Tag Archives: failure

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.



21 Nov

From Crab Creek Review:

As writers ourselves, we understand the considerable undertaking involved in preparing a submission. Please know we read your work with great care but found it just wasn’t a good fit for Crab Creek Review at this time. We wish you great success placing your work elsewhere.

~ The Editors


Nancy Canyon

If there’s one thing you learn from cluster-bombing good-natured lit rags with unwanted manuscripts, it’s that there are only so many ways to express the same dreadful sentiment. Open enough S.A.S.E.’s and you start seeing the same themes, the same turns of phrase. After awhile, “We have decided to go in another direction” bleeds into, “Your story was not quite right for the journal,” and eventually becomes, “Good stuff, but no.”

What I like about this rejection is its attempt to emotionally align with the author in the struggle for publication. “As writers ourselves” is a beautiful, humane way to set the writer up for the sharp, rusty coup de grace of, “it just wasn’t a good fit.” That the people preparing the guillotine are in the same doomed position softens the blow of defeat just a bit.

But then the rejection takes a turn for the eerily jubilant. As if it weren’t enough that the word “great” was used in two straight sentences, the editor tacks an extra “Great!” onto the end of the letter. From this I may reasonably infer that my work, while bearing some merit, did not quite mesh with the style and tone of Crab Creek Review, probably due to some excess of gore or profanity or descent into pop-culture minutiae that is the hallmark of my fiction. In any case, the oddly cheerful annotation scribbled at the bottom of this rejection makes for a welcome, if jarring, boost of adrenaline after the drop of the blade.

Bygone Era

31 Oct


There was a time when I lived on two eggs and a baked potato a day. It was a real loser time for me, a time of roach clips and resin and shivering and sweating and discount grain alcohol and unspeakable depression. My girlfriend of two years had broken up with me over a can of Pepsi while swinging from a swing set in her mother’s backyard. “You can’t love me like I need to be loved,” she had said, and the next day she drove me to Pittsburgh and unceremoniously deposited me on my best friend’s doorstep, like an animal she wished to abandon, and that was that.

I was 26 years old and working in a grocery store for minimum wage–at that time, five-fifteen an hour. In an act of charity which I am still paying off, my best friend had invited me to sleep and write in his basement, providing I help with some of the bills. It was not a nice basement. It was a bunker, a hovel. There was a drain in the floor that I pissed in. A single hanging light bulb. Cockroaches crawled on me as I slept. I will go to my grave believing that the two years I spent swatting spiders and gulping Radon in that rancid basement shaved at least ten years off the tail end of my life.

I mention this not to be cute or to prove my street cred as a starving artist–although, if anyone wants to throw down on a better claim to poverty, I will see your Ramen noodles and raise you a baked potato–but to make a larger point about the process of publishing stories in 2012. You see, back then, if I wanted to submit work to a magazine, I had to walk to the Post Office, pull on the door, and convince a human to sell me a coil of stamps. I had to draft personalized cover letters, do research as to which editors were working where, the sorts of stories they favored. I had to allocate my funds judiciously and draconianly, and make decisions between envelopes and food.

Third Coast, and many journals like it, no longer accept “snail mail” submissions. Nifty electronic submission managers like Submittable, once a taboo concept in publishing, are the norm. Now all you have to do is upload a document into a database and press Send. The process takes no longer than a minute and a half. Cover letters are optional. So is crossing your fingers. You can log into the system and monitor the status of your submission at your leisure. And when the inevitable rejection arrives, it comes via email, and is often detected as spam; and the whole experience seems weightless and somehow machinelike to me, a correspondence dreamed up out of the ether.

A nice family lives in that house now–young professionals with kids and dogs and flower boxes in the windows. I imagine them putting their children to sleep, reading them stories in rooms lit by Ikea lamps and draped in roller-coaster wallpaper, never knowing the caliber of riffraff that once crept around in their house after midnight; the things I did, and ate, to survive. Sometimes, while walking home from the bar, I will pass by the house and peer in through the basement windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of something I might have left behind, a relic to connect me with that part of myself, but the house is always dark, and the flowers obscure my view.


23 Oct

She poured herself another glass of wine and watched me as I sat on the floor sifting through my little wooden box of staggering failure.

“Can’t you just relax?” she said. It is a question I am asked often.

“I am relaxed. This is me relaxing.” And I took a swig of vodka, to prove it.

“Can I ask you a question? And I don’t mean to sound bitchy or condescending. But that is a lot of rejection letters. I mean … how do you see that every day and keep writing? What keeps you going?”

The truth is, I’d never really thought about it. But I wanted to answer her question as best I could. So I told her that the process of submitting manuscripts for publication involves, necessarily, an element of delusion. Delusion–because to believe in one’s talent, in the face of such strong evidence to the contrary, requires a Herculean effort of denial, a miracle of mental gymnastics. Delusion, and not persistence, is the key to success in the Arts.

But then, one must also understand–rightly, sanely–that this is all a part of the game. This box of papers, this crate that used to hold Spanish oranges, now stacked with sharp-edged letters–this is all in the game. This is normal. This is Good. This is how it happens. Rejection is the fuel that feeds the engine of the short story market; it is what separates the gold from the sand; it is a kind of self-cleaning, perpetual-motion machine, because if everyone’s a writer, no one is. Stephen King was probably rejected four times as much as me.

Or so I tell myself. Again: not persistence, but delusion.

I want to tell her that a real writer, a capital-W Writer, will not stop writing no matter how many pink slips he/she gets in the mail. But that would not be the truth. Because, the truth is, I am addicted to my writing as surely as she is addicted to her wine. I don’t write out of some heightened insight into the human condition. I write because it passes the time. I don’t stop because I can’t stop. It is a compulsion, not unlike touching the bedroom mirror fifty-seven times before going to sleep, or combing the frill of an Oriental rug at three in the morning. It is the sickness that makes one well.

She finished her bottle of wine and dipped into my vodka and ended up barfing all over my bathroom. I put her to bed and was alone with my letters until I crawled into bed around 3. And I knew, when I woke in the morning to an empty bedroom, that the box of anonymous letters, the evidence of my continued failure, would be waiting for me where I left it.