Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Except yours, Mickey.” — RW Emerson, 1841
On Monday, April 4th, I got an email from SmokeLong Quarterly, a digital lit mag I follow, announcing their recently published pieces. The winning story of that week was called “Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead,” by Steve Edwards. I literally wretched when I read that title.
Last summer, I drafted a short story called The Memory of Smoke. It was a story based on a dream wherein I awoke to find my father — who has been dead since 2010 — tinkering around in my house. A carpenter by trade and a Marlboro man until he died, my dreamed-dad was in work mode: cigarette in hand, scowling towards the floor, a tape measure dangling from a back pocket. The dream was sensory-loaded, and when I woke for real the smell of cigarette smoke lingered in my memory. The story I wrote afterwards roughly explored my frantic neuroses of new-fatherhood as a father-less adult. It was an early draft but promising enough to share with my writing group that summer. Given the power of the dream, and some encouraging feedback, I decided that the story wasn’t publishable but that I would get to it later, eventually, at some point.
This was mostly fine. After decent output last summer, and a busy autumn, I had concrete plans to begin writing again in the new year. In fact, my concrete plans included scrapping fiction for 2016 and moving into memoir and essay instead. I wrote about that decision and have since put together a few book reviews for that project on my blog.
By the end of March, I still hadn’t gotten around to that story about my dad. I thought about it occasionally. I made notes, too, for when I got back to it.
And then I opened the SmokeLong email with Mr. Edwards’ piece.
I could only hope that his story both somehow sucked and took a vastly different approach to the concept of a dead dad coming back. It was not a lot of hope.
They are somewhat different. That was a slight relief. But not so different that when I forwarded the story to my wife, (who’d read my draft) she replied: ARE YOU [expletive] KIDDING ME.
In “Sometimes My Father Comes Back…”, the narrator’s deceased father has returned, having “probably forgotten he’s dead,” routinely bumbling into the house “looking for whatever he’s looking for” before leaving again. Edwards story is, of course, a lot better than my rough draft: a cleanly compressed and carefully explored version of similar emotions I struggled to capture in my attempt.
In my decade of writing, this was a first. I’d never seen something I’d been working on — something I felt was entirely original — come to life in someone else’s hands. I was unsettled.
And I was set to begin teaching Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” that same morning. You know the essay: it’s the one where Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us about the perils of not acting on our intuition.
“Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
And shame is not the only word for it. Unoriginal and foolish will work, too. But, yes, shame.
Seeing Edwards’ piece in SmokeLong forced me to confront why I hadn’t even tried to complete the draft. Which actually felt like I walked in on a surprise, underground pity-party I’d been throwing myself for years.
The truth is that I don’t know why I didn’t go back to it. Even if I had done some edits, it’s a slim chance I would have submitted the piece and slimmer still it would have been picked up anywhere.
This is not to suggest that my ghost-dad-story was somehow more publishable than Mr. Edwards; this is not a lament that my work was not chosen. I want to be clear: this is not jealousy. Jealousy is that cool slithering in your gut when you see something you never realized you’d wanted but believe is beyond your grasp. This was different. This was the limp weight of regret, dull and dumb in my lap.
The point is that I didn’t finish a story that I believed in, and someone miraculously wrote a similar, better story. And that sucks in like three directions: it sucks to see how your work was not that good anyway; it sucks to think you are not as original as you’d hoped; it sucks to see that hesitating leads to, well, this.
I don’t know what to do with that draft now, but the future of that specific piece is besides the point. It was just one draft of dozens I’d began and abandoned. In my years at the desk, I’ve been consistent only in thinking that one day there will be more time to write. And each season seems to bring a new reminder that the clock is ticking.
But seeing that unexpected coincidence has me standing straight up. I did not like that feeling. And it’s impossible to come up with any more reason to hesitate. Because there is no more time. Right now, as far as I know, someone somewhere is working on this exact same post. And so I have to click “publish” right now, or I never will.
(NB: Mr. Edwards (should you read this) — If your story is autobiographical, thank you for putting the thing together in spite of the weight and haze of the subject; you have my absolute respect. I hope this doesn’t seem condescending or weird. Maybe it is a little weird. But I hope it’s the kind of weird you’re cool with.)