Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Pulling the Thread

Last year I got a t-shirt for volunteering at an event sponsored by our local Soil & Water Conservation District. I liked the shirt: it fit me nicely and it has a nice logo. It also had a loose thread at the hem on the bottom. Even though I knew better, I pulled the thread. Predictably, what I ended up with was about a foot of thread. I tried to break the thread, but it just made a longer thread hanging off the bottom of the shirt. I cut the thread, and after I washed the shirt I had more loose thread, and now I have a t-shirt with no hem on the bottom. This is what happens when you pull a loose thread.

Somewhere around two months ago or so I pulled a loose thread. This thread was in my brain, an idea that sprang from a conversation I had with a younger colleague during the winter about map reading, and how many skills and how much knowledge are locked behind technology. What happens if technology fails? What won’t we be able to do for ourselves if we can’t tap and swipe on our smartphones and tablets, if we can’t sit at our desks and enter a few keywords in a search bar? Computers and the Internet allow us to access virtually any information in a few seconds, but I have that nagging sense that we as a society are increasingly unable to do anything.

Anyway, this story was supposed to be very short, something along the lines of a few pages, a few hundred words, the sort of story an elementary school teacher might ask their students to write. It would be satirical, darkly humorous, though in my original conception I think I envisioned at least one person, maybe even all of them, dying because they no longer had a smart device with an app that would tell them what they could eat, how to filter water, how to build a fire (yeah, I’m sure it’s been done before, but it was new to me). At any rate, I pulled the thread, and just like with the t-shirt, the story kept getting longer and longer. It became more complex and decidedly less humorous, with references to a world much bigger than five people sitting around a campfire trying to figure out if the berries they found were safe to eat or not. Yesterday morning, having been blessed or cursed by having my brain switch on at 4am, I finished the first draft. Three pages had grown to fifty. What might have been 500 words or so was more like 15,000, and now I have to figure out what the hell I want to do with it: do I try to flesh it out into a novel? Do I keep it as is (or shorten it) and start submitting to magazines and the like? Do I self-publish?

Figuring out “what the hell I want to do with it” pretty much applies to all of my writing. Over the winter, my publisher told me she was ceasing operations, a decision I completely understand, so the option of publishing a second book with her is off the table. Not only that, the rights to Powerless will revert to me this autumn. There’s also a complete and polished manuscript in hand that I love and feel very strongly about; a very rough first draft of a novel that I like in concept, though it might just be garbage; and now this story that seems both too long and too short.

This is what happens when you pull a loose thread. The funny thing is, we know better, don’t we? We know that we’re not just going to pluck out some little stub, that the offending end of thread won’t go away. We know that we’re going to start unraveling the hem or the seam, that in the end we’re going to have to cut it and tie off the loose end. We know this and we do it anyway. Writers are thread pullers, we’re compelled. It’s fun and ultimately satisfying. What’s less satisfying is figuring out what to do with the pile of thread left in your hand. Now I’ve got four piles of thread, and with any luck, I’ll soon see another loose thread that needs pulling.

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