Conversations with the Other Side

On spirit boards, playing with danger, & the struggle to finish a novel

There is no greater pairing than a misfit thirteen-year-old girl and her Ouija board. I was new in town, afraid to speak up, and sporting an extremely unfortunate haircut. I’d never been kissed. I loathed my odd name. I ached 24/7, in different inexplicable ways. I understood nothing and no one.

For a brief but intense time, my closest confidante was a board with accompanying heart-shaped planchette manufactured by the mysterious Parker Brothers—and, more specifically, the spirit I imagined was speaking through it. This communication device came in a box that said: Ouija: The Mystifying Oracle and was marketed as a game, but it wasn’t a game to me. I understood that it was meant to be used only with other people, and not alone. Yet on many a night I secured my bedroom door and carried it into my bed.

There, we had whole conversations I will aim to re-create from memory below:

What grade will I get on the social studies test?

B P L U S

Will anyone ask me to the dance?

NO

Should I go anyway?

YES

How will I die?

C A R C R A S H

When will I die?

M A R C H 7

Are you just trying to scare me?

YES

Will you stop?

YES

Is anyone thinking about me right now?

YES

Is it someone I like?

YES

Is it [seventh grade crush’s name redacted]?

NO

Who is it?

M E

What’s your name?

N O T T E L L I N G

Do you watch me when I’m asleep?

YES

Are you watching me right now?

YES

Prove it. What am I wearing?

C H E C K E R E D S H I R T

Here the conversation would end when I slammed the board back in its worn box and tossed it across my room, forgetting to say G O O D B Y E in the rush of needing to get it as far away from me as possible.

At this time we’d recently moved to a house on a dirt road, far away from my childhood best friend. I knew no one. This was the Catskills, the more remote and depressed area where tourists didn’t tend to go. There was nothing to walk to but a far-off gas station off the highway. There was nothing nearby but some scarce neighbors and what felt like acres upon acres of trees.

My bedroom in that house was an extra room on the first floor, just off the kitchen, kept apart from the rest of my family, which was a blessing except for the nights I got scared. I’d sleep there in my checkered flannel pajama shirt with the covers over my head, aware of every creak in the wood-planked walls and every branch tapping the windows, wondering about the divide between the living and the dead. Still, the next night, lamp on and bedroom door closed, instead of reviewing for the social studies test I would get out the Ouija board and go for more.

You have to understand. I was thirteen years old in the time before the internet. I was hungry for connection, for a kind word from a cool stranger, for something to happen so my life could finally begin. I used to daydream about turning the magical, mythical age of eighteen and running away with someone who loved me and chose me, out the door and into the night, but five years was eons away. Besides, there wasn’t anyone who liked me back yet.

Back then, we didn’t even have a working antenna or cable, which means that our TV screen showed a fizz of static. If I’d been born later, I would have had the internet. I shudder to think who I might have chatted with at night alone in my room from that shark-infested sea.

What I had was the Ouija board, and the Ouija board had me.

To this day I’m not entirely sure who or what I was talking to. It did eventually tell me its name. His name, I should say. And it acted like what I knew of men, too: stormy some nights, gruff and barely offering an answer; but on other nights frantic and whipping the planchette from letter to letter so I had to rush to keep up. Sometimes it said kind things to me, compliments. Other times it made threats. Having this open doorway in my room to the spirit world brought about some challenges. For one, if I talked about it at school most kids thought I was weird (though there were one or two fellow thirteen-year-old girls who understood) or creepy, and the kids from religious families seemed to really not like it. And two, on nights I conversed with the Ouija board, it became near impossible to get out of bed at night once safe under the covers, so if I had to pee I had to hold it till morning.

The Ouija knew things about me no one alive was supposed to know. However, the fateful day in March it told me I would die passed over uneventfully with an entry in my diary noting I was still alive.

Now, of course, I understand how Ouija boards are said to work, the innermost subconscious and your own kinetic energy instigating the gliding moves of the planchette. Science, blah blah blah. My rational mind knows the answer and probably has always known: There is a deep and hidden part of yourself, aware of the things you don’t yet know, the keeper of your secrets, the holder of your dreams, the instigator of your worst and most ferocious anxieties, and sometimes in your loneliest of moments you can access that voice. You can communicate with it. It can make the planchette move toward what you maybe most want it to say. On bad days, this can be dangerous. On good days, it can help you not feel so alone.

So that could be it. Or maybe I was never alone in that downstairs bedroom after all.

Night after night, the voice in the dark spoke through the Ouija.

But then, as youthful obsessions go, the need for them wanes when your social life takes over. My diary shows the shift. I was the new girl at school that year in seventh grade, but soon enough friendships would emerge. Junior high school dramas that became the subject of furious diary scribbles, my crush’s name inscribed in pen on the pages then crossed out in darker pen out of superstition and shame. I would be gifted a telephone in my room: a pink receiver to get calls—not my own line, but still close enough—and there was one night I spoke to my crush on this phone. The line was all breathing and boredom. He had nothing of interest to say and we never spoke on the phone again. One day soon I would have my first kiss: grotesque and full of spittle and awkward tongue in the dark of a movie theater. My body would change. I would decide to spell my name Novah because it looked to me more like a name for a human girl until some kids at school started teasing me and calling me “Nova-huh” and I reverted back to what I was. The door inside me would close for a while, distracted by a mundane earthly life, until many years later, when I became a writer, when it would open again and I would remember.

Writing a novel—agonizing over it, questioning its very existence—feels sometimes like poising the fingers so very gently on the surface of a planchette and begging something, anything to make a move. The story must be inside me somewhere, fully formed. Why won’t it just spell itself out?

I may be seeking an outside force to come and tell me how to fix it, but that never happens—because in the end, a writer is alone with her page and all the work she has to get done. Still, when I’m begging my brain to navigate that work faster, I’m communicating directly with my own subconscious, my worst enemy and my best friend.

Will I ever finish this novel?

YES

Will it get published?

YES (It’s under contract, it’d better!)

When will I finish this novel?

SOON

How soon?

VERY SOON

My intimate conversations in the dark as a girl ended around the time we left that house on the dirt road. I was fourteen. My time with the Ouija board culminated in a bursting light bulb aiming to harm my baby sister and a fire—two separate events I’ll save for another time, or better yet keep on hand as fodder for my fiction. Whatever entity I was talking to, or whatever deep and buried part of myself was putting on a mask and playing pretend, was no longer reachable. The Ouija board was gone. The cord was cut. I grew up.

The sensation of playing with something dangerous has stayed with me though. It’s what I return to when I think of being that age. I remember who I was back then: a frightened aching openhearted innocent crafty girl. Bad hair until it grew out, flat chest, big imagination, not yet having the guts to dream big dreams. At times it makes me cringe and at other times it makes me want to cry.

Mining that time and those emotions is what drives me to write the stories I do. Maybe it’s not surprising that the current opening scene for the novel I’m revising begins when my narrator is… wait for it… thirteen-years-old. (No Ouija boards were harmed in the writing of this novel. Spoiler alert: My next book is not a ghost story.)

The story may be something else entirely, but the writing is fed from digging into my most vulnerable moments. When I felt misunderstood and trapped and alone. When there were too many trees. When I scared myself every night.

When I wanted to grow up and leave, but had nowhere to go.

When I so wanted someone to say: I see you. I like you. I want to know you. I M L O O K I N G A T Y O U R I G H T N O W. And Nova—however you spell your name—I like what I see.

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