Oh My God, What If I Killed Prince With My Mind?

OK, so — yesterday, an op-ed I wrote about Prince ran in the Los Angeles Times. Well, it was sort of about Prince; sort of about celebrity culture and social media; but mostly about mortality and magical thinking. You can read it here, if you like. Now, here’s the backstory:

Back in February, I was feeling nostalgic, looking at the “your memories from this day” pictures Facebook showed me from five years ago, noticing how they looked and felt like they just happened last month. I was thinking: in four sets of five years, I’ll be in my 60s. My children will be in their 30s. My parents might be gone. Like a runaway car with no brakes or emergency lever, the acceleration of time was getting out of control. I felt a surge of soul-panic: Please slowdownslowdownslowdown. 

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Around that time, there had been a rash of celebrity deaths: Alan Rickman, David Bowie, etc. I noticed a social media trend following those losses: people were tweeting at their favorite entertainers who hadn’t died — like, “Take your vitamins, Mick Jagger. We can’t lose you, too.” In my mind, that feeling of anticipatory grief over famous strangers seemed connected to the feelings of helplessness I was having about how fast time was going. It all comes back to mortality, doesn’t it? Like — stay away, Death, waaaaaaaay away from my other favorite celebs, and nowhere near my actual loved ones.

I rolled those thoughts around in my brain for a bit, jotted out a rough draft of something, and put it in a drawer. This Thursday morning, several weeks later, I remembered it and got it back out to take another pass at it. I was fiddling with it over coffee, a few seats away from where a couple of friends, also writers, sat doing the same thing — sipping, staring, pecking at whatever they were working on. Then I heard one of them say, “Oh, no! Prince died.”

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I looked at my screen. The first paragraph of my draft had a joke about Prince, a hat-tip to something Jenny Lawson had said along the lines of: hey world, don’t take Prince next. I hadn’t shown my essay to anyone. How could my friend know? And why was she saying it like that, Prince died, when the point was that Prince hadn’t died? What the hell?

I got up and walked over to her table. “What?” I asked. “Yes — look,” she confirmed, and showed me the news on her phone. I held out my laptop and turned the screen around so she could see it. “This is what I was working on,” I said, “just now.” The working title at that point was, It’s Not the Celebrities We Mourn For (Call Your Mom, Everybody).

I’d been writing about grieving the loss of our favorite entertainers and about how we imagine we can influence life and death with our thoughts, with a Prince joke, and then Prince actually died. WHAT IF MAGICAL THINKING WORKS AND I ACCIDENTALLY MISUSED IT, SENDING A STRAY FRIENDLY-FIRE MENTAL BULLET INTO THE UNIVERSE?

This is when it’s helpful to have friends willing to say outright: “You did not kill Prince by writing that. It’s a terrible coincidence.”*

latimes-logoAnyway: I updated the Prince part to reflect the news, edited a bit more, and sent it off. The paper agreed to publish a shortened version (the original was twice as long) with their own headline. I’m glad it got out there, although I hate that the sentiment ended up being so timely — I wish Prince showed up only as a passing reference to how very alive he is.

(* Still: I’m not going to mention any other people’s names here, just in case — although a few people I’ve told this story to have asked if I’m taking requests. I am not. Or am I, Ted Cruz? )

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(This guy came into being later the same day for Penguins with People Problems. Multi-media processing of emotions.)


  1. I loved the article, and what creepy timing! Atlanta misses you but thank goodness for social media!

    Sara Ann

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. I remember when I killed Aaron Copland. He was 96 and I mentioned to a friend, I didn’t realize Aaron Copland was still alive. Three days later, he died. I’ve been pretty careful since then. Apparently, the universe listens when I speak.

  3. That is crazy! And I probably shouldn’t publicly say this, but you may not remember we had a people who should die list going in college. People like Jeffrey Dahmer on it and then he and several others on the list actually did die. We took it down. Maybe it’s a Davidson thing. 🙂

  4. I loved your piece in the LA Times, and I love that I got to read the backstory here. I think you gave voice to every person who has had a heavy heart since hearing Prince died. And I am sure you inspired a lot of people to call their parents (including me). Thank you!

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