[Countdown to Publication] 6 Days
Written by
Susan Conley
July 2013
Written by
Susan Conley
July 2013

Words Matter

My new novel comes out in six days and for some reason the other day seemed like a really good time to complicate my life even more and buy a new cell phone. There’s no news here except something about the new keyboard has me ending all my messages as the country of Sudan. What happens is that my fingers hit the letter d instead of s, which means instead of signing off as Susan, I write “Best Wishes, Sudan.” And “Sincerely, Sudan.” And “Take Good Care, Sudan.”

I’ve never been to the Sudan. Every time I appropriate the name of that war-torn country I feel fraudulent and vaguely unsettled. I blame my spate of typos on the launch of my novel and on the rush of dopamine that surges through my veins every time my inbox dings. My urge to respond feels incredibly and unnecessarily urgent. I call it the curse of the smartphone—this false sense of intensity. I also call it the rush of the book launch, the crazy spate of time before a book comes out when a rain of niggly details begins falling.

And in my haste, I type things into my tiny, confounding keyboard that I didn’t really mean to say, or I take the name of an oil-rich country in North Africa ringed by Libya and Egypt where civil war technically ended in 2005 under a shaky peace agreement. This war was a particularly brutal one, featuring child soldiers and child slavery, and more death and displacement than almost any conflict since World War Two.

When my smartphone writes, “Thanks so much, Sudan,” I feel like it’s trying to pretend that the Sudan and I are intimates. Like I know things about what it means to be from a country in perpetual civil war.

Two days ago I texted a friend about photos she took of my two sons wearing rubber animal masks. They’re good photographs, and some of them are slightly unsettling. I closed out my text to her, “Big thanks for showing me these, Sudan.” Every time I do this—type the word Sudan by accident into my phone—it feels like the gulf between what’s real and what’s not real in my life only grows bigger.

Or maybe my cell phone is trying to teach me something. Maybe it’s trying to make me slow down inside the social media onslaught that can become a book launch. Take last night. My ten-year-old, Aidan, and I were waiting for burritos at a small place north of the city. I texted another friend about a neon green wig Aidan wanted to borrow for a costume. “Aidan died want to wear your green wig,” is what I wrote. Then I hit "Send."

For some reason I scanned the words, and the hair on my arms stood up:  “Aidan died.” Who’d written that? I got a rush of adrenaline in the burrito shop.

Aidan hadn’t died! He couldn’t have died! I had just driven to the burrito shop with him. He was sweaty from a pickup basketball game and wearing the same Kevin Garnett shirt he'd slept in the night before.

To convince myself of how very much alive Aidan was, I ran outside and watched him leaping off a picnic table again and again using only his left leg. Only then did I calm down.

What I’d meant to text my friend was that Aidan “does” want to wear the wig. Didn’t the little person who lives inside my phone know this? Didn’t they understand that what sits in the space between the words “died” and “does” is the unspeakable chasm that must be some terrible part of losing a child?

Our burritos came. Aidan and I got in the car and drove home. I was rattled. I didn’t care about my book launch anymore. What I was thinking about was how I couldn’t tell Aidan that he’d died on my cell phone. I couldn’t explain that the specter of this was haunting me and making me name my love for him out loud in the car while we navigated the two-lane highway that wraps around our city.

Language felt very slippery that night. I was struck by how much words can still matter—even against the backdrop of war or the randomness that is our lives. This is one of the central themes of my novel:  how much words matter. In fact, the narrator is sort of obsessed with words, and I use the words that she holds dear as chapter titles in the novel.

Maybe this is it—we keep bending our necks at awkward angles and typing on those inscrutable screens because we want our words to matter too. We want to be heard. We want to send a message. We write the words and the words talk back to us. Then we’re in some kind of conversation with ourselves. And with the Sudan. And with our children. And maybe none of this is a bad thing.

Susan Conley is the author of the novel Paris Was the Place, forthcoming from Knopf on August 6th, 2013 and the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011). She’s written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and Maine Magazine. You can follow Susan on Facebook and Twitter and at her website: susanconley.com.

Photo credit: Wiki Commons   

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