On Writing “We Were Never Alone in Space”

Carmen Maria Machado joins us in Shimmer #17 with her remarkable story, “We Were Never Alone in Space.” Here, she takes us behind the scenes to tell us how the story came into being. -ECT

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“We Were Never Alone in Space” came together in a way that was unusual for me and my process—through three separate and distinct incidents.

The first happened the summer I attended Clarion. The night before we left, I stood teary-eyed with my classmates on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. We all read something for each other—a meaningful quote or passage, or something that we had written—and then knotted them into a giant rope of kelp that we had pulled out of the sea weeks before. I volunteered to return the kelp, and our words, to the ocean. As my fellow Clarionauts and teachers stood by, I ran pretty far into the water and hurled the kelp into an oncoming wave.

What I didn’t realize, as I galumphed into the tide, was that the sun had already set, and it was mere seconds before total darkness. As I stood there in the water, the kelp left my hand, and the light left the sky. All that was in front of me—the horizon, the whole of the ocean—was velvety, impenetrable darkness. I had spent all summer eluding certain memories and fears, and in that moment they all rushed in. I had never felt more alone than at that moment. I was certain I was going to drown, unseeing and terrified.

Then I turned around and saw the lights of the shore, and the faintest outline of my Clarion family. I could hear them shouting my name. Praying that a wave wouldn’t knock me down, I crawled toward to the shore, where they were waiting for me.

*

A few days later, I said goodbye to Clarion and took a roadtrip with my now-girlfriend. We left Southern California and began meandering back toward my home in Iowa.

We stopped for a day in Roswell, New Mexico, and a decided to go to a UFO Museum. It was more of a radioactive science fair project than a proper museum, but it was fun and weird and had newspaper clippings pertaining to the history “the event” pinned up on cloth walls. One of them was from a local paper, published just after the Roswell incident in July of 1947. The reporter interviewed a woman who was incredibly excited about the out-of-town alien visitors. She said to him: “How were we to have known that we were never alone in space?”

I had a list of interesting titles going on that trip–little fragments of text that we saw here and there–and as I added it, I thought about the moment in the sea. They seemed connected, but I didn’t know how—not yet, anyway.

*

Over the next few months, I kicked around a couple of half-drafts of the story. I thought about space and the ocean and how they are both alike—two terrifyingly unknown monstrosities, both of which I am afraid. I thought about that phrase, “we were never alone in space,” and about the frightening memory of my sea-walk, but nothing was really working. There was something I was missing, but I didn’t know what it was.

So one day, I decided to start over. I went back to the moment at the ocean, where I had intended on ending the story, and wrote it first. It occurred to me that I could try and tell the story backwards, beginning with this ending and learning, as the story progressed, each critical moment that came before. It’s hardly a new structure, but as it turned out, it was exactly the missing element that I needed to understand what it was that Adelaide was waiting for, there in the sea.

I wrote the first full draft of this story–not terribly different from the final version that appears in Shimmer–that afternoon.

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