Reflecting on “The Dead Man’s Tale”


Jack Thistlewood, Writer

I remember [Redacted] saying that every story starts with a question. The problem is, I don’t know what question I want to ask. Am I supposed to ask about a theme? About the world? About the characters? I’m in the dark, and I’m not sure how to get into the light. 

-Page 3 of 90 from “Thoughts” by Jack Thistlewood

I started to actively write back in March – maybe only a week or two before the Covid-19 quarantine started. Since then – some ten months ago – I’ve made nearly one hundred different documents related to writing, whether it be stories, outlines, or diary-like entries. In total, the number of pages is currently about 1,400. Of those 1,400 pages and dozens of stories, I have only finished one – a simple short story written in one night just barely reaching five pages in twelve-point Times New Roman font. 

Every other story was based around some sort of giddy joy – the prospect that I could create. That short story – I called it “The Dead Man’s Tale” at the time – was different. There was a very raw experience in that creation. No giddiness, no excitement, no joy. It was inspired by the claws of depression.

In and of itself, the story wasn’t much. The protagonist dies in an accident, only to come back as a spirit who cannot interact with anything or anyone. They are resigned to the eternal fate of simply observing the world they used to live in. There wasn’t much else to the story.

Except depression’s gnarled claws had more than a simple idea. They scratched at my mind, made me think of the “what-ifs.” Among those annoying, ghastly scenarios, one reigned supreme. It was the idea that life would change for nobody else, should a person die. That scenario took precedence and never quite let go.

Such a scenario didn’t bode well for the protagonist. It resulted in them dwelling the streets of their hometown – a town that quickly forgot about them, filling in their seemingly unique gap with hardly an ounce of trouble.

In the end, though, the protagonist finds salvation. That was the natural flow of the story, I came to believe. The protagonist’s replacement unknowingly provides salvation in the form of a genuine thanks. In the end, that was all the protagonist needed – a simple, genuine interaction. 

There wasn’t too much more thought put into the story than the cardboard plot that came of a single night of depressed dedication. Later on, though, I read through the small draft once more and found something rather bizarre. Oddly enough, there seemed to be an additional layer of developments. It was an unintentional result of the writing, done unwittingly and without a passing glance.

Most easily seen within the short story was the mention of day and night – a rather cliched pair of motifs, to be sure. The protagonist becomes connected to the night and the protagonist’s replacement becomes connected to the day. Time thus becomes an interconnected piece in the motifs as well, along with the cycle of life, death, and salvation. 

While the motifs of day and night were entirely unintentional, there was another aspect – one that was perhaps subconsciously performed. Throughout the entire story, the protagonist is always around others, only ever being on their lonesome in the silence of blue night. There was a reason for that, I ultimately decided to believe. I wanted for there to be a question in any potential reader’s mind. That question was simple: “Did the protagonist’s supposed spirit ever exist in the first place?”

It was a simple, honest question that I asked myself. To this day, nearly five months after the short story’s creation, I’ve yet to arrive at a satisfactory answer to that very question. But there was something that came of the experience, aside from the estranged question. 

The spoils gained from the story’s creation were rather simple. One of several internal turmoils had been settled, at least somewhat. There was also the matter of learning and reflection. With the story having been completed, the hideous, grisly, gnarled claws that depression possessed had drawn blood and so they let go. 

I also managed to reflect on my experiences in creating such a horrific story. I learned. As my character has managed thus far, those learnings could not be put into words quite so easily. They were ingrained in my subconscious, to be sure, but trying to truly espouse the naïve wisdom that was gained is something that I’ve yet to accomplish several hundred pages of random, convoluted writing later. 

Even in those worst moments, there was a bright light. A genuine enjoyment of the craft of writing and creation. I may have enamored myself with delusions of grandeur at some point, delusions of sharing my creations with the world at large and receiving irresponsible fame, but the personal gains are something I will live with for the rest of my life. And for me, that is more than enough satisfaction.