“Every Other Emily” by Joseph Sloan
Volume #3, Issue #34 • September 18, 2015
Joseph Sloan is a writer and clinical psychologist. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and their four children. His short fiction has previously appeared in The James Franco Review and in Hyperlexia.
I am not a smart person.
You hear me, Paul? I am not a smart person.
Why is that so hard for people to say? Why can’t anyone just admit that?
I was thinking about you a lot today and missing you. I was thinking that you were the only person who could really appreciate the day I had.
Apparently, I need to raise my IQ.
Let me set the stage: here I am—senior year—one year away from freedom. And I know I’m not going to be a brain surgeon. I’m not even going to be a dermatologist like my Mom or a portfolio manager like my Dad. But I’ve always planned on going to college, and I am going to do something with my life.
And then—November 1, 2007. A day that will live in infamy (I may not be smart, but at least I can quote Franklin Roosevelt. You know that history has always been my favorite.) The day my Mom and Dad sit me down and tell me that (unlike you, who went off to Yale after three years of high school) I am not going to college next year. I am NOT going (have to capture their tone) because my grades will NOT get me into a “suitable school” (A.K.A. a school with a name that they will feel proud sticking on the back of their cars) and that the NEW PLAN is for me to do a “gap year” at West Newbury Academy, this fancy prep school upstate, to “improve my profile.”
What is a “gap year,” Paul?
What is a “profile”?
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
Where did the idea for this story come from?
I started with the first line of the story—“I am not a smart person”—and that voice resonated with me even though I wasn’t sure where the story was going. I knew that it was written in an email by a teenage girl and that she was being forced into a mold that was ill fitting for her. Writing in her voice was a wonderful experience. I felt like I was discovering a story rather than creating it.
Em is writing emails to someone named Paul, but Paul isn’t responding. It’s up to the reader to speculate on the reasons for Paul’s silence—until it becomes clear. What was it like writing just one half of the exchange, knowing the other half would never exist?
I knew right away that Paul was not there, although it took me a while to figure out exactly what had happened. This was a story about Em, alone. In some ways it was like writing a diary. I think that it would have been much harder to write an exchange, or at least that would have made it a very different story. The one-sided format allowed me to focus on Em and to dig into her character.
Were you at all tempted to break free of the “emails only” plan as you wrote?
No. As soon as I wrote the first line I knew that it was an email and that form really guided me through the story. I think that there is a particular voice that we use in emails which is different not only from our spoken voice but also from the way we would write a letter by hand, for instance, or write a text message. It’s a very particular balance between colloquial and formal, sort of a composed conversational voice. For some reason the format and voice just fit Em’s story.
One of the things that struck me about this story is that Emily seems to be going through her grief entirely alone. Was that your intention? And do you think feeling alone is just an inescapable part of being a teen?
There is absolutely a deep loneliness to Em, and I wanted that to be central to the story. She is someone with a family, with friends and teammates, but she finds herself alone not only with her grief but with the choice that she has to make. I do think there is a loneliness and a feeling of being misunderstood that is a part of most teens’ experience. Certainly there was for me, and that feeling remains very vivid and available in my mind.
Have you ever written anything else about Emily, or about Paul?
No, I haven’t—although I feel very attached to Em and would love to come back and “visit” her sometime, and maybe explore what happens to her next.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel that takes place in and around a school for children with a fictional psychological disorder after the credibility of their diagnosis is destroyed by new research. It is inspired by the removal of Asperger’s Disorder from the psychiatric lexicon several years ago and the deep impact of that decision on communities that had developed around the syndrome.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
To write consistently, whether or not you feel like it. If you wait for the stars to align and inspiration to strike, you’ll get very little down on the page.