An Accidental Identity Crisis

Twenty-three seconds into the accident, the nascent writer Joshua Alexander jumped for joy. Concentrating on the significant damage to the bumper of my Explorer proved challenging amidst the ever-maddening screams of “THIS IS MY MOMENT! I HAVE ARRIVED!” The poor kid who pulverized his car with my bumper, some student from George Washington University home on break, apologized repeatedly for his lapse in attention; though to be fair, I’m still not sure if he directed it to me or to the crumpled remains of his car. I consoled him, insomuch as I was capable with all the celebratory screaming coming from Joshua. To his credit, the kid remained stoic, clearly at war with the beside-himself-father in his head, taking complete blame when the officer arrived, while I stood at the back of my vehicle analyzing the damage.

“This is great. Fantastic. The best thing that could have happened.”

I countered that, citing that car accidents are not great watermarks of joy for anyone. Not that Joshua cared.

“This will pay for the conference. You should thank that kid.”

I hadn’t considered that. Granted, my bumper looked a bit as if the horrors of life had consumed its soul, leaving its remains to melt into a perpetual frown.

“It’s just a bumper. What do you even need it for?”

As far as I could tell, the moment offered an example as to the primary reason bumpers existed. If I learned anything from Bumper Cars as a kid it was to never play Bumper Cars with my older brother. He had this fixation on ejecting me from my car, or better, the entire ring. Of course, he also had a fixation with swinging me in circles from an arm and leg until my glasses flew off and I started crying, so maybe the Bumper Cars weren’t the issue. In the moment, however, I found my first appreciation for the lessons those ricocheting cars offered.

Still, I had a hard time arguing the point. It was just a bumper. What’s a bumper in comparison to a week’s worth of writing education that would certainly land me a contract with a publisher? Three days later, when the Insurance adjuster handed me a check for $1,100, Joshua’s elation caught up to me. The internal war began. Bumper vs. bills vs. writing conference. Bumper lost in the opening round, if for no reason than it shut Joshua up for a while, and the worst it could do was follow me wherever I drove, its downward slope of sadness perhaps warding off any other unwanted visitors. Bills … those were a trickier obstacle. Apparently, those are supposed to be paid? That’s what I’ve heard. Somewhere.

I guess I should probably mention I had quit my job three months prior in order to write a book. That seems important, in context. Bills and all. Sudden money at hand and the like. A lack of employment certainly made income a pestering nuisance in relation to actually paying for things. You know, the important things like bills. Food. Collectible Star Wars figures. Even writing conferences. Especially those lasting a week long and costing a thousand dollars. An amount I happened to have in my bank thanks to a careless kid fiddling with his radio at forty miles-per-hour as his car rudely greeted the stopped Explorer in its path.

Maybe I shouldn’t have quit my job, I thought for the one-hundred and thirty-first day in a row. As decisions went to this point in life, it ranked up there with the best of Not Good. Sure, I finished a first draft of the book (two if you count the less than stellar 1st person draft I finished in 21 days), and by the time the conference rolled around two months later I would have a good edit complete. The timing fit. The conference–my first ever–would offer me a chance to pitch it to agents and New York Times bestselling author David L. Robbins, who would be the judge in a fiction contest. My book, Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO was good, by my estimates. Okay, so I thought it was perfect. Something to behold. To cherish. To love and to squeeze and to call George. Surely the agents would agree and the whole suffering for my art thing would be worth it, just as I had envisioned. That singular dream in which I quit my job, wrote a book, went to a conference and BLAMMO … agent. Agent would become Publishing Contract. Publishing Contract would equal Advance. Advance would balance out Voluntary Unemployment. Success would follow.

THIS IS MY MOMENT.

Did I have a choice? Sure. I had many. Many, many, many, many of which began the day before I quit my job. Did it feel like it? No. No, between Joshua’s screaming and my inability to see the world of possibility as more than a single light at the end of a short road, the Universe basically sat on my head, declared itself the Master of My Destiny and urged the chariot onward. All of this wouldn’t have happened otherwise, right? Everything happens for a reason, after all.

RIGHT YOU ARE UNIVERSE!

Fueled by the need to risk it all, to bypass sanity in favor of chance (LIVE NOW FOOL!), I registered for the conference and submitted the first fifty pages of my manuscript for the contest.

Sort of.

Technically, yes? Officially … not so much.

The thing is … the thing I should mention is how incredibly tired of me I had become. I saw myself every day. In the mirror, staring back for that brief flash before looking away, lest I thought myself some kind of creepy pervert offering longing glances from the other side of the glass. I talked to myself incessantly daily (yeah, yeah talked … that’s the ticket), whether I wanted to hear me or not. I cooked for myself, cleaned for myself, got sick of my needy self and needed a break.

So, I sent Joshua Alexander to the conference. I’m not sure if I thought he would generate better results, or if it would simply be nice to not be me for a week. Truthishly, I can’t really recall a specific thought of why I should do such a thing. Maybe I took a back seat to the process and Joshua jumped in. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m just weird like that, I suppose.

Regardless of reason–and likely absent it as well–I made my way to the conference full of cheer and lofty dreams, toting my completed manuscript in a wooden box as if it were the lost Ark of the Covenant. I checked in under my name since Joshua, for all of his robust enthusiasm, still lacked both an ID and a bank account, settled in and made off for the Opening Remarks with another hundred plus writers. All of whom were likely themselves because they were smart that way. I sat next to a behemoth of a figure–a tall, muscular man stretched out across two chairs. As I have established, socializing is not my strong point. Joshua, on the other hand, seemed to have no issue with the complexity of Hello and jumped right in.

“Hi. Joshua Alexander.”

Good for you, Josh. Well done.

The man shifted, shook my hand, introduced himself as David L. Robbins and immediately launched into praise for my submission, about how he had planned on finding me to discuss it, and stating his wonder at the luck we would sit next to each other.

It’s possible, at this point, I considered dropping the Joshua persona to ensure Mr. David L. Robbins, New York Times bestselling author, knew who I really was. I offer the possibility of such a though only because I don’t particularly recall if I though much of anything at all. Not with Joshua in charge.

THIS IS MY MOMENT.

So, I let him run with it. Let him talk throughout the Welcome, carrying the conversation onward into my work, its strengths and weakness, the nuances of the craft of writing, echoing David’s belief that conferences were vital to the growth of a writer, and I don’t know, tacos or something. It went on for hours. The next day David even invited me to go watch him golf in between sessions. I became the envy of the entire conference, buddied up to David like a excitable, loyal, puppy. Everyone knew my name, curious about what I wrote, how I had managed to so quickly win the favor of such a notable author.

They were the best two days of Joshua Alexander’s life.

They were, in fact, the only two days of Joshua Alexander’s life.

On day three, David woke up and decided to invite good ole chum Joshua to breakfast. Strange thing though. The front desk had no room for a Joshua Alexander. David insisted they were wrong. Had them check and check again, taking potential misspellings into account. Nope. No Joshua. Confused and slightly embarrassed, David fell into full research mode, following the trail of Joshua Alexander to one Zachary Steele, in room whateverever. He called me. He grilled me. Questioned what reason a man with my name would possibly have to go under any other name, then laughed at me. For the rest of the week. As he told each and every person about the ludicrous tale of Zachary “Joshua Alexander” Steele. For the next few months, as we kept lines of communication open. For the next few years as our friendship grew, as he became a mentor to me as a writer. To this day, some sixteen years later, as the memory pops up and he needs a good laugh at my expense. His last words on this planet to me may very well be, “Tell Joshua I said hi.”

I will always accept life as a never-ending ride of Cause and Effect. For instance, I make really odd decisions, the effect of which tends to rail off into the deep recess of Shitsville. I get to relive them, marvel over them, and perhaps even grow from them, but damn. Just damn.

Every once in a while, despite myself, I get to follow a train of Cause and Effect that isn’t all bad in the end.

I quit my job to write a book, with the express purpose of getting said book published, thereby jump starting my career and minimizing the damage caused by Voluntary Unemployment. In order to facilitate this, I decided I should go to a conference to get noticed. Unable to afford said conference due to having no job, I made use of accidental money to fund my way. I changed my name for no reason, met the author I wanted to meet, made a sizable impression both due to my work and the fundamental identity crisis masquerading as me, and made a friend of David L. Robbins. David created James River Writers in Richmond, Virginia, invited me behind the scenes, to their conference, gave me time with other notable authors (um, hi there Tom Robbins) and awesome people, and taught me the craft. All of which made me a better writer. Fueled by the need for more, the hunger to be better in all aspects of life, I made other questionable decisions, one of which netted me a bookstore I called Wordsmiths Books. During my tenure as owner of Wordsmiths, I met a publisher interested in Anointed. She published it. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a good review. My career as a writer found first gear.

THIS IS MY MO … oh, wait. No.

SEVEN YEARS FROM … is that right? Seven years? Sevenish years, you say? Right.

SEVEN PLUS YEARS FROM NOW WILL BE MY MOMENT.

Sometimes the wrong way can be right. Just, like, way longer.

Day Three: It’s about time, sort of

I used to watch Family Ties as if it were some type of religious experience. My world centered around my day of worship with the Keaton clan. I read from the Book of Alex P. Keaton, citing passages to any who would listen for the week to come. I could probably come up with a communion reference, but I’m too stumped on what to do with hymns to make it that far. Actually, I’m a cup of coffee short of anything useful at this point. Do run if that frightens you. I’ll understand. For the rest of you, I’ll just state the show was a profound cornerstone of my television watching youth, and get on with it.

There was an episode in which the immense pressure to succeed drove young Alex to a product called No Doze. I want to explain what it did, but I feel as though doing so would undermine the whole ten seconds it probably took the writers to come up with that one. I think you get it. I hope you get it, because if you don’t you likely don’t understand much of anything I say.

No Doze apparently transforms one into the Fonz.

No Doze apparently transforms one into the Fonz.

I thought of this episode yesterday as I worked through what I could of Chapter Two in the oppressive bubble of time I squeezed it into. I think most people imagine writers carving out long periods of the day, hunched over a screen, snack drawer askew, ringlets of drinks past scarred along the desk surface, the absolute presence of silence draped like a canopy of protection against potential distraction. For the record, this isn’t a real thing. At least not to those of us who like to keep the companies we owe money to happy. For the marginal few who have lovely wonderful delightful people who pay them to write–bless them so–this still isn’t a real thing. They just don’t have to deal with bubbles of time. Bubbles of children, perhaps. But they did that to themselves.

I managed 425 words yesterday. 425 words that represent 0.0047222% of the total projected length of 90,000 words. For those of you who don’t like to math, that’s less than 1%. It took me just under an hour to present the universe with these 425 words. I have no idea how many of those 425 words will survive. If we go by the standard that 1 in 1,000 baby sea turtles survive into adulthood, then you get a fair approximation as to how many words of my 425 children will emerge from a first draft and survive into a published book. There’s a high degree of attrition with words.

If I had No Doze, I could probably knock a book out fairly fast. I’d have time. Time in which there would be no bubble, no oppressive need to hurry, no disruption. Then again, in the 80’s, researchers at the University of Chicago determined that mice who were deprived sleep over a period of two weeks began to have their bodies break down and literally draw them to death. So, I guess sleep is important. Even Alex eventually learned that. Science found the whole Let Sleepless Mice Die experiment odd enough that they tried it again two decades later. No Doze. No such a great idea. Back to my bubble it is then.

What made me ponder the whole No Doze story was no so much the little writing I did in the little time I had available. No. It was the pesky story that popped up a few hours later to say, Hey, maybe you should have started that chapter this way…

Ugh. What a bastard. And it might be right. Probably is. Maybe. Likely.

Damn it.

Regardless the plan is the plan. Write the book. Edit it later.

For now, Chapter Two introduces us to Judy Christie Christie Blume Agatha Blume in a way that I find fitting enough not to make any changes. The story wants me to lay out exactly what is going on in the first sentence. I get that. I may actually agree. But I’m still trying to understand who Agatha is and what to do with her. I’m not ready to toss her in the deep end yet. I want her to sit with me on the steps and observe for a while. Get acclimated to the temperature. Build up the courage to make the leap.

And with that, my bubble of time has elapsed. The second one arrives later. I need that for Chapter Two. In the meantime, here’s the completely unedited 425 sea turtles trying to make it to the ocean. Adulthood is another matter altogether.

Chapter Two

            Agatha Blume paused mid-stroke, brush locked in a battle with a tuft of brown curl, and waited for the knock. The three-beat wake-up call arrived on time, precise, pointed, her mother’s voice muffled through the door. Same as every morning.

“Agatha, sweetie, time to wake up.”

The door opened, as if her words were all the invitation she needed, her mother’s slim face wedging into view. Once upon a time, Agatha had complained about the invasion of her privacy. That the least her mother could do is wait for an answer. That had lasted a week, until Hurricane Betty tore her apart, leaving a trail of verbal debris that included bills paid, meals cooked, clothes washed and general momness employed over her time on this Earth. Agatha had realized then that arguing with her mother accomplished nothing.

Fortunately, she found another way to deal with it. Her mother couldn’t annoy her if she had nothing to annoy her about. No annoyance, no arguing, no yelling, no grounding, no problem. From her thirteenth birthday on peace had reigned, and she had no desire to break the unspoken truce.

She just needed to be careful about it. A toe in the water here and there. Enough to stay ahead of the arguments. Too much and her mother would be the least of her problems.

“I’m up.” She set to brushing her hair, fighting through a new tangle. Some days she thought it would be best just to chop it all off and be done with it. But she didn’t have that kind of face. The kind without freckles. The kind that didn’t require hair to make it worth looking at. She wasn’t that kind of pretty. Truthfully, she wasn’t sure she was any kind of pretty. The hair, frustrating though it could be, at least framed her face well. Made her blue eyes pop. Or so she’d been told by Justin.

Granted, that was before Friday had happened. She’d had the whole weekend to come to terms with the fact that Justin’s opinions no longer mattered.

“Oh. So you are. I didn’t hear you. I’m beginning to think you don’t need me anymore.”

She was across the room in a few quick steps, staring at Agatha’s reflection in the mirror, taking the brush from her hand. The curls obeyed her sweeping strokes in a way Agatha could never manage.

“You’re growing up so fast. Where has the time gone?”

Agatha stared into her mother’s reflection, fighting a smile. “Nowhere as far as I can tell.”