September 1997
s m u g
mystery date
by carl steadman


Carl Steadman is the cofounder of Suck and the creator of Placing. He is having a going-out-of-business sale.


Suicide Note

I wrote a suicide note, but it's not very good.

For one thing, the whole explanation - you know, the part where you tell why, the raison d'être of the suicide note proper - is a tad bit undeveloped. Although it does seem to subscribe to a certain internal logic that might appeal to someone contemplating the ultimate act of self-absorption, "I've grown tired of myself" lacks the panache and flair that you'd expect from a suicide note. So I'd like to punch that up a bit, add in a literary allusion or two, maybe find someone to blame. I think that would work well in the genre.

There's also a serious lack of character development. Oh, sure, it may be a little late to build character, per se - this is a suicide note, not a Bildungsroman, after all - but, if one were to harbor any hopes of entering the literary canon, a certain degree of character development is in order. After all, the young Werther becomes a fairly sympathetic character (his pedantic leanings aside) before his untimely, but much-anticipated, demise. I may be no Goethe, but, nevertheless, the bar has been raised, the die has been cast, the trajectory of the projectile through the exit wound has been plotted.

Sympathy in the mind of the reader. This seems to be a fairly important concept. If I were only able to produce one effect in the mind of the reader, my goal would be, undoubtedly, sympathy. Sympathy in the mind of the reader, I scrawl in the margin of my suicide note, underlining it twice. I regard the note. I get up, pace the floor, sit back down. I glance at my watch. I prepare to write. "I have run out of fax paper," I add to my growing list of lifelong failures, and then hastily scribble it out. I curse my failings, as a writer of suicide notes.

I should not trivialize my suicide note. I must regard it seriously, and must endeavor to have others regard it seriously. If it is to amount to anything. At the top of my suicide note, I carefully print the words, First Draft. From this lump of coal, I promise to myself, I shall fashion a diamond of outstanding cut and clarity.

I show my suicide note to my agent.

"I know it's not very good," I say, "but maybe you can shop it around, find a good editor who can work with me on it. I think you can agree that the concept is all there. The basic concept. Could you give Tina Brown a call at The New Yorker? And then maybe we can try Vanity Fair."

My agent reviews the suicide note, carefully. "It lacks character development," she says.

"Well, yes," I say, "but, in a way, it shows the stunted growth of the protagonist, if we can use that term. For a character with such an ignoble end. Perhaps - " I pause as I lick my lips. "Perhaps it's time for a rebirth of the antihero."

She eyes me suspiciously, but seems to buy it. She does not suggest Esquire.

We talk about the novel adaptation. "If it's a successful short story," she says, "if it garners some attention, I can see a two-page treatment, followed by a formal book proposal. We can call it Suicide! With an exclamation point. Or Last Days - you like that? A latter-day Ulysses. Ulysses meets The Dilbert Future."

"But much shorter," I say. "And without the funny cartoons." As I pronounce the word "funny," I make quotation marks with my middle and index fingers. Irony is a very difficult game, I think to myself, as I dip my biscotti in my latté, and smile vacantly at my agent.

You must prepare for rejection. Rejection is always a possibility. The best minds of previous generations were destroyed by rejection. Lex Luthor, for instance. And my dead father. Because of this, you need to be at the ready, need to have made the proper preparations.

I sit, close to the telephone, one eye on the fax machine, waiting patiently for the mid-morning mail delivery. "One day, they'll all be sorry," I tell my 4 packages of Unisom Nighttime Sleep Aid, 48 count, my white Hefty tall kitchen bag, 13 gallon size, my box of Circle rubber bands, genuine natural rubber, premium quality, size 30, and my bottle of Macallan 12-year-old single malt. "At least I have you." I shed a tear, thinking of how cruel the literary marketplace can be.

There are certain rules you should follow, when working on a suicide note. Certain rules which may not be immediately obvious, to the inexperienced suicide note writer.

Rule #1: When you meet a casual acquaintance on the street and he or she asks what you've been working on, lately, do not tell him or her "a suicide note." This may be interpreted as a "cry for help."

Rule #2: Although you may see people in the park thoughtfully scribbling words in blank books, it is unlikely that they are writing suicide notes. Singing birds are not conducive to establishing proper mood.

Rule #3: First person, first person, first person.


The rejection letter.

Dear Carl,

It's an excellent suicide note, but it does not fulfill our needs at the present time.

Thank you for considering us.

They're heartless at The New Yorker.


I stare at my suicide note.

I have a reason to go on, I realize. All I need is a little hope, some courage, and a good editor.

My agent gives me a call. My suicide note has been accepted for publication in Esquire. "Congratulations," she tells me.

"I couldn't have done it without you," I lie. I fail to mention the Paxil, taken orally on a daily regimen.

Talk turns to the made-for-television special. My agent suggests that I add more action to the basic plot. Maybe the brutal decapitation of a loved one, for a murder-suicide spin. "And a drug habit. Drug habits are very popular, among rising stars. They love to portray depth through an emaciated body and vacuous, glassy eyes."

"Actors have won Emmys for less tortured roles," I say.

If it sees a good reception, I think, will I answer reporter's calls? Will I send thank-you notes for the boxes of chocolates and bouquets of flowers? Or will I fail to deliver on an adoring public's expectations?

I refuse to be sacrificed on the altar of celebrity, I decide to add to my suicide note.


An overnight FedEx arrives from my editor at Esquire. I sign for my suicide note, and rip open the package.

I look at the first page. It is spattered in red, angry slashes cutting into the text, hurtful admonitions scrawled into the margins. "Show, don't tell," he has written, and "Down, not across." At the top of my suicide note, my editor at Esquire has noted, "You need to capture the reader in the first two grafs. Otherwise, you're done for." I fail to laugh at his joke.


Publication. David, at Little Brown, was not unimpressed. "I am not unimpressed," he whispers in my agent's ear, as a brown ostrich tassel loafer casually brushes against her bare left ankle. "You always knew how to awaken the writer in a young man, how to rouse his emotions and enable him to speak honestly, from his heart."

Glasses are raised, champagne is drunk, proposals are exchanged, promises are made. I am told to expand my suicide note from 10 pages to 300 by October 1st.


The men and women in the marketing department of Little Brown cross their fingers, hoping that the actual suicide, if there is to be an actual suicide, is appropriately timed. Sometime after the completion of the manuscript, sometime before the book hits the big chain bookstores.

"The day before publication would be ideal," David tells me.


The novelization of my suicide note has become a slow, painful process.

On those days when I do nothing but lie on my couch, curled up in a little ball, I worry about my suicide note's mass market appeal - after all, who won't be able to guess how it all comes out, in the end? At night, I sleep fitfully, dreaming of great warehouses, filled to the rafters with stacks upon stacks of my suicide note, all in hardcover.

Things are not going well. I haven't written a word of my suicide note in weeks.

My agent suggests a change of scenery. "Get away from everyday distractions," she tells me. "Dare to live the life of a great writer of suicide notes, in order to be a great writer of suicide notes." I decide to take her advice. I place the bulk of my advance in a no-load mutual fund, with check writing privileges.

Time passes. I am sitting on a beach, sipping long, cold mai tais, thinking about how it will all be over, some day.

But just look at that sunset. Maybe not today.



back to the junk drawer

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