So it has finally happened. After years of toil, you have won a writing contest. You scan the letter, delighting in the lack of “regret” or “unfortunately,” to find which piece gets the blue ribbon, the rose crown, the center spot on the fridge. You read the title, and a single note plays on a pipe organ a thousand miles away: there has been a mistake. You read the rest of the letter, but the praise the judges sing of the poem does not reach you over that ringing organ. You have already published this poem somewhere else. You messed up. You cannot accept the prize. The room drops ten degrees. What now?
Cast a Protection Spell
It will take some time for your ghost to appear, but you have little to waste. While the ghost is drawing heat from the air and nearby electronics to take form, it will start with simple things like light bulbs and work its way up to more complicated devices; energy-saving bulbs are best to keep in the house because paranormal beings find their swirled shapes interesting, and will dally.
Before it gets strong enough to pull energy from your computer or smart phone, check your records. Are the contest rules okay with previous publication? Can you pull your poem from the other publication in good faith? Did you actually send a withdrawal and the judges were willing to look past it because you are just that amazing? No. Chant these possibilities while holding a piece of rose quartz anyway. You are only delaying the inevitable, but it is important to be sure so any unanswered questions don’t get their own manifestations. When you are done, turn to face your ghost.
Your first instinct will be to throw some prayers at it, but that is considered very rude: it is not a demon. The ghost is already sad, being made of your own disappointment and mental anguish, and you’ve made it worse. Apologize. It will kind of hum and list to one side, which is a good start. There is an even chance that it will not be able to speak just yet, and sign language won’t be decipherable until it stops being a bluish haze that gently distorts everything around it. Hold it in a circle of salt while you fetch chalk or a dry-erase board or something. Ask the following questions, or some variation of them:
Why have you come?
Do you have a name?
What can I do to help?
Your ghost might simply repeat these questions back to you, which is totally okay. Ask these as often as you like until you get an answer. This will take between twenty minutes and six hours.
Be an Adult
Your ghost is not going to like this, so prepare yourself: you have to tell the judges that you cannot accept the prize. Your computer should be working again by now, but if it is not, lie down on the couch and cry or stare blankly at the ceiling; this is how your ghost will know it is doing a good job, and it will turn the computer back on. Compose an email thanking the judges for their kind words, and offer your sincerest apologies. When the ghost reads this, the trouble will start. It will throw bills and travel magazines at you, screeching things like, They’ll never figure it out! or You need the money—you deserve it! You might check the masthead to calculate how likely it is that the judges interact with the editors of the other publication, but you will ultimately do the right thing. Hit “Send.”
Your ghost is not leaving. It will knock over your potted plants, and remind you that it is your fault it is here in the first place. It will draw you a map in the spilled dirt of all the beautiful directions your life would have taken if you weren’t such a disaster. Sweep up the dirt into a pile, but not into a dustpan. Walk away defeated, and give your ghost enough time to redraw the map. Return to the map. Pick up a piece of shattered terracotta and cut your finger. Convince yourself that this is a sign you should give up on your dreams as you rinse off the blood in the bathroom.
Some days, your ghost will hide in your teacup until you get a rejection from a smaller publication, and instantly turn your tea cold when you go for a comforting sip. Unlike in horror movies, your friends will believe you when you talk about your ghost. They will tell you about theirs, and how healthy activities eventually lessened the haunting. This will not help.
Don’t / Write
View all of your writing through your ghost. This will be easy because your ghost stands in front of you whenever you try to work. Hate everything you write. Even better, be completely unmoved by everything you write because it’s not strong enough to hate. Check the contest page until the winner who is not you is announced. Listen as your ghost sings a song with words about how you fail even when you win. Make this your favorite song. Sing it to yourself while washing your face, riding the bus, chopping garlic for dinner until—
You need a pen. Get a pen. You don’t have a pen. Open the Notes function on your phone. Type words you have never thought before. Look at them. Look for your ghost. Look at the words. Look for your ghost. Look at the words. Your ghost is locked inside these words now. Go home and finish what you started. Title it with the name your ghost told you when you asked it. Submit that poem to as many publications as the number of weeks you were haunted. Conjure your ghost every time you read the poem. Thank your ghost. It will forgive you.
Elizabeth O’Connell-Thompson lives in Chicago, where she is the Literary Coordinator of the CHIPRC and a Poetry Ambassador for the Poetry Foundation. Her work has been published in RHINO, Banshee, The Fourth River, and The Best New British and Irish Poets, among others. Her chapbook, Honorable Mention, will be released with Dancing Girl Press in late 2017. Get in touch at EOTwrites.com