In the winter of 2000, my college roommates and I were on a mission. Originally shepherded together as three athletes—two of us track, one soccer—we were soon united by a common cause: we wanted to download as much music as possible. Our weapon of choice was Napster. We would initiate hundreds of downloads before heading to breakfast, class, practice, or going to sleep, and the songs would cascade onto our hard drives. A fraction of our actual musical bounty would reach Winamp, where the neon green song titles glowed against the black background.
Both of my roommates were named Matt. Soccer Matt focused on techno and classic rock; Track Matt handled rap, and I hunted for anything from merenhouse to deep cut R&B. By some divine intervention, I downloaded a song titled “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot.
The song entranced me from the start: the hypnotizing, almost eerie opening, Lightfoot’s rich voice, and the dramatic lyrics. Back then I was an undergraduate philosophy and English double major, and had just started taking fiction writing courses. I had found that a playlist helped me to push through other coursework, but for creative writing, I liked the continuity of a single song on repeat. “Sundown” became that song.
When you play a single song on repeat for hours, at some point the song becomes a mystical companion. You less hear it and are more clothed in it. It is an act, however minor, of transfiguration.
I’d play the song on repeat while writing a short story set in the New Mexico desert. Although there’s some dissonance between writing a story in the American southwest and the work of a Canadian folk singer, the song’s spirit matched the story I was trying to tell. A young middle-distance runner named Spader sprints in the Jornada del Muerto, running in squares and circles. When not training, Spader listens to his cantankerous grandfather, Blake, tell stories of how he built Trinity: the atomic bomb that was tested in the desert. Wracked by guilt, Blake is convinced the bomb is still there, its heart beating 50 years later.
“Sundown” got me to that place. The haunting feel; the sense of dread. The love and lust and fear. The way the song pointed toward an unspoken world that extended beyond its end. Isn’t that also what a great short story does—compress the tension of a life into a tense, revealing scene?
Everyone is susceptible to the call of nostalgia, but writers are especially so. Our old manuscripts—however trite and embarrassing they might be—are records of our formation.
I wrote many stories while in undergraduate writing workshops—ones based on my family in Newark and the Bronx, or thinly veiled attempts at the Faulknerian South—but my desert story kept reeling through my mind. I’d think about it while running. I revised it again and again. I met with my professor, who cut word after word, but told me the story was absolutely alive (a generous professor’s encouragement to a young writer is priceless).
Although the story’s setting entranced me, I now realize the story symbolizes something else for me: the world-expanding power of imagination. The story was a microcosm of storytelling writ large; an ardent attempt to live another life, to empathize with another’s existence. It was my story; not mine in autobiography (except for the running), but mine in devotion. I had worked it into existence, and I was working to discover its center. “Sundown” was a companion, a conduit.
After college, I expanded the story into a novel. I wrote, revised, shared it with my graduate school professors (bless them), my wife (doubly bless her). I submitted the manuscript to agents, got partial and full reads, but no representation. Some notes were incredibly pleasant: “It’s clear you’re a very talented writer, and I really like the premise – the idea of a nuclear scientist returning to New Mexico and considering what he had done had me very intrigued. You also have an extremely good flair for details and your prose is impressive. That said, I’m afraid I just didn’t find myself investing in the narrative as I would have liked.” Others were more direct: “No thank you.”
Years of rejections later, I trimmed the story down to a novella. That version was published in the lit mag StorySouth, and in my second story collection, Ember Days. But because the full novel version was never published, the story feels unfinished. For years, I held on to the various printed drafts of the story. Those paper drafts are now gone, but I sometimes search for the files in old emails. I open the message, and then close it, as if I’m worried that I’ll release a curse.
Everyone is susceptible to the call of nostalgia, but writers are especially so. Our old manuscripts—however trite and embarrassing they might be—are records of our formation. We had to write them in order to find our own route.
Whenever I hear the opening notes of “Sundown,” I’m brought back to those years—optimistic, ambitious, frustrating—that were spent writing that novel. A manuscript and a song are alike in that way; they can transport us back to a potent moment in time: a powerful and dangerous alchemy. I lived within that song in the same way that I lived within that story, and their simultaneity created a dependency.
The nostalgia that pulls me back to “Sundown” and that manuscript is a temptation that I need to avoid. I’m a different writer now; I’m a different person. I had to write that story then, but returning to it now—living among those words in the earnest attempt to revise it further—would be akin to reliving those years again. It is one thing to read a published story of our past; to look upon a finished work with a mixture of amusement and appreciation. But it is dangerous to rekindle an unfinished work. I’ll let that manuscript rest; I’ll let that song end.