It began with a single sentence. Now I’m left with the terrifying prospect of explaining everything that came after.
I wanted my brother back.
Seemed simple at the time. One thought, unspoken, bounding around my head day after day. But it bred. Opened up a world in which pain and suffering were the norm. Where desperation led to reckless behavior. Where truth and hope were no longer allies.
Mark Murphy had a story to tell and, at times, I wanted no part of it. It stung. Pulled out a sadness in me that lingered and scoffed at my attempts to wish it away. 30 years of suppession let loose and I came to understand that grief never ends. Then grief reared its head anew and everything on Mark’s journey became mine. We traveled together–we still travel together–and shared tears more often than I am able to admit.
The Weight of Ashes was easily the most emotionally challenging story I have ever told, much less written. It is the best thing I have ever written. And that’s saying something because I’ve become a bit of a perfectionist with my writing. I don’t brag much at all. I just write.
In two weeks, it releases. Readers will be able to buy it anywhere. That is awesome. And terrifying. I won’t speak on behalf of every writer, but I know I can speak on behalf of most of them. We control our imagined worlds and characters, we edit and rewrite to get it where it needs to be, we work with beta readers and critique groups and agents and editors, striving to make it the best book possible. Then, if we’re fortunate enough, it’s wrapped up in a pretty little bundle of pages and binding and set loose in the world and we can’t do a single thing about it. We’ve lost control. There’s joy, don’t get me wrong. There’s beauty in seeing that book baby sitting nice and shiny in a store.
It’s gorgeous. The smile can’t stretch far enough. Pride and joy and love and hope and intense happiness.
And fear. So much fear.
What if it doesn’t sell?
What if people don’t like it?
Did I do enough with the story? Will people emotionally connect with my character? With my story?
Oh, God. I just bore my soul to the world. Why didn’t I just go to therapy?
Alright, so maybe the fear isn’t always grounded. Maybe it’s an overreaction to, I don’t know, artistic desire or something nonsensical like that. But it’s real and present and a writer can only tighten their hands on the safety bar, watch the rising hill of the roller coaster, close their eyes (or more likely leave them open because every writer is curious about what their death will look like), and hope for the best. Probably not going to buy that picture of us screaming our way down, but still.
Crazy thing is this isn’t abnormal. This is what most every writer experiences as their book baby goes out into the world, no matter how many they’ve had. It. Is. Normal. Breathe. Relax. Enjoy the ride, okay?
Remember that the next time you read a book. There’s a soul attached to that story. There’s a reason authors plead for reviews, and not simply the business-related and most definitely true reason. It isn’t even about getting positive reviews (though, yes it is) or even bad reviews (which, no it isn’t), but peace in knowing that it is being read.
I am very much one who believes that speaking something aloud makes it real. I wanted Mark to learn that lesson. In that way, The Weight of Ashes is now real. It is in the world. Speaking daily. That is a most amazing and wonderful truth. Everything I poured into Mark’s journey is real. No longer imagined, but living in the hands of readers. On shelves of bookstores. In the homes of others. Mark can now share his heart with everyone.
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.
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.
In third grade I liked a girl named Lori. It’s fair to say I thought she was cute, and made me long to fly through the air a la Rudolph if only she would tell me the same. She never did. It isn’t because I wasn’t cute, because, well, I just was. Deal with that.
Pimpin’ it Hef style. Don’t be hatin’.
The problem is, she never had the chance. In retrospect, all the “I like you this much” signs were there, but I trembled at the mere thought of talking to her. Eight years old and I was afraid to talk to a girl. Why? I don’t know. I really don’t. Would she have turned into a dragon and devoured me? Maybe. Possible even. Might she have spat acid in my face, turned me into a head-bandaged-wrapped elephant man? Or might she have even been so bold as to do the unthinkable, and talk back? Perhaps want to talk further? EGAD!
I was terrified. And so I never spoke to her. We crossed paths many times on the playground, during recess, in the lunch room, or in the aisle between our desks, but I went stone faced every time she came near, as if I’d tried to stare down Medusa to work up my nerve. On the last day of the year, she asked to sign my shirt (For those of you who have never experienced Sign Your Shirt Day, I’m sorry, but no amount of chocolate will EVER make up for your loss). I have very few clear memories of my childhood, but I remember that moment vividly. I mouthed nothing, blankly handed her my blue marker and turned around quickly, lest she dare sign the front and force me to possibly make eye contact. She signed along the neckline of my white t-shirt. She picked a spot nobody else had signed, wrote slowly and legibly. I like to think there was meaning in that. Perhaps the next year I might have braved a conversation to find out. However, I never would get the chance to embolden myself up to the point of speaking before running madly in the other direction. We moved from Scottsdale back across the country to Florida that summer, and I began fourth grade wondering, for the first time in my life, “What if?” This would not be the last schoolmate named Lori I wish I had spoken to. Nor would it be my last regret.
Before I go on, I should say that this isn’t a lament of one singular moment in my life that might have completely altered the scope of the years that followed. No, this is something much worse. This is the beginning of a pattern. One that makes no damn sense at all.
In High School, I joined the school paper and took my hand at journalistic prose. Enthralled by the idea of exercising my love for writing, I dove in the deep end, the rambunctious idiot I was. At the back side of the first year, something happened that boggles my mind to this day: I quit. I had written several articles, some which were fun little escapades through the fields of my insanity, and had even received some praise. I covered the football team, which meant I got to be on the sidelines, near the cheerleaders–GAK!–immersed in the atmosphere of hyper-exuberant jockiness. But I quit. Why? Beats the hell out of me. Something within just suggested all of this fun and love and certainty of purpose was just not for me.
Same year. I join the baseball team. (Author’s note((which is a really absurd aside, because isn’t this whole thing just one big author’s note? Idiot.)): There is no adequate reference to how I feel about baseball. Best I can say is this: If you believe in Evolution, and see humanity as this ever-changing creature, from atomic particles to the ultimate source of energy we will eventually disperse into … that.) I had gone through a ridiculously stupid growth spurt. From five foot five to six foot one in six months. I was all arms and legs and leaner than a pole, like some kind of anorexic marionette. I was really good at baseball, though. It consumed me. But that year, for all my talent, I floundered. The coaches saw something in me, despite it all, and begged me to spend more time in the weight room. Maybe they were just concerned a good breeze would lift me away. I don’t know. I smiled, nodded, and never bothered. I just stopped playing. Why? Beats the shit out of me.
I entered my twenties at a dead sprint, the only running I’ve ever done by the way. Afraid to talk to any of the female species, I missed out on countless friendships, dates, conversations, and lest I allow subtlety to ruin everything because my mom is probably reading this, sex. It wasn’t that I was incapable of wooing, I was simply terrified of what would happen if it was received well. WHAT IF SHE WANTS TO SAY MORE THAN JUST HELLO OH DEAR GOD WHAT WILL I DO? So, I avoided it. This led to an overdeveloped sense of marital need, and far too much loneliness to expect rational decisions related to females going forward. Perhaps I believed if I locked one down, I could stop fearing interaction. I don’t know. So I married the first girl who showed me any desire to be with me long-term. We dated three months before we were engaged. One year later, despite my worries I had stepped in a pile that wouldn’t wash off, we got married. It lasted a year and a half. In anything shy of grand style and theatrics, I retreated into myself, proceeded to once again shy away from female contact, and spent the next six years without any emotional connection. Then I met someone else who wanted to connect. Never one to learn from the past, I thought the best thing to do was to repeat the same action and expect an entirely different result. So, we essentially decided we were getting married that first weekend, and I though that was as cool as a frozen banana in ice cream. Less than four months later, we were. Not a frozen banana in ice cream. Married. Just to keep things clear. That one lasted an improbable four years, and ended with her insisting I was cheating on her (at one point with my gay friend) and trying to kill her. Of course, she did get engaged two months after our divorce, but that’s neither here nor there, or an apple worth eating.
I have no idea where that apple thing came from. Sometimes, I tell ya.
The one thing I’ve never given up on: my dream to be a successful author. But I don’t talk about it much. I don’t talk publicly about much of anything. I opened a bookstore did you know–not unless you were there, since I HAVEN’T MENTIONED IT AT ALL ANYWHERE TO ANYONE–which fell during the economic collapse of 2008. Not to say there weren’t other problems. There were plenty, but if not for that downturn, I still believe it would have survived, even if in some other form. Regardless, when it closed, I didn’t talk much about it. To family, to friends, to my then wife, to my cadre of associations on Facebook. I got quiet. Depressed. Withdrawn. I have two books published, and I tend to shy away from discussing them? Why? Because I don’t like them? Certainly not. If you haven’t read Anointed, well, first of all shame on you. It’s fabulous fun, even if it isn’t the best thing I’ll ever write. It was nominated for the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate Fiction, so it isn’t bad. Publishers Weekly liked it, so hey, right? Flutter, my second book was a nice step up in ability and storytelling, but I don’t talk about it. I whine about the silence it received, with that being the only sound I ever make regarding it. Genius. I’ve been working on the Storyteller, an ever-evolving piece of children’s fantasy that–toot toot–is freaking awesome. I’ve had a few near misses (and there it is, I hate that term and yet I wrote it. As punishment to myself, I’m not editing it out. Idiot. Near miss. It makes no sense in any context shy of “Did you see those trains collide? What a near miss that was!”) on publication, got myself worked up in promoting it, then stopped when all momentum on finding it a home dried up. It’s been one year plus and I’ve not made a single public statement about it. I have a Facebook page, so yay me. And though it needed some more work, a slight tweak in direction, there’s been no reason for it.
I had a list of things I was going to troll through in order to demonstrate what I now have come to accept. Despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise, I’ve been afraid for the better part of my life. Afraid to choose, afraid to act, afraid to live, afraid to succeed. I don’t know why, I only know that I can’t do it any more. That ends now. I’m tired of being afraid.
No more fear. From now forward, I am me. Idiot, yes. Afraid to talk to this girl we call Life, no.
But I am still afraid of 500 lb. roaches. You should be too.
I don’t remember when it was, but whenever it was, I watched the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The Moss was there. Must have been last year. Anyway, the movie begins with the lowdown on the crisis: A meteor is on a collision course with Earth, and this time Bruce Willis couldn’t save us. Or at least I like to imagine it was Bruce Willis. The film didn’t specify. So, the meteor is coming, and we’re doomed. Nothing can be done. There are no superheroes coming to the rescue, no amount of scientific trickery to call upon, or no word from God to pacify the internal need to know that humanity must live on. Just The End.
To my great surprise, I found myself overwhelmed by a feeling of peace. Of happiness. Of relief that, just like that, life could end. No more struggle, no more anxiety, no more stress, no more self-doubt. I could take hold of the trusty eraser and wipe the Board of Life clean.
I think, somewhere in there, the shock overtook me. I mean, obviously, this wasn’t really happening. I knew that. But I had never before had such an overwhelming joy at the thought of it all being over. To know that I could finally put down my weapons, my gear, dust myself off and breathe a hearty sigh of relief. It stunned me. I’m not sure I can recall the first thirty minutes of the movie. Then again, I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch it once more to find out. I don’t want to feel what I felt again because I liked it so much.
Allow an injection here, if you will. I’m not suicidal. Though I’ve contemplated the end many times in my life–several since that moment watching the movie in fact–I have no desire to end my life. It’s not a choice I could make, or one I am willing to make. Much like murder, I suppose. I trap insects and set them free for a reason. I say this only because I don’t want the thought or fear for my well-being to intervene in what may or may not be a casual read. I’ll die when I die. Not a day earlier. I’m fine with this. I do actually enjoy living, after all.
I spent a great deal of time internalizing that moment, trying to determine what it meant. All I can deduce is it meant I’m not at all happy with my life, or my place in it. Maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe it’s dead-on. I don’t know. However, it led me to a simple question I can’t shake. Where did it all go wrong?
I can remember a great deal from my childhood. More vividly than is ultimately helpful, it would seem. I remember this kid:
The Sonny’s BBQ Padres, age 12.
I remember walking to my games. I remember playing them. I remember moments in the field, pitches I saw, the final scores. The first season I played, I fouled off exactly one pitch. One. I swung and missed at everything else. By age 12, I was clinking balls all over the field, one of the best bats on the team. Something happened between age 10 and 12 that changed everything I was as a baseball player. I think it was me. I happened. I practiced, I played all year with my cousin, I watched the Braves on TBS every day. And it clicked. I made a conscious decision to be better, and I became so. And as the years passed, I got even better. I probably could have kept going, made something of it, but in tenth grade I grew eight inches, turning me into a gangly all arms-and-legs buffoon with the coordination of butter. My skill set suffered and I quit. I could have taken the coach’s advice, worked out to get my body back in line with my growth, and likely found myself right back where I was. But I didn’t. And I’ll be damned if I can remember why. Or how I did it without feeling loss, or pain, or regret. I could have simply walked into another room for all the difference I felt.
It could very well be that writing finally found a grip where it couldn’t before, my focus on becoming a writer of substance narrowing my vision enough to allow the loss of a true passion. Yet, instead of seeing the more traditional path of the writer–in the modern sense that is–and furthering my education, building credentials through said schooling or articles or what have you’s, I chose to bypass college and travel. To see more of America than I had seen. To pour my soul into writing without the interference of an instructor’s voice. And, honestly, because I hated school. I didn’t want to endure any more years of study. Not institutional study any way. I wanted to learn. I just wanted to do it on my own terms. I made this choice without any hesitation or doubt. Into another room I went.
I met a girl when I was twenty-four. Exactly twenty-four, as it happened. At the time I was steeped in church, looking for answers to life’s myriad questions. She had just moved into town. We sat next to each other. We laughed. Emboldened by my favorite celebratory day of the year, I was exceptionally charming. So much so that, though she was away the remainder of the summer, I left a favorable impression she couldn’t shake. Several months later she surprised me at work with an invitation to her birthday party. Well, not a party so much as a dinner celebrating such in which her mother played a prominent eye-cutting presence. A few months passed and a romance blossomed. A proposal happened. A year and half later, I had a house, a wife, two dogs, a cat, and the distinct feeling that everything in my life was coming into focus. Then something happened. I think, looking back, it was me that happened. She had health concerns, sure, and they taxed me physically and emotionally (not to diminish her own suffering), and brought stress into our marriage, but it wasn’t really the cause. Religion became an issue, as I had begun to question my devotion to the church life, and to Christianity. This was a problem, but as the judge in divorce court would later say, plenty of couples of diverse faith co-exist. It could have been surmountable, I suppose. There were arguments about where things were going. Attempts to rectify what had been lost. But I admit to being horrible at articulating what bothers me at any given moment and loathe to cite minor problems when they happen in exchange for accumulating them and dropping them all at once in a twisted jumble of “what?” Which never goes over well. Then one day I just decided I was done. Just like that, it was over. I gathered what belongings I could carry and left the state. My home, my marriage, my life in that backwards, sleepy, little town, gone. Poof. And when the divorce was done, my move final, and my hands washed clean? Yeah, I just let it go. Moved on. Didn’t give one thought as to whether or not I made the right choice. Yet another room.
You know what? This happened AGAIN.
The factors were different, and the pressures of life much greater, but almost ten years from the time I met wife #1, I met wife #2. As before, there was a very brief courtship. Three months to be exact. And we were married. I can’t front the blame alone, ultimately, for the failure of this one, but end it did, and when it was over I was glad for it. I moved on. This happened near the time I lost my business. I’ve detailed it before, and there’s really no point in doing so again; but there’s definitely a parallel. I never considered the full spectrum of owning a business and what it took to run one. I just did it. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t take people down with me. Which is, perhaps, one room I didn’t blithely pass into. I don’t like bringing people pain or suffering. I don’t even like upsetting them. I just seem to somehow. By way of decision or circumstance, I have left a nice little row of destruction along the way. People I still love and care for, and I can do nothing to correct this wrong. I can do nothing to alter the choices I made.
These are mere examples, mind you. I have many more. Places in my life where I made decisions that now confound me, and leave me wondering what would have happened if I chose otherwise. I’m sure I’m not alone in this phenomena, but I only have my eyes to weigh them against. Only have my expectations. My dreams.
From that fateful day I left baseball forever, I’ve wanted to be a writer. No, a published author. No, a successfully published author. I do have two books published, which is nice. Good books. Not great, but good. Entertaining and fun. They were received well, which is something. I have a great children’s story I haven’t found a home for, and a few other stories I’m working on I believe could also be great. I’ve worked hard to become what I am as a writer. Same as I did as that kid who couldn’t hit. But there have been no breakthroughs. No a-ha moments of career-altering discovery. Instead, I place myself in the company, by work or network, with writers who have achieved my dream on their behalf. It’s infuriating. And depressing.
It may occur to you that there is no exact cohesion here. You would be correct. I’m just taking out garbage I’ve had a touch too long and hoping not to hit you over the head with the bag.
I used to be more active on Facebook and Twitter, but I’ve backed off because I don’t want to let everyone know how terribly unhappy I am with my life. I have the Moss, and she’s well worth bragging about (and an incredibly talented photographer at that), but what do I have otherwise? Just struggle and frustration, disappointment and despair. One bad decision after another, with a few good ones sprinkles in for taste. I’m not where I want to be in life, so I don’t talk about it because I don’t want everyone else to know I’m not where I want to be. I want to see the light, to feel the hope, to know that everything I’ve been through–whether by my own hand or not–will be worth it. My break is just ahead. My time.
But it hasn’t happened. Maybe that’s why I felt the way I did watching that movie. I’m tired. Losing hope. Losing faith that all the decisions I have made were made with a singular purpose in fate. And so I spend far too much time analyzing a life’s worth of decisions, wondering which of them would unravel the tapestry too much, which would incite the butterfly to flap a typhoon into my future. Then again, I can’t evade the sensation there’s a typhoon here already. What that I have would I be willing to lose in order to gain what I want but can’t seem to receive?
It’s a fruitless quest, searching for an answer like that. Regret is a pain in the ass. It will always be a pain in the ass. I remain steadfast that life has a purpose. Nothing is random. I lost a bookstore but gained a publisher and the Moss because of it. I haven’t rejoined the published world, but I’ve written in that time and improved dramatically. I don’t have what I want now, but maybe I need to have nothing in order to fully appreciate what I will have later.
I’ve never been one to prattle about me. I don’t spell out my woes to anyone other than family, or the Moss. I don’t pretend my life is great, but I don’t allow for sharing that it is not. I like to laugh. I just find it hard to do that these days.
I can’t deny that news reports of a meteor bringing about an Extinction Level Event would pacify me greatly. Not because I want all of you to die, but because knowing the end is at hand would allow me to once and for all let go of every disappointing decision I’ve ever made. Then again, maybe I can just whip out the scissors and cut loose all the rattling cans I drag behind me. More decisions.
Of course I’ll accept good news, in any form instead.
This whole Talking About Wordsmiths thing is at a merciful end. Its intended purpose–to purge the final glistening dew drop from the leaf of my life (whatever that means)–has been fulfilled, as I find myself lacking the desire to post anything further. I’ll drop some pictures with brief captions tomorrow, in an effort to blast the final tidbits of favorable memory into the ether, and to honor those who meant more to my efforts than they might realize, but I think this will be it.
I can think of no better way to finish it.
I previously detailed the launch night of Anointed as one of my favorite nights. Though I must admit to the self-centered affixation to that’s night’s purpose, I can’t deny the book launch portion was but a reason why it was my favorite night. You see, Wordsmiths Books became the ring for a rather entertaining (and, admittedly, one-sided) tug of war. One that carried on like a fifty round bout, no ref in sight to stop the continual beatdown suffered by one of the contestants. Or better, it was like watching a train wreck, plane crash, and hundred-car pile-up, all rolled into one, unable to turn away, unwilling to ask why it must go on in perpetuity. It was mesmerizing.
Enter the ring, one Joe Davich. Undefeated. Unbeaten. Indestructable.
The Undisputed Featherweight Champion of the Verbal Smackdown.
His opponent, his defensive retorts weighing in at an unprecedented, and immeasurable, Zero G, Russ Marshalek.
Every war has an end. Every skirmish a victor. Every moment, a future defined. On February 22nd, 2009, the verbal spat that was Davich v. Marshalek came to a climactic conclusion, on the stage of Wordsmiths Books, before a captivated audience of 150. It will forever be known (by at least one local, who flings it with regularity every time he sees me) as the day the world paused in reflection, uttering the words “Russ Eat Meat” with nary a clue as to what they meant.
Setting the ground rules only encouraged the wine, and the whine.
Content is unecessary. In fact, ask me to recount the round by round commentary, and I’ll stare at you blankly for a time, finally bringing myself to say only, “Joe won,” with a notable shiver. I don’t remember the punches. I only remember the result.
I can offer for certainty that Russ fought with great resolve, challenging his opponent with cited passages in defense of … well, no idea really. In defense of something.
Joe responded, as only Joe can.
“Dear God, Mother Mary and Madonna” was uttered a few dozen times.
His counter left Russ reeling, coiling into a bottle like an infant to the teet.
At some point, you just have to forgo the glass.
Posters were brandished, slogans were uttered, Marisha Pessl was slandered, people laughed, people cried (out loud as part of laughter perhaps, but still), I was amused, the wine vanished. In the end, the champion stood, proud and victorious, stepping from the stage with a haughty grin, parting the crowd like Queen Elizabeth (for a more detailed description of anything Queen Elizabeth ever did, please see Sir Davich), off to celebrate his long-sought dominion over the defeated Wonderboy.
It’s not smug if you’re Joe. Neither is it ever misspelled.
It was a great night. A fitting end to a store that was about more than just selling books. It was a sitcom without cameras, a novel without a writer, an entertaining home without a pug. It took a great deal to organize (actually it just took a customer telling the two of them to put up their Hello Kitty purses and hash it out on stage, which was a glorious moment for all), a tremendous amount of wine, and a propoganda war unlike any ever seen, but it happened nonetheless.
Wordsmiths Books: Wage your verbal war on our stage. Please. We’re bored.
A couple of things up front. First, my “every day with a blog about Wordsmiths” thing didn’t work. I blame the snow. And the logjam of work it piled up in the process. And my need to do actual writing that benefits my future. And side projects I don’t talk about that take up more of my personal time. And Bush. Secondly, I find my titles in the bottom of coffee cups, so don’t blame me if they fail to convert into meaning of any sort, or link to the post I ultimately write.
Nothing is my fault. I am the fault of nothing. The Nothing. Oh, that was a good movie. Like.
There aren’t many days left to February, which means I have only a few more opportunities to write about my wayward bookstore before it’s five-year-closing anniversary sweeps on by. So, some of what I might have written about (which perhaps might not have been that interesting anyway) gets canned like Armageddon Tuna. I don’t know what Armageddon Tuna is, so don’t ask, but I’m sure it makes sense somewhere to someone. Hopefully, they have a can opener. The rest of the process of opening and closing a bookstore is really just a matter of money anyway. Or, lack thereof. Having cited how the store got behind at the outset, I don’t think there’s much mystery left. Quite a lot less than, say, how I can write a heartfelt post about Wonderboy, and not hear a peep from him about it. That’s quite mysterious to me.
Take away the stress-laden nausea-inducing daily grind of owning Wordsmiths Books, and what I’m left to talk about are a few standout moments, and a few exceptional people. Maybe I’ll find the time to go one more post deep about the inner mechanics. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll drink more coffee and see if my dog’s empathetic beacon fries. Beacon fries? Bacon fries. Whoa. Want.
Bacon. The momentum killer.
Where was I?
Dunno. My brain just completely stopped.
Well, regardless, I know what I had planned on writing about, so let’s a get a move on.
In addition to the forthcoming Closing-Date anniversary, there’s a far more pleasant anniversary to celebrate. Five years ago tonight, Wordsmiths Books held its final event. There are a great many things about that night I will always remember, but saying farewell to my employees as they passed through the door a final time (I was to work the last week alone…it just seemed appropriate, and a bit necessary to be honest) was heart wrenching. I knew I’d see most of them again, true, but it didn’t lessen the blow. They were my family. Another memory involves a debate on the stage, which is easily my favorite moment ever in the entire run of Wordsmiths, and the next post in line. So, stick that in your pocket for now. The event that night, however, marked something special for me. It marked the launch of Anointed.
Best pile of books ever.
For the first time, with more than 100 people in attendance–friends, family, and some devoted customers as well–I read published work of mine in public. It served as a nice transition into my post-bookstore life. Closing the doors while opening a new set. Despite what I knew was to come less than a week later, the building was filled with laughter, smiles, cheerful conversation, hope. I couldn’t have scripted a better end. I closed out the brief but notable tenure of the Wordsmiths stage, overextending my reading like an uncomfortable goodbye, signing books, offering the store banner for everyone to sign, and somehow being far too busy to eat some of the best cookies ever made (which were made by The Moss, who found herself in my life almost two years later, cookie recipe along with, so I win). If the best thing to come of opening Wordsmiths was that night, then all the stress was worth it. Granted, it wasn’t the best thing, but it surely hit the top (insert arbitrary number not to exceed five here).
Anointed isn’t the best thing I’ll ever write, but it’s entertaining, was well reviewed, and had strangers tweeting and writing about their enjoyment in it. Likewise, Wordsmiths Books isn’t the best thing I’ll ever do in my life, but it had an impact, was well received, and created a family full of generous memories I’ll treasure forever. Though I’m ready to let go of the pain, I’ll never let go of those memories, of my people, or of the smile I get every time I see the logo.
There is told the tale of a young man who would one day be the hero of an entire bookstore. Head strong and full of hope, he toiled in the bowels of retail, suffering at the behest of a mighty overlord, packed with his clansmen on a yellow bus heading at breakneck speed toward finality. This young man fought for his survival, tying his fate to that of another, whose entrepreneurial plan for escape whet the young man’s burgeoning need to be free, to bring order to the chaotic world of books. Finding peace within his newly unshackled chains, this young man set forth on a path few would ever walk, eyes set upon the blazing trail of wonder before him. He came to know that path as a facet of self, an enigma of soul, and from the fire within was born a new identity. A masked avenger. A vigilante of Event Coordination. Those who knew him called him Wonderboy, and a legend was born.
Immediately his impact was felt. An empty stage hosted a cadre of poets, local authors and musicians. The People were pleased. Publicists took note. Wine was had. People got tipsy. A List was built. Mere months after donning the Mask of Almost-Justice-Like-Kind-of-Action, simple names evolved into Notable Artists. St. Vincent, Amy Sedaris, Ani DiFranco, Rob Sheffield, Dan Kennedy, Tracy Chevalier, James Rollins, R.A. Salvatore, Fonzworth Bentley, Katie Crouch, Frank Delaney, Stuart Woods, Final Fantasy, Christopher Moore, Virginia Willis, and Richard Blais, just to name a few. He gave birth to slam-dunk fan favorites, giving the eager public Open Mic Nights, Wizard Rock, the Black and Red Prom, Storytime for Grown-ups, and so much more.
What once was but a bookstore had become a haven of entertainment. Wonderboy done did good.
Pretty fancy stuff, huh?
I always thought so. I suppose, at this point, it’s all right to reveal the identity of the masked wunderkind known as Wonderboy. After all, he has some new Hipster Musician in Brooklyn identity thing going. Silent Rape Drummers, or something, for a while, getting tons of attention for his bizarre but entertaining re-soundtracking of Twin Peaks. Now he’s in a Place Both Wonderful and Strange, which perhaps brings him full circle, since Wordsmiths was always wonderful and strange. It was also a place. Kudos, fate. Well played.
Russ Marshalek was Wordsmiths Books number one hire, a vital cog to everything Wordsmiths would become. I would have been nothing without his help, and Decatur would have suffered a loss it never knew it needed to recover from had he not taken the job as my Events Coordinator. He took a hell of a lot of grief from me (and a certain other individual with a flair for the dramatic whose one-on-one debate on the Wordsmiths stage was perhaps the defining moment of the store and a blog topic to come), but he trudged on, doing what he did, making the store more than I could have dreamed. I owe him a lifetime of thanks. He owes me a burrito. Or something. There has to be some balance here. After all, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be so important to me had I not hired him in the first place.
Sure, Wordsmiths didn’t make it. But it wasn’t the fault of Wonderboy. What he did few could have. It’s vital people remember that. I know I will. Danke, mein Freund.
Wonderboy can rest easy knowing, once more, he has saved the day.
Wordsmiths Books opened on June 15th, 2007 in the old Post Office, an absolutely beautiful historic building in the heart of downtown Decatur. There’s a candy shop there now. It are yummy. You must go and support these people, because chocolate. Between the white marble exterior, the wooden floors and exposed brick, I was in love. Yes, I know, I’ve said I will always view the store’s second location as the true home of Wordsmiths, but from a sheer pretty vs. practical standpoint, the old Post Office had the Sun Trust building up against the ropes in the first ten seconds of the first round.
Sorry, that was a boxing reference. Book people aren’t sports-minded. I should know better by now.
I’ve heard from a number of people already regarding the this location vs. that location debate, and it seems the vast majority preferred the Post Office. I did too, but I also didn’t, in a my vision vs. the execution/reality way. Got it? No? Lemme ‘splain. The Post Office truly did offer all I wanted out my vision of what Wordsmiths was to be. Though I wanted to be directly on the square, and though I had grand plans for the Sun Trust building we ultimately found ourselves within, the space of the old Post Office cried out for a landmark. It needed charm and presentation, an audience to marvel over its architectural grace. It also was spacious–far more than was needed–offering the opportunity to grow and expand within a space that didn’t require a massive renovation. Everything about the layout of the store, the event space, the spot where a cafe should have been, the loft office space, front room meeting space…perfect. However, a problem presented itself right out of the gate.
It was mid-April and I was in a time crunch. Wordsmiths had begun as a two-man operation out of an office space not far away. The lease was set to expire. I needed a new home and only had a week plus (at best) to find it. It made no sense to suspend the opening of the store, as the loan for its operation had just been approved. On the original schedule, I would have closed on a lease for the Sun Trust building the third week of April, taking over first week of May, but as detailed, the negotiations stalled and broke down over the length of that lease. I scrambled to the back up, having little to no levarage in my negotiations on the Post Office. The owner was, shall we say, terse and inflexible regarding the terms. I found myself in a dilemma. Take the terms, which required two months up front (plus security, plus first month…you get the drift, a hell of a lot of money requiring the sacrifice of the planned for cafe), or suspend the opening and seek a new location while trying to find a way to make the money needed to keep up with the bank note. Originally, I envisioned a two-to-three-month prep for opening, targeting mid-to-late-July to introduce the store to the public. That left a gap in which I still had the bank note, but without the pressing fear of having no location. I chose the terms.
Despite the glorious run of Wordsmiths in the Post Office, it turned out to be the worst decision I could have made. Hampered by the unplanned for departure of a good deal of cash, the redesign of Wordsmiths left the revenue stream suffering. No cafe meant relying on books, which is never the best idea for a bookstore’s survival. I bumped the initial inventory of titles, expecting to drop back after the initial selldown, hoping to generate the cash needed to, at least, offer some semblance of a cafe. However, issues arose shotrly after the store opened as the owner began making a buzz to sell the building. She made it clear she would not limit herself to selling to investors only. If someone wanted to buy and occupy, she’d take the deal. Which, as time would tell, is precisely what happened. I have no qualms with the family that bought it, they did quite a lot more than they needed to ease the transition. I don’t blame them at all for wanting their business there. However, it became clear investing in a cafe of any size would merely be a waste of resources, so my revenue stream would be what it was; I’d have to make it up elsewhere. Unfortunately, that elsewhere didn’t materialize. Right out of the gate, Wordsmiths fell behind. Having to move 10 months later only worsened the stabbing pain of increasing debt.
So, you see, when I say I view the Sun Trust building as the true home of Wordsmiths, it’s because I know what it had been planned to be–the Vision, if you will–and realize that failing to secure the lease on that space placed the store into immediate, and unecessary, jeopardy. A one-year lease would have been preferable. All hindsight, of course, but enough so to leave a jaded sting when I ponder the value of that opening location.
If I had the money, and that building was again for sale, I would snatch it up in a flash. I love it. It’s grand. It’s historic. It is the true Ghost of Wordsmiths Books.
Wordmiths Books in the historic Post Office. We told everyone how cool it was to be a part of this Decatur historical landmark, but really we just thought we’d be able to read your mail. Nobody said we were smart.
There’s a line in Edward Scissorhands that a friend of mine and I recycle ad naseum. I tried to find a clip, to offer some sense of context, but, alas, ear wax.
It appears this is movie/book line today. I believe there is a limit of two. Moving on.
If you’ve seen the movie, maybe you remember it. If you haven’t, make a date of it. One of the best movies ever. EVER. Pompous Ass Boyfriend Anthony Michael Hall is sitting with Demure Confused Girlfriend Winona Ryder at her family’s dinner table, as her Beligerent Opinionated Father rants about responsibility. He says something, Winona groans or whines. He rants some more, points a finger at AMH, and this happens:
“You can’t buy a car with cookies, can you, Jim?”
“No, sir. You sure can’t.”
So maybe it doesn’t work as well here. That’s why I wanted the clip. I also want financial freedom. And some cookies.
Anyway, the point here is that you need certain things in order to accomodate certain other things, and cookies are not always the answer, no matter how many yummy extras you jam inside them.
Likewise, if you wish to open a bookstore, you need employees who will make it soar. I’ve worked for people who felt any body tossed into the fray will do the trick, but the book game is slightly more targeted than, say, a grocery store or fancy sign twirler dude on a street corner. Bookstores need a knowledgeable staff. Friendly would be nice, approachable even, but neither is necessary. I think most people would agree to being less than shocked if they approached a bookseller, asked for help, with said bookseller then hustling off, face red, to disappear behind a curtain. Book people are generally introverted. It’s why they don’t sell cars. Or go to That Kind of Party.
When I opened Wordsmiths, I didn’t want bodies to fill time slots. I wanted a family. I wanted people I could count on. I wanted to know my customers would always find a voice to guide them through the overwheming cacophany of screaming titles (That’s right. I said titles scream. What are you going to do about it, huh?). It’s one thing to recommend a title that’s been selling. It’s another to passionately sell an author to a new reader. Sure. it’s important to say hello, and have a nice day, and how are you, and why is this phone still ringing; but what truly matters is everything that comes between. It’s the conversation about books that create loyal customers, that make your store worth remembering. I wanted people with great humor, snark, insight and depth to their personality.
I wound up with this:
I did not hire the woman in the black dress, but that would have been kinda awesome, right?
There were a few faces that didn’t make this shot, either by virtue of working a day a week, or by not yet arriving, or having not voluteered to work on a night that AMY FREAKIN’ SEDARIS WAS IN THE STORE, but I will always see this as the core of the Wordsmiths clan. Each one brought something valuable to the store. Each one had their place. And I remain in contact with every single one (except for a notable exception that will forever just be referred to as The Woman) to one degree or another.
If you ever have a chance to move a bookstore by yourself, don’t.
I made a number of mistakes during the run of Wordsmiths. A lot of them were up front. One of them was not hiring at least one guy who could lift a box of books without tumbling down a flight of stairs. I don’t know, maybe I’m asking too much at this point. There aren’t a lot of physically gifted book nerds in the world, after all, are there? Regardless, the only reason this point has relevance is because one of my other mistakes was not working harder to get the bookstore in the location I wanted to begin with.
The square in downtown Decatur is a charming place. Home to a number of Atlanta’s finest eateries with an endless supply of drink options, unique shops, coffee shops, a MARTA station, beautiful architecture, and as many events as they can cram into that space over the course of a year. It’s hoppin’ is what I’m saying, in case you drifted a bit and began thinking about your next meal. The Arts Festival, Beer Festival, Wine Festival, Beach Party, July 4th Fireworks, and much more, bring thousands of people right there, on the Square, businesses reaping the benefit. And for a bookstore, there is no greater gold than Labor Day weekend, when the Decatur Book Festival arrives. 75,000 (or more) people fill the Square, with books on the mind, and money in their wallet. It is the weekend we long for, our Christmas crammed into three days. If you, as business, aren’t on the Square, then to those who visit, you just aren’t there. Plain and simple. Not when that many people are vying for space, unwilling to wander too far away.
So…my mistake. We’ll call it Mistake #1 on a list that, at last count, has no end.
In my talks with the city, two main buildings were targeted. The first, the old Sun Trust building on the Square, basically ended the conversation for me. That was it. The place. The main floor still housed the ghost of the old bank, longing for something sight-worthy, memorable, befitting of such an historic place. It had a vault, right there in the open, a haven for the creative mind. There were offices, primed to be culled out as book nooks. There were chandeliers, pillars, and so much character. It needed Wordsmiths. I had grand plans at first, far too grand actually. I scaled them back (which if you visited the store might make you wonder how, or what in the world I might have thought was bigger than what I wound up with), focused on the space, and entered negotiations with the building’s owner.
Now, I’m not here to disparage the man. Allow me to make that clear. But–and this is no secret to those who knew him–he was no genius. In fact, to my misfortune, I was the first individual he managed a continued conversation with about leasing the space. Ever. Most people wandered off after “Hello” and “It will cost you THIS MUCH I WILL NEVER BUDGE.” Then again, this was my first leap into a lease negotiation as well. So, there we were, two people with no experience talking about an offer on a lease with no basis of negotiating comparison. In hindsight (a common refrain you may see here), I should have sought advice. I should have asked for help settling on a deal. But as we hammered away, I let my pride, my vision of the long-term dream of Wordsmiths, get in the way. I allowed us to get hung up on the length of the lease. He wouldn’t budge beyond a one-year lease, I wanted at least two (preferring three). Such a short term left me with an unfavorable possibility: Having to move the store after one year, which I wanted nothing to do with. Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I said. Oy vey.
It was full of opportunity, exactly I was looking for.
Negotiations broke down. He told me he had a number of people lined up, waiting for the space. Not wanting to cave, unwilling to deal with him further, I dropped out, wished him luck finding anyone with a business willing to sign a one-year lease, and moved on. Oh, how I wish I had just taken the lease, proven my worth, and built my store there. I would have saved thousands of dollars. Wordsmiths might still be around. Then again, the economic crush of 2008 might have still done it in. I’ll never know.
The story of our second location is another tale altogether. Though the space was beautiful, and historic, it wasn’t Wordsmiths. It wasn’t what I meant for it to be. And it wasn’t on the Square. Granted, it was only a block plus away, but you’d be amazed how far that is. You’d be amazed how much business you gain being in an impossible-to-miss location. Additionally, it left me with the ultimate choice, as mentioned already, I wanted nothing to do with: I had to move the store a year and half after opening it. And guess what? My Country Bumpkin Owner still hadn’t secured a tenant. So we had a chat. Not the first time we would have a conversation about hindsight. And I signed a one-year lease. Just like I should have done to begin with. I’m not a dumb guy, but I sure seem to do a lot of dumb things.
I didn’t have the resources I needed to convert the space to its original design (one that would have included a small cafe), but it came together nicely. I believe, and tell me I’m wrong if you visited and think otherwise, this is the memory of Wordsmiths Books. This is the image that comes to mind when people tell me they loved the store, when they mention the name to anyone, anywhere. When I think of it, I’m sitting in one of the chairs before the store opens, coffee in hand, taking a long look, staring through the front door, clock ticking steadily above the vault to my rear, smiling at the realization of a dream. I could have lived there forever.
It was everything it should have been in the first place. Um. Yeah. Something like that.