According to its submission policy, the majority of McSweeny’s website submissions are generated from perfect strangers, just normal people who have something to say. My submission was called “An Open Letter to the Downstairs Neighbor who Threatened Me in the Stairwell,” for the “Open Letters to People or Entities Unlikey to Respond” category. The piece turned out to be only a couple of paragraphs long, since I wanted to keep it under a thousand words, conforming to the style and tone of the other “Open Letters.” It was rejected.
Editing was very frustrating. I cut many paragraphs where I thought that I was rambling, to keep the story tight and focused. It often felt like trying to coax spilled water into a narrow straw. The more I edited, the more I realized I was toning down the story, downplaying the incident.
Here’s what happened. A few days after we moved into our new apartment, my girlfriend and I found a note slipped under our door from our downstairs neighbor, threatening to call the police if we didn’t stop making so much noise. It was a reasonable note, since we had been unpacking and shuffling around boxes late at night. However, we had just come from three months of a very unstable living environment, and any whiff that we would not be welcome in our new environment threw me into a horribly nervous state, where my body would reject food and rest. I thought that this woman would somehow have us thrown our of our apartment.
Months later, we would occasionally hear her banging her broom into her ceiling in the mornings as we would get ready for work. One day, I heard that damn broom right under my feet, a truly invasive sound that feels like loud stomping right inside your room. As I left my apartment that morning, walking downstairs, she opened the door in her robe. Just as I was passing her door, she said “I’m gonna fuck you up, mother fucker,” slamming the door in my face as I stared at her.
I chewed on my anger for many weeks. A few weeks later, my girlfriend told me that she heard the woman yell at her out her window at her “I’m gonna fuck you up, white girl!” For the next few weeks, we would watch her door as we walked up and down our stairs. I would involuntarily grit my teeth every time that the floorboards squeaked. I knew that by my very existence, I was infuriating her, that every step I took was a potential trigger. I was furious and terrified, constantly.
Reading and re-reading many of the other “Open Letters,” I found the formula that made them funny, which is the formula for creating humor in general. Each writer described the absurd event in their title, “An Open Letter to the Two Guys at Krogers who Didnt Know What Day it Was”, “An Open Letter to the Person Who Stole Our Diaper Bag.” The writer would take the incident to it’s logical extreme, and then close each paragraph with some sarcastic zinger (to the credit of the writers and editors, most of these letters are very good and very funny). I don’t know what was stranger; the fact that this independent publication published so many letters that had copycat styles, or that I was compelled to mimic the style exactly, so that it would be accepted. It became less about my experience and more about how I would write in these constraints. My editing transformed my story from a telling of my experience into a category submission.
I ended up cutting out my girlfriend’s incident entirely, and my girlfriend. The author of this letter was living alone. But while I was editing it, I was thinking a lot about that comment, “white girl.” So was our whiteness the problem, or was that just a way to make the threat even nastier, to add that extra punch, to demean us further, to make us feel small when confronted with a woman who is screaming out her window. Is it because we could not possible retort, we could not mirror that remark with a “Go to hell, black woman.” Not that you can really defend yourself to someone who slams the door in your face or shouts out her window, which is exactly why she did it.
My largest challenge in crafting this piece was to stop myself from rambling. It is quite unfortunate that the writing that feels the most honest, the stuff that pours right out, has to be poked and prodded and stripped down through editing. To look at your first draft is to look at all of the anxieties and fears and anger that drove you to write it in the first place. To look at it critically is to say: this is not good enough, this needs modifications, no one will read this unless it is changed.
So I focused, and edited, and came up with a story of a young man living alone, who is cornered in the hall by a woman who threatens him. In his head, he knows that this woman is full of shit and that she is so completely in the wrong. That he is actually the quietest person in the entire apartment building. But he never gets to address his grievances, he never gets to tell anyone how wrong this woman is. So it turns inward, and he soon begins meditating on his own steps on the creaking floorboards, which he hears her hear. Every sound he makes is a pin in the side of the person who will jump out at him as he leaves his apartment. He just doesn’t know when.
But even that is not what I wrote. What I wrote was an ‘Open Letter.’ Re-reading it after getting the rejection email, I heard the voice of a young brat eager to display how clever she was. By the time I had submitted what I had written, the story had turned into so many different things that, I could not even read what was right in front of my eyes.
That day that she confronted me, I got home from work and wrote her a note that I had practiced many times throughout the day. I said that I was sorry for the noise and she was welcome to talk to me if she wanted to. I stuck it on her door and went out for coffee. When I got back, a man who I had not seen before met me in the hallway with the note in his hand. He explained that he lived in apartment 8, and his wife was the one who had confronted me. I apologized about the noise and explained that the noise was just me walking around in the morning. He said not to worry so much. “That’s how she gets sometimes, is all,” he said. I said that I understood.