Content Note: This piece includes mention of suicidal ideation.
That’s odd. The lit mag I was planning to submit to tagged me in something online. What’s this? I click the link they shared, and it’s my poem. They published my poem, but I hadn’t sent it in yet. How did they—?
I search through my email and find the chain, my submission from six weeks ago and their acceptance. I have no memory of this exchange. I review my files and find the document I use to track my submissions. It’s there as well, recorded alongside others I actually remember. What the hell? I had planned to work on the poem today and submit it sometime next week. How could I have forgotten I’d already done that? I guess I’ve been pretty stressed lately. Work’s been giving me the runaround.
I go back to their post and open the link again. There it is—my poem. The fog of confusion begins to clear, and a feeling of elation sweeps over me. The editors said they loved it in their acceptance email. They loved it, and here it is, proudly displayed on their website. This is my first publication in over a year. I click to share it on my own page and write, “So happy to have a poem in this issue! Thanks so much, @inkandash.”
This is a little strange, sure, but what does it matter? The important thing is that I’d just gotten published! I text my mom to let her know and send her the link. Look, mom! I’m famous!
Aside from my enthusiastic sharing and my mom’s gushing, the poem did not get much attention. A few other emerging writers liked and commented on the piece, but that was it. This was fine with me. I didn’t expect it to go viral or anything. It was a poem in an indie mag, after all. I was just happy to get published for once. It made the last year of rejections feel worth it. It renewed my energy and enthusiasm for writing. Running on this high, I decided to double the number of submissions I make each month. It’s probably just a numbers thing, right? Submit to enough places, and you’re bound to get published eventually.
I make a list of journals I want to submit to, an ambitious list. Some of them are smaller publications, like Ink and Ash, with which I stand a better chance. Some are in the big leagues, the mags that receive 1,000s of submissions during their reading periods. Might as well try, right? It can’t hurt to try.
It can’t hurt.
I add the last journal to the list, which includes details such as word count, themes, and deadlines. There are precisely one hundred mags on the list. If I’m right and it is a numbers game, perhaps I can hope to get published in 5-10% of them. That’d be five to ten publications, which would be huge for me. It’ll be a lot of work, just putting the list together took several afternoons, but it will be worth it. I’ll be able to slog through all the rejections because I have a glimmer of hope on the horizon now, that of the sparing acceptances. I am going to cement my status as a published writer. I’m not expecting money or prestige. Most of these journals are unpaid. I mainly write poetry and creative non-fiction, which isn’t the kind of work you can typically make a living off of, but I am going to get my work out there. Maybe it will get easier as editors begin to learn my name. Who knows!
I open up the doc with the list and prepare to dive in. My phone pings. No, no distractions. It’s time to focus. Wait, what if that’s Jerry getting back to me about tonight? Compulsively, I grab my phone to check, intending to silence it as soon as I’m done. It’s an email from the journal at the top of my list. That’s weird.
Congratulations on the publication of your piece! You can check it out on our website now. Please let us know if you notice any formatting or presentation issues.
Thanks again for choosing us as the home for your work!
As I read, the hairs begin to stand up on the back of my neck. Is this a joke? I know for sure that I haven’t submitted anything to them yet. I click the link. There it is, the poem I wrote a few months ago about the ocean and my relationship with my father. The one I’d been planning to send them, except I’d wanted to make a few edits first, which I see haven’t been made. This poem had felt a little too raw and revealing. It includes a few lines about my dad I wanted to reword or remove, which glare at me from the screen. Oh, shit. I hope he doesn’t read this.
I open up my submission tracking doc. According to that, I submitted this poem last month. I didn’t even know about this mag last month … I’d learned about it a few days ago when making my list. I go through my emails and find the acceptance from the mag but not my original submission. I must’ve used an online form or something. I decide to reach out to them to see if I can make some edits to the piece and get those harsh lines out of there. They write back within a few hours.
Unfortunately, we cannot make any edits to the piece at this time, just its presentation. We’re sorry to hear you want those lines removed. As we mentioned during our conversation, we think they’re the strongest part of the piece! It’s normal to feel post-publication jitters, but those should fade with time. You should be proud of what you wrote! It’s incredibly powerful.
Our conversation? I search my email again but find nothing. Had we spoken over the phone? I have no memory of this, just like last time.
Something is wrong.
I decide to book an appointment with my therapist. I stopped seeing him regularly last year after we reached a natural conclusion while working through some of my issues together. He’d told me not to hesitate to reach out if something else came up, and what’s happening now is definitely something else.
“These memory lapses are certainly concerning. Have they been happening in any other areas of your life?”
His voice comes through my headphones crisp and clear, unlike his image on my screen, which appears to be made up of just five or six pixels. I try to focus on his voice instead.
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“And you’ve been feeling more anxious lately?”
“Well, yeah, this has been super weird. I’m suddenly getting published, but it’s like I’m not in control of it.”
“Mm. Finally getting your work out there must feel vulnerable. You are not in control of how it will be received.”
“No, and it doesn’t seem like I’m in control of getting it out there either!”
“You’re not in control, and it seems like that scares you. You’ve been an anonymous, emerging writer for a long time. That’s become a part of your identity. Do you think, perhaps, that you are afraid to emerge? Are you scared of your own success? Now that you are getting what you want, is it possible that your mind is playing tricks on you as a form of unconscious self-sabotage?”
Why would I be sabotaging myself? I want this. I’m finally getting what I’ve worked so hard for, the recognition I deserve. Shouldn’t I just be happy? Maybe my therapist is right. Perhaps I am afraid, deeply afraid, of my own success …
Whether or not I’m ready for it, my success is here. Numerous pieces, some of which have been sitting in my drafts for years, start coming out in small and even mid-sized publications. My follower count grows, and my name starts to spark recognition in some corners of the writing community. As often as a few times a week, I open up my computer to find that I’ve been tagged in something new.
Congratulations on the publication of your piece! Congratulations on the piece! Congratulations!
It is with a mixture of dread and dark thrill that I check every day. The memory lapses remain. I never recall submitting anything, but the digital paper trail is usually there when I check. That’s just my self-sabotage, right? My fear of success. I don’t book another appointment with my therapist even after he leaves a few follow-up voicemails.
It is often the case that the pieces are not edited as I would have liked. To me, they look half-finished. To my growing audience of fans, apparently, they’re perfect. Increasingly, other discrepancies begin to appear as well. Sometimes, there are lines or whole paragraphs that I do not remember writing. It becomes harder to recognize my work, but I am always tagged and credited. My name always appears at the top of the page. My name, which is coming to mean something. My name, which is getting away from me.
I wake up in the morning with a sinking feeling in my stomach. My stomach has been tied in knots lately, so this isn’t anything new, but it’s extra pronounced today. Something is coming. I look over at my laptop sitting innocently on my desk. What news will it bring today? Which unfamiliar words will I see under my name?
There’s a new piece, an essay this time. I don’t recognize the title. Perhaps that was an editorial change? I begin to read. Paragraph after paragraph, I witness from the sidelines as I argue for something I don’t even believe. In the piece, I come down hard on one side of a controversy. I don’t remember writing this. I don’t remember thinking this. These aren’t my words. This isn’t me.
It is divisive. Half my audience praises me for having the courage to speak out, while the other half condemns me. How dare I? How dare I? They begin to pick apart my words and demand I explain myself. What did I mean by this? What did I mean by that? Threads form listing off every problematic element they can find, and essays get published critiquing my own. More people join in, and they start scrutinizing previous pieces of mine as well. Soon, the criticism far outweighs the praise, which begins to recede into the background.
I don’t know how to respond. Every time I sit at my computer to write, the screen begins to shake. It appears to glitch, pixels wiggling back and forth. I cannot focus on anything, make it stay still, or see well enough to type. My vision blurs in response, and I need to lie down until the dizziness passes.
My critics demand a statement, and I cannot give it to them. I say nothing, remain silent. I don’t know where my voice has gone or how to find it. My silence is interpreted by some as “refusing to be accountable.”
Due to the immense backlash, the publication pulls my piece and issues a statement of their own where they apologize for having platformed me. But it’s too little, too late, and everything on the internet is forever. People have screenshots that circle endlessly. Other journals also begin pulling old pieces of mine and issuing statements about how they’ll no longer work with me. My mentions, comments, and DMs are flooded. It is a tidal wave, and it threatens to wash me away.
I get called into the HR office at work. My employer does not want to be associated with such controversy. Apparently, I am in violation of their social media policy, a vague document that essentially boils down to, “Don’t post anything online that could make us look bad.” They’ve received a large volume of calls and emails about me, with some even coming from concerned clients. They ask if I understand their policy and the difficult position I’ve put them in. They explain that I represent their company even when I’m not at work. My name, which has gotten away from me, also belongs to them. They think it would be best if we parted ways. They ask me to clean out my desk.
When I get home, I Google my name. How will I ever find work again with search results like these?
I am frozen, frozen, frozen. I stay silent, silent, silent. What can I say? What can I do?
It gets worse. I start receiving threats. People write that they want to hurt me and about what they will do if they ever come across me. Some encourage me to end my life. I am worthless, less than nothing. I am a Bad Guy, and they want me to go away. They don’t care where. Just away.
I lose friends. Some write me short messages to say they can’t be connected to me anymore. Some ghost and leave me on read. Some simply block me. No one will talk to me, but I suppose that’s alright because it’s not like I can speak anyway. I cannot give them what they want, cannot make it stop.
My address gets posted online, and the threats I’ve received certainly don’t feel empty.
I know I should go back to my therapist, but I cannot pick up the phone and respond to his voicemails. What would I do in another session anyway? Sit there silently? I cannot provide answers or account for any of it. The words I am being targeted for are not my own. I didn’t write them. How can I explain that? There is nothing, nothing, nothing to explain. I am nothing.
I find myself thinking about the end. It becomes a fantasy, an escape—the only thing that brings me peace. The details begin to form. The when, the where, the how. This fantasy is scary but also seductive. It’s the only thing that feels good, and it feels so good. To end it, to make it stop. I just need to make it stop. How else can I make it stop?
I take down my website and delete all of my social media. I scrub as much of myself off the internet as I can. I am not a writer, never was. My words were not my own. Why did I want this so badly? Why did I spend years trying to get people to pay attention when this is how it would end? They’re paying attention now. My work is out there. People know my name.
They know where I live, and they’re coming for me. I pack a bag and head to the train station where I buy a ticket for far away. I sit on the train. People get on and off, and I do not look at them. I look out the window and watch the world blend. The scenery unfolds—city after small town after farmland. It makes no difference to me. I am numb. I sit with nothing and look out the window.
I fall into something resembling sleep, some cortisol-infused half-dreaming, and am eventually woken by an announcement. We have stopped at the smallest station I’ve ever seen in a place with a name I’ve never heard before. It’s perfect. I get off the train.
I do not have to walk far before coming across a seedy-looking motel by the side of a two-lane highway, where I check in. The person at the front desk barely speaks to me and doesn’t make eye contact. They don’t know who I am, and they don’t care. They likely wouldn’t even understand what was considered controversial about what I “wrote.”
My room is dirty. The bed sags, and I check it for bugs. There’s a crack in the mirror and a questionable stain in the tub. The A/C doesn’t work, and the windows won’t open. It is exactly what I need. They won’t find me here. They can’t reach me.
Days slip by and turn into weeks. I’ll run out of money at some point, but what does it matter? I sleep fitfully until there comes a night when I cannot sleep at all. I pull out my laptop, which has otherwise gone untouched. I open up a word doc and begin to write.
I tell my story. I type out every detail I can remember. How I started getting published seemingly out of nowhere with no memory of submitting anything. How pieces began to appear that weren’t edited to my liking, then lines I don’t remember writing, and eventually, that entire fateful essay. I don’t care if it’s believable. I don’t care what people think. This isn’t for them.
Hours pass. Thousands of words pour onto the page. I get it all out, all of the gunk. Then, I collapse.
A few days later, I find myself sitting with my laptop in a cafe, resurrecting my website. I pull it out of the archives and breathe life back into its digital being. I publish the piece I’ve written and then walk away.
A week passes before I return to my apartment and go back online. When I do, I find that my essay has received some positive attention. People seem to like it. They also think it’s a work of fiction. I Google my name again, and the results are benign. No hit pieces, no calls for accountability, no publications even … Where has it all gone?
I look at the journals that had published me and cannot find a trace of my work anywhere. Had everyone pulled everything? I search through my inbox and cannot find the emails—all those emails where I submitted pieces, received acceptances, and negotiated with editors are gone. They’re all gone.
It’s all over.
I don’t know how to account for what happened to me. I do know that I barely survived it. I’m also afraid it will happen again. One wrong word or move, one out-of-place sentence or forgotten piece, could trigger another tidal wave. I don’t know if I could get through the next one. I book an appointment with my therapist, planning to tell him and only him that my mildly successful blog post isn’t fiction.
I’m not sure I know how to keep creating after what I went through. How does one write under a constant state of threat? How can I keep doing this if I cannot rely on my memory or trust in my words? How do I move forward as a creator when I’ve tasted the salt of a tidal wave that could wash over me again at any time? I do not have the answers. I only know that I am a writer, and I must write. This was never really about the publications or my name. It’s about the words themselves—the ones that are trapped inside, that I must let out. Maybe, just maybe, the writing itself is enough.
People like my work of “fiction,” and I am proud of it, in a way. It is my show of survival. When I arrived at that last stop and had nothing else to give, nothing else to live for, I wrote. Those words gave me a reason to keep going. Even while the whole world appeared to despise me, writing did not. The words were elusive for a while, but they came back to me. They will always come back to me, even when I have nothing else.
I decide to submit my story to a small journal, one based only a few hours away from the little town I stayed in. I’m nervous. I don’t know if this is the right decision. I have no idea what might happen. I make the final edits, write my cover letter, and prepare to give up control. Dear Editors … This is a – word piece called … Thank you for considering …
I hit submit.