want to do it without leaving people in a dark place.”

She called the staff together and asked each member what should be in the issue. “One main thread was a desire to celebrate Newtown for the wonderful place that it is, and to define ourselves, rather than be defined by others in the onslaught of media attention after the shooting,” she says. “The second thread was the desire to honor and commemorate our loss. And the third thread was the need to recognize that the role of literature and the arts is to give expression to profound human emotions, of which grief is one of the strongest. We thought that the content of the magazine could help us express our grief in an artistic way, deal with it, process it, heal from it.”

To those ends, the staff gathered poetry, fiction, essays, visual art (including a Thanksgiving-themed drawing and other artwork by children who died at Sandy Hook) and statements from Newtown residents and natives of the town from around the country, along with poetry from Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa and letters to the residents of Newtown by novelist Wally Lamb and children’s book authors Lois Lowry and Katherine Paterson. One piece, an essay called “The Wrong Train,” was written by David Wheeler, the father of Ben, a child killed in the shooting. In the essay, Wheeler imagines riding on one train and looking through the window into another, speeding along on a parallel track. Inside is his family, including both of his sons. “You’re not supposed to be on this train,” Wheeler writes, “this isn’t the place you were supposed to be, and the train is moving fast in the dark tunnel and there’s no way you can get off, get free of this, get onto that other train, the one you can see so clearly, the one you’re supposed to be on and aren’t.”

A single piece from the previously planned issue, Newtown-based writer Sophfronia Scott’s “Tain in the Rain,” was carried forward into the tribute edition. The essay by Scott—a former Time magazine reporter, author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), and the mother of a Sandy Hook Elementary student who survived—“worked beautifully for the tribute,” Monaghan says. “It’s so symbolic and so powerful—about how we worry about our children but need to let them go—that we knew we had to include it.” In the essay, Scott’s son Tain, then seven years old, stays outside when it starts raining, holding his arms out and moving them up and down “like a human weather vane” in mystical communion with the brewing storm. In the house, her hand on the door, his mother is about to call him inside, but then does not.

“I think the concept of writing about my child not really being my own—in the sense that he belongs to himself, not to me—maybe fits somehow,” says Scott, whose family is close with the Wheelers. “Even though my child will go into dangerous situations, I have to let him do that, because that’s the path that we all have to walk. I hope that there can be some peace for some people in knowing that we shepherd our children for a certain amount of their journey here on this earth, but in the end, we have to let them go.”

Whether enough money was raised for free distribution to the families and residents of Newtown was not known at the time of this writing. Regardless, the release of the Newtowner tribute issue, Scott says, is an important moment for both the magazine and for Newtown itself. “They’re trying to do the right thing, and it’s scary for them,” she says of the magazine staff. “There are a lot of literary journals in the world, but how many find themselves in a situation like the Newtowner? They’re having all of their dreams and goals and intentions put to the test, the ultimate test of whether they can really be the magazine they want to be. Personally, I think people are going to love it.” 

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine whose work also appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.