The Unbelievable Reality of the Sandy Hook Shooting Three Years Later

Sandy Hook Three Years LaterIt’s been three years since the horrific Sandy Hook School shooting that killed 26 innocent people – 20 of them small children no more than six or seven years of age. They should be three years older now – moving on with their precious lives – as their parents had planned.

What I find more unbelievable than the gruesome reality of this heartbreaking event is that there are law-abiding citizens in this country who admit they have a hard time believing it ever happened. My adult children, who are musicians and tour and travel the country extensively, have met a few of them this year.

My son told me he was drawn into conversation with a disbeliever at a coffee shop in Virginia the morning a TV reporter and cameraman from a Roanoke TV station were shot dead on the air. He was an Iraq-Afghanistan war veteran from Idaho who brought up shootings and then Sandy Hook, admitting that he didn’t believe it happened. It didn’t matter that my son grew up in Sandy Hook and went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. The man just shook his head in denial and walked away. What more could my son say? He succeeded in no breakthrough.

Yes, the shooting here was unbelievable, and because of that, I am almost willing to grant a “grain of salt” to disbelievers from other parts of the country, influenced by biased media or conspiracy theories. They don’t live here. Distance makes it unreal – and surreal – even to those of us who do.

The so-called “Truthers” continue to seek ways to discredit the “story.” Some have actually confronted leaders in our community for that purpose. They’ve written outlandish books about the shooting that, to their way of thinking, proves it never happened, and they work to spread their delusional views on social media. What is crazy to me is that people are actually buying into this “idiocracy” and joining in by cruelly hurting the very people who have lost the most.

Yes, what happened here is unbelievable. But it happened. Why would a community fabricate such a thing?

In my heart, I wish the “Truthers” – which is such a blatant misnomer – were right. This tragedy should never have happened. But the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 most certainly did, and has gone down in history as one of the worst mass shootings in this country’s history.

This is not fiction. It is not a made up horror story. Just ask the parents who lost their children that day, and mourn them every day.

This pain is real. And since that intensely bright, sunny winter day in the midst of our holiday season that screeched to a panic-stricken halt, shaking this community to its very foundation with grief unimaginable, more lives have been lost because of mass shootings and gun violence.

What is more unbelievable to me is why?


Don’t Call Me a Copywriter – I Write Content

CSwainLogo 2

The first thing I do after walking into the restaurant and into the room reserved for the networking meeting is wave to the attending waitress and order a beer. Then I turn to the greeter who signs me in with a warm smile and gives me my pre-printed nametag, conveniently swinging on a lanyard – Colleen Swain, Content Writer. I’m relieved about the lanyard because I don’t like fumbling with pinning the nametag on my jacket, or worrying about pinning it wrong. Is it the right or left side? I can never remember. Centering it in the middle works for me.

I’m a leftie, but I say I’m ambidextrous – sort of. When I was little, my mom insisted that I eat with my right hand. She’d say, “I won’t have you banging elbows with people at the table.” I navigate my computer mouse with my right hand, too. It just feels right. (no pun intended) Other than that, I’m very much left-handed. So, the networking etiquette of remembering which side to wear a nametag can be a problem.

It takes a while for me to warm up at these networking events. The beer helps. I take a modest sip and scan the room looking for a familiar face, but remembering names of people I’ve met before  is another problem. Thank goodness for those nametags.

What Do You Do?

A woman, perhaps in her fifties, walks up to me. We haven’t met before. I can’t help feeling a little awkward staring at her chest to read her name and what she does for a living, even though she’s staring at my chest too. And then this happens:

“A content writer, eh?” So you’re a copywriter?” An image of Peggy Olson in a scene from “Mad Men” pitching a concept for selling lipstick flashes before me.

I run my tongue over my teeth, smile, and say, “Well, not exactly.”

Then I try to explain what I do.

“I’ve written ads, but my expertise is focused more on writing content that will help a business promote their brand online as well as in print.”

“Oh,” she says. She gives me a blank look. “So, what do you mean by ‘content’?

That’s when I realize that maybe to her the term “content” means stuff contained in something, like the percentage of hops in my beer.

The Internet Changes Everything

I flash back to the mid 90s, before computers changed how we work. I can see myself typing an inter-office memo using an IBM electric typewriter, making copies on a Xerox copier and then walking around the office to manually deliver them to each employee, (no e-mail). I’d archive the original in a three-ring binder stored with other binders dated by year in a jammed-full file cabinet. What a waste of paper, space, and time back then!

Then I flash forward to 2000. By then, my boss, the communications director, was pressuring the CEO to invest in building a website. “It’s the future we can’t afford to ignore,” he said. It was a hard sell. We got the go-ahead, but we had no idea how to do it. We were a department of marketing wordsmiths – not techies. This new language of web code was way over our heads. We had no choice but to succumb to the mercy of programmers – and they had no concept of marketing whatsoever.

It was a learn-as-you-go strategy, if you can call it that. We ended up with hundreds of web pages crammed with hard-to-read copy.

We had to fix it.

That’s about when I attended my first seminar on website writing and was tasked to bring back what I learned to the marketing team. It was called “How to Write Killer Content” with Gerry McGovern, offered by Marketing Profs, a leading educational training resource for marketers.

That may have been the first time I heard the term “content” in relation to writing for the Web. And, I realize, this may be the first time my new acquaintance – her nametag says “Accountant” – has met someone who writes it.

As Simon Dumenco, columnist for Advertising Age, put it, “I remember when people first started referring to ‘content.’ The term really gained currency circa Web 1.0 – during that moment when coders gained the upper-hand, and creative types, backed into a corner, felt compelled to defensively declare things like ‘Content is King’ … When I was a kid, nobody talked about words and pictures as ‘content.’” (Yup! I remember.)

At the seminar, I also remember noticing a young woman sitting in the back of the room. She was on the Marketing Profs team and she was monitoring McGovern’s presentation. I don’t know what her title was then but Ann Handley has built herself a reputation in the marketing world as a top digital marketer and writer. She is now their Chief Content Officer. Way to go!

And I am a content writer. But even at my last full-time job, just a few years back, that wasn’t my title. It was “Copywriter,” though I wasn’t writing ads. My job was to help the SEO Manager get our company website ranked on the first page of Google. (Hmmm. My accountant friend definitely won’t know what SEO means.) That was just about the time when Google wised up to the bad practices of SEO (search engine optimization) that used link-building trickery and poor-quality, keyword-stuffed writing spitted out by writers working for content mills. I never bought into it.

Unfortunately, now that I’m freelance, I’m still competing with lower-paid content-mill writers, though all signals point to the demise of content mills. The trend – finally – is to produce quality content that delivers value. Thank you Google. “Content is King” after all.

Gerry McGovern said as much in the Introduction of his book, Killer Web Content, “The Web runs on content. It is its hidden asset, its gold. Yet for so long it has been treated like coal – a low-grade, low-cost commodity best published in bulk… I have always taken a content first, technology second approach…the best website creators know that it’s the content that counts now.” Yes! And this was before Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm changes were made to ensure quality content on the Web.

Ann Handley, in her book, Everybody Writes, stated, “Writing matters more now, not less. Our online words are our emissaries: They tell our customers who we are…and that means you have to put a new value on an often-overlooked skill…how to write, and how to tell a true story well.”

What Is Content?

So what do I mean by content? I tell my “numbers” lady that it’s everything she finds online to read, listen to or watch – packaged in different ways – from flash ads to YouTube videos to articles she finds when searching for info on anything that may interest her, like the latest tax codes. It’s also print stuff, such as junk mail, or the brochure she picks up at her doctor’s office.

I love to write – always have. And, yes, I’ve worked as a copywriter in the past, but the term “content writer” better describes what I do now.

“I get it,” she says, as we walk together to the buffet table to fill our plates with appetizers, “So, if I ever want a website for my business, you can write it for me?”

“Absolutely. And anything else you may need to market your accounting business.”

We join a table of other attendees and sit down to make new contacts.

And then we come to the portion of the meeting when each person in the room stands up, introduces themselves and gives a very brief (under one minute) “elevator speech’ about what they do.

Just when I decide which hand to hold my fork – it’s always a conscious decision and sometimes it’s my left (sorry Mom!) – it’s my turn.

“Hi, I’m Colleen Swain. I’m a content writer. In essence, I’m a brand storyteller. I help businesses, from startups to national corporations, build awareness about their brand by crafting clear, concise content for their web and print communications that is original, engaging, optimized, and shared.”


Need a content writer?  Contact me and let’s team up.

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Have I Lost Optimism After Sandy Hook?

Sandy Hook Elementary SchoolUpdated 12/14/14

I have a new mantra. It’s a quote from the writer Joseph Conrad who said, “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” It has become my reality check, my call to action to get over this feeling of inertia that has stood in my way like a cement wall, blocking me from writing in this space for – I can’t believe it – over a year.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why there’s a space of absence on this blog. I could simply start from here. Why would I want to call attention to the very thing I tell my clients they should never do if they want to have a credible online brand image?

It’s because I’m compelled to do it – to be honest with myself – and I realize now that for me to creatively move on I have to do what I’ve avoided doing – write about why. So here goes:


I stopped writing in this space the day 20 first-graders and six educators were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It wasn’t a conscious thing to stop. It’s just that what happened here, where I live, was so horrendous, so shocking, that I, like everyone else, was shattered. Work for clients was a distraction – but I simply didn’t have the ambition to write here.


It’s still so hard to believe it happened in Newtown, yet there are reminders everywhere. Ribbons of green and white – the Sandy Hook School colors – still drape mailboxes, signposts, trees and utility poles. Sometimes bunches of bright balloons mark the roadsides to honor a single-digit birthday for one of the 20 children. Often they are left drifting for weeks. It seems no one has the heart to remove them.

Every day, in my neighborhood, I drive by the houses of two of the families. I don’t know them, but I see their homes and sense their loss, and cry for them at the oddest moments. It’s not the same living here.


And it’s all so close. My son and daughter went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Though it was over 20 years ago, it seems like yesterday – the familiarity of it all.

It was a great school for my kids. They loved their principal and still remember all their teachers’ names. The friends they made there are still among their closest – and the parents of those friends are among ours. Wasn’t it a blink ago that the school mascot, the Jolly Green Giant, was smudging their noses with a thumbprint of green paint at the annual school fair?

Back then I was an active PTA parent. I was responsible for booking cultural arts programs to enhance the school’s curricula. It was very important to Principal Ron Vitarelli, himself a jazz guitarist, to instill a life-long appreciation for the arts in young children. As a creative, I was very proud of what I was doing for the school. My husband, a graphic artist, designed the posters announcing when theatre groups, dance ensembles, artists, musicians or writers were coming to visit. They were on display in the cafetorium for years.

It’s odd how you remember things, like when I was talking to a longtime Sandy Hook parent-friend about how our kids, now grown and on creative career paths, loved those programs. The memory triggered a vision of the posters hanging on the walls and I dreamily said, “I wonder if they’re still there.” As soon as I said it I felt the air suck right out of me. I flashed back and saw the school – its hallways, the offices and classrooms. I knew the layout of the building as well as the shooter did. Of course the posters are gone. The school is gone. Nothing is as it was.


Last winter I was reading a story in The Newtown Bee, our local paper, about a writer and an illustrator who collaborated months after the shootings to create a new children’s book. The illustrator, Steven Kellogg, had lived in Sandy Hook for 35 years and, like my family, has strong ties to the Sandy Hook community. Kellogg is renown here for his whimsical Newtown-influenced children’s book illustrations and his story-telling art demonstrations.

I read that the collaboration began after Kellogg had reached out to his friend, award-winning children’s author Patricia MacLachlan, and told her, “I think I have lost the optimism to do what I do.”

Kellogg and MacLaghlan helped each other work out their separate grief by creating “Snowflakes Fall,” a beautifully written and illustrated book in honor of the children. Kellogg said his illustrations for the book became his “celebration of the kind of childhood we provided our family in Sandy Hook.”

The story stuck with me. I thought about what Kellogg said about losing optimism after the shootings. Is that it? Have I lost optimism?


A general definition of “optimism” is a hopefulness that good things will happen. But I feel anger, given what I know about gun-industry politics, after each and every needless shooting that has happened since Sandy Hook. I guess the one good thing, (if you can call it that) coming out of our tragedy, is that more people are waking up to our society’s gun violence culture and are taking action to do something to achieve some measure of positive cultural change to help save innocent lives. It’s complicated. Am I hopeful? Not really.

And then I think about the idyllic innocence my children had growing up here in Sandy Hook – the carefree magic of childhood that Kellogg alluded to – and I am so angry to think that the shootings have compromised “that kind of childhood.” It will take years to know just how much.


What I do know is that collectively we are a strong and resilient community. The resolve of its citizens to not allow this horrific tragedy define Newtown – is inspiring.

I also understand that the cliché “life goes on” is profoundly true. I get that. In the midst of Newtown’s push to move on, we’ve all had personal stuff happen to us, too – births, milestones, illness and death. Good times, bad times, happy and sad. Grief is complex – but so is life.

Face It Quote Joseph Contrad

Facing It

Which is why, I must get back to doing for myself the very thing I love to do – write.

It’s time to face this inertia – to break down that cement wall and allow it to crumble away. “That’s the way to get through. Face it.” I know I can do it.

As for optimism – I’m working on it.

Update – December 14, 2014

It’s been two years since the Sandy Hook school shooting. The trauma has not faded, but instead invades our town like a storm cloud, darkening our holiday preparations. Today we can’t help but remember. Today is a sad day. That will never change.

Oddly for me,  Steven Kellogg, who has unkowingly helped me get back to my personal writing,  has once again influenced my sense of optimism with another article in The Newtown Bee. He wrote about why he felt it necessary to revise and re-illustrate one of his stories written 35 years ago, Pinkerton Behaves, about a Great Dane pup. The story included an illustration of a burglar with a gun. Kellogg wrote:

” In creating the burglar back in mid-1970s, I had patterned him after the stereotyped caricature of comic book bad guys I remembered from my childhood, and I portrayed him wielding an oversized pistol.”

“As time passed, the prevalence of domestic gun violence became a growing national concern, and the inclusion of that menacing gun elicited objections and protests from adult readers who were sharing the book with children in their lives. In light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the alarming statistics of gun violence (with more than 80 school shootings having occurred in the country since December 14, 2012), I recognized that my thinking had changed and the book must change.”

To mark the 35th anniversary of Pinkerton Behaves, Kellogg removed the gun.

“I was motivated by the conviction that caring citizens must try to reprogram their society for the safety and well-being of everyone, and authors and illustrators have an obligation to create the highest quality literature and art in order to enrich the lives of children.”

Things have changed since Sandy Hook. I’m thinking that maybe there is a reason for optimism. As we close out another year, perhaps this quote  from Alfred Lord Tennyson may inspire:

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'”

A New Year Message for Peace, Hope, Change

Peace. Hope. Change

There are no words to express what has happened here, in my community of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, at a time of year when the innocence of all children defines the magic of the holiday spirit.


We can’t bring back what we as a community, as a nation, have lost.


But we can, and must, stop such great loss from happening again.


My message for this new year is simple:


Peace.    Hope.    Change.


We can do this —- for the children.


“Give peace a chance.” — John Lennon