Character Development

14 Dec


Every now and then I take a break from killing myself with alcohol to reflect upon my transition from professional rejectee to published, agented author.

By winter of 2009 I owned maybe two pairs of jeans, a pair of Doc Martens boots, and a laptop that threw off smoke if I used it for fifteen consecutive minutes. But I was moving up in the world–literally, from basement to attic. Once again I found myself relying upon a certain friend who, perhaps more than anyone else, understood the struggle I was facing; the compulsion to foolishly cling to a foul-smelling dream, long past its date of expiration.

Two years prior, I had written thirty pages of what had started out as a short story and had metastasized, as these things do, into a full-fledged crappy horror novel. It was basically the story of a Marine with PTSD who moves into a haunted house. I was calling the story “It Lives Upstairs,” which is a bad, bad title for the kind of book I was attempting. The writing wasn’t any great shakes either.

But it was words on a page, the prose was there, the story made a kind of nonlinear sense, and it was something to work on, to distract me from the flaming helicopter accident that had become of my life. At the end of the day I had a roof over my head, a quiet space to write, a snow-swept window with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Pittsburgh … but I couldn’t take advantage of it. I could not conceive of trundling home after work, to my little attic with its dust mites and beer-soaked carpets, to sit in front of a blank Word document into which I would theoretically insert literary content. I was terrified of being alone. I’d sit at my laptop, and five minutes later I’d be texting some girl I’d met on the street, making plans to meet up at Dee’s, that charmless, hipster-strewn den of apathy and unearned narcissism.

In those days, I fancied myself a bit of a player. I thought I had “game”–but in retrospect, I was really just an asshole. I would just walk up to the prettiest girl in the bar, say the most random, bizarre shit I could think of, then walk away without hearing a response. I was charming and repulsive to the extreme. Sometimes I would intentionally double-book dates, then let them fight it out as I ignored them both. I’d leave the bar without telling anyone–what’s referred to as an “Irish goodbye”–and later, at around 4AM, already lying in bed with another girl, I’d shoot them a text that read: “Who won?”

It was around this time that some of my friends started suggesting I buy a gun, carry a knife, or at least learn how to fight. But I had no need for such radical, preemptive solutions; I had my brain; I could talk myself out of, and into, anything. Often I’d find myself walking home from the bar with a bag of potato chips, and I’d stop under a bridge to catch my breath and light a cigarette, and just pass out from sheer asshole exhaustion. Just sleep there under the bridge, as if that were the most natural thing in the world to do! In the morning I would pick myself up, dust the dirt and snow and other detritus off of me, vomit in some bushes, and walk three blocks to the coffee shop where I worked. Looking back, it’s a miracle I was never robbed by police, raped by homeless psychopaths, or set on fire by steroidal teenage marauders.

To say I was a little depressed would be a bit like saying a late-stage drug addict with a brain tumor and failing kidneys and full-blown AIDS is just a little bit sick. I was gravely, immeasurably depressed. Depression consumed me. I COULD NOT shake my depression. Couldn’t face the fact that the endless parade of stoners and whores that passed in and out of that crumbling house was the extent of my social involvement. Were it not for my general laziness, aversion to planning, and pathetic inability to obtain a firearm, I would surely have ended my life that same winter.

People who knew me back then will sometimes ask me how I defeated my demons and pulled myself up by my bootstraps to become the upstanding, super high-functioning white guy I am today. Well, I’ll tell you. One day, while walking along some train tracks, I had what you might call an epiphany. I figured there were three things I could do to beat back my depression. One, I had to stop drinking–at least until such a time when I could string together two coherent thoughts. Two, I had to get some exercise–ideally something more rigorous and vigorous than walking from bar to bar. And three, I had to make a concerted attempt to write. To sit at my computer and make myself available to the Muse. Whether I got any work done, or sat there all night staring at a glowing computer screen: I had to put the time in.

Eight months later, I had a 90,000-word novel that was better than it had any right to be, considering I was so fucked up on vodka and pills that to this day I do not remember writing vast stretches of it.

I gave the book a quick edit, and went out on the usual rounds of submitting the work to indifferent, high-powered literary agents, with predictably bad results. Some agents expressed interest, but after reading the first few chapters, sagely brushed off my query, washed their hands clean of me. Most agents simply didn’t respond.

Precisely one agent, from the Maria Carvainis Literary Agency, requested to read the full novel.

I was ecstatic, terrified. I couldn’t believe it. This little horror novel I had written, from my little attic in the Southside Slopes, this thing I had almost drunk myself to death while writing, was going on a BIG TRIP to Rockefeller Plaza in NYC. I couldn’t have been more proud.

I printed out the manuscript, slapped together a cover letter, wrote a brief message on a piece of stationery with a picture of Edgar Allen Poe on it, and packed the materials into a FedEx box just before my shift at the Beehive started.

As I was doing this, my friend Ted Moses, a 64-year-old degenerate gambler affectionately and provincially known as “The Mayor of Southside,” came over to my table.

“You’re gonna get picked up,” he casually said, while crunching on an apple. As if telling me it was going to rain in five minutes.

“How do you know?”

“I just know. I can see it. What you’ve done here, it’s beautiful. I know it in my balls.

With the exception of the outcome of horse races, I’ve never known Ted to be wrong about anything. So it was not without a measure of hope, and dumb delusion, that I waited for the response to roll in.

About a month later I was lying in bed in with my then-girlfriend Serena, and I got this email on my phone:

Dear Mr. Barbieri,

The impressive amount of detail and chill-inducing descriptions of this horrid house really made my skin crawl. Unfortunately the characters in the story did not have any particularly lasting effect; their lack of substance and seemingly arbitrary relationship with the protagonist was off-putting. Moreover, the fact that Abe has PTSD does not compensate for the often confusing sense of time and perspective in the narrative. For these reasons, I am very sorry that I cannot be the enthusiastic representative any author deserves and I demand of myself.

I wish you much pleasure and success with your writing career.

Best regards,

And that was that. There would be no clearly delineated moment of victory, convincing me that I was on a course to success; the Gods of Publishing would not swoop in and rescue me from obscurity, from a life of wiping asses and hanging bags of blood. In one month I would start nursing school, and I knew I wouldn’t have the time to lovingly perfect my query letter and send out a new batch of submissions. It was over. The dream was over. The novel did not get “picked up,” as Ted had predicted. The book did not “find a home.”

Instead, I did.

And I’m kind of glad it happened that way. I’m glad Ted was wrong. I’m glad I went another ten months before finding the exact perfect agent to represent my book. Because if, by some providence, I had gotten signed by that agent, knowing myself as I do, I would have taken it as a sign to keep going, keep drinking, and I never would have had the guts to follow through with the best decision I ever made, to do something for someone other than myself for a change, to become a nurse–a decidedly non-writerly exploit that changed my life in ways too wonderful and strange to write about now with any clarity or insight.

*  *  *

As I write this somewhat scatterbrained blog post, it occurs to me that I still don’t know what the fuck I am doing. Why am I putting this all out there? What do I hope to gain? Do I hope to gain anything? Who do I think will read, or care about, this bullshit?

I think, deep down, I just want to be adored. I just want to be naked–stripped of the bitterness and misery that piles up with year upon year of hilarious failure. I’m clearly an angry person, and maybe this blog is my way of reconciling the euphoric high of the creative process with the perpetual hell and disappointment engendered by that same process. I think there is a tendency to romanticize and embellish that period of my life–as if, at my core, I am the kind of person who thinks nothing of walking out on a tab or asking random girls if they fart or eating potato chips under a bridge; who can exist, as a child or a psychopath exists, without morals or responsibility. But I will never be that person again. I just don’t have time for that person.


One Response to “Character Development”

  1. Michel Sauret December 18, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    It was really interesting reading your journey thus far. I don’t have a clue if your book is any good or not, but your voice on this blog is compelling enough to make me want to keep reading. Even though I can tell you’re a total ass.

    Am I wrong?

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