Alex woke to the wailing of his alarm clock at 10:00 a.m. “Ughhh,” he groaned as he fumbled for the Off button. A more guttural “Ughhh” and he finally found it. Wincing in pain, he pressed his palms against his eyes. His head throbbed and the room was spinning. After about thirty seconds, he began to remember why.
Ken was right. Monkey Nugget was indeed a “chick magnet.” Alex arrived just about ten minutes before Ken, and the two of them wasted no time putting a buzz on. As the pretty girls started rolling in, the festive mood, high fives, and calls for another round accelerated. Ken drank his usual, Budweiser, while Alex, conscious of his ever-expanding waistline, drank rum and Diet Coke. After about the ninth round, it was all a blur. Six and a half hours went by in what seemed like two.
Before Alex knew it, that final, horrible moment was upon him: when the bartender cranks up the lights and takes away everyone’s drinks. “Buh yu dint give uz lass call,” Alex slurred in vain. He looked to Ken for backup: “He dint givus lass call…”
Fortunately, Ken was in much better shape. He assured Alex that the bartender did give last call. More importantly, Ken managed to get them both home without incident.
Alex used to get stinking drunk only once every three to four weeks. He’d wake up in sorry shape and, feeling terribly stupid and often embarrassed, that would keep him sober for about a month. Lately, he woke up trashed once or even twice per week. Worse, only a handful of his recent binges occurred while he was out and about with his buddy Ken. He’d discovered a new way to party. It consisted of Alex, alone in the basement, a bottle of Bacardi rum, a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke and a blank computer screen –– a screen that began blank and remained blank long after Alex had passed out.
With the room spinning, Alex looked up and saw the note hanging from his computer. The words stabbed him in the heart: “Write the book.”
At that moment he realized the note no longer served as an inspiration. It no longer represented the optimism he’d felt as he hung it six months earlier. It was now his tormentor –– a hammer to his face and his psyche to be suffered every day until he found the story that lay buried somewhere in his mind; a story he couldn’t seem to find yet couldn’t seem to ignore either; a story he couldn’t write but couldn’t not write. His aching brain throbbed at the thought of spending another day sitting in front of a merciless blank screen.
“Al-EX? Hon-EY…Are you up?” his mother’s voice called down from the top of the stairs.
“Yeah Ma, I’m up.” Alex replied, trying to sound normal instead of sick and hung over.
“Oh, good. Honey, can you cut the grass for me today? It’s getting a little long out back.”
Alex again pressed both palms over his eyes and winced in pain.
“Yeah Ma, I’ll cut the grass.”
The thought of pushing the mower in the hot sun, the mosquitoes, the humidity; the idea alone nearly made him puke.
“Oh, great. Thanks, honey. I love you.”
“Luv ya too.”
“OK, I’m going now. See you later.”
Alex closed his eyes and shook his head in disgust. He could have hardly done a better job of stacking the deck against himself today. This was, after all, the day he swore that he wouldn’t leave his desk until after he’d written a full page. Not just a full page, but a full page of something he could be proud of and build on. He was in no shape to meet that goal, let alone cut the grass.
“Now or never,” he muttered as he swung his feet off the bed and stood to start the day. The sensation of vertigo that followed nearly put him flat on his face. He fell sideways back onto the bed. Feeling sick, he briefly considered going upstairs to stick his finger down his throat to just get it over with. After a minute, the nausea subsided and he decided against it. He hated throwing up.
Hangovers never used to be this way. Sure, he’d get a headache every now and then, but they were never anything like this. Besides, this was way more than a headache; his balance, his ability to think clearly…these days, everything seemed messed up after a night of drinking. It was so much worse than it used to be that he’d even considered checking with a doctor, but in the end he just dismissed it as “getting old.”
Alex again swung his feet off the bed, and this time he took standing up a little more seriously. “Much better, thank you,” he said as he walked over to his computer. Still sick but more angry with himself, he opened his journal file and typed:
Well, I got hammered again. Don’t know what the hell is wrong with me. I feel like I’m sabotaging myself. I feel like I’m losing my mind.
He sat for a moment then continued:
How exactly can I expect to get anything done acting like this? What excuse could I POSSIBLY have for being such an idiot? What more do I want? I have no ‘job’ to report to, no family obligations…if I don’t pay what’s left of my bills, there isn’t really anything they can take from me. WHAT IS THE PROBLEM ALEX????
He waited impatiently for his brain to spit out the answer. He’d had these semi-schizophrenic discussions with himself for as long as he could remember. It wasn’t long before his fingers typed the harsh response:
“The truth? You want the truth? I’ll tell you the truth, Alex; you’re a loser.”
“Oh, great…I’m a loser,” Alex typed. “Big help. Gee, thanks for the wonderful insight. Like I couldn’t have just come up with that myself. Better yet, I could call my ex-girlfriend and she’d be happy to tell me all about it. What the hell am I supposed to do with that feedback? I’m a loser: fine. Then what?”
“First of all, stop feeling sorry for yourself. You lost all your money. So what? You have a place to stay, don’t you? You have all the free time in the world to do what you’ve always wanted to do, don’t you? You’re not going to go hungry tonight, right? You have every opportunity to better yourself, right? Grow up for God’s sake. Acknowledge and take advantage of the opportunity that’s staring you in the face…an opportunity that most people don’t have!”
Alex took a deep breath and considered the gravity of what his “higher self” had to say. The therapy continued
“Alex, have you ever asked yourself why you’re so driven to write? Do you have any idea what the psychological motivation is? What does it mean to you to be a writer? Or, more importantly, what does the title ‘best-selling author’ represent in your mind?”
“I don’t know…” Alex typed. He chuckled to himself and wrote, “I guess it means that you’ll stop calling me a loser…”
“So, being a best-selling author means you’re not a loser?”
“No, I guess I don’t really believe that.”
“So, dig deeper. Why have you spent nearly your entire life dreaming of being a writer?”
Alex sat for more than ten minutes before typing:
“I honestly don’t know how to answer that. I just feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do...like it’s who I am. That’s why this writer’s block is killing me! I never had to deal with this before. Writing used to be effortless…All through school, even into my late twenties; effortless. Now it’s impossible! I hate every word I’ve written in the past six months. I write and erase. Write and erase. I don’t have a single paragraph to show for the hundreds of hours I’ve sat in front of this computer. Not a goddamn word.”
“Why did you write when you were younger?”
“When I was younger? It was fun.”
“So, no pressure to ‘get it right’? You’d just go where your mind led you?”
“And certainly no focus on coming up with an entire book’s worth of material, and no focus on feeling like what you wrote had to be a best seller, right?”
“Definitely not, there was no pressure at all. I wrote to share with friends, and that was it. I liked writing the stuff: they liked reading it. It was fun.”
“So, are you starting to see the answer? You used to write because it was fun. It was a way for you to express yourself as an individual. Now, everything that hits the page is being filtered. Your brain is asking, ‘Is this good enough?’ or, ‘Will this be something a publisher will pay for?’ or, ‘Is this best-seller material?’ You’re killing creativity before it can even begin. You’re asking yourself to write what you think others will want instead of simply writing…and that’s not the worst of it. Do you remember why you wanted to get rich in real estate?”
“So I could focus on writing without any financial distractions,” Alex wrote.
“Exactly: no financial distractions. You felt that you couldn’t write honestly and naturally if you were under pressure to only write what you knew could pay the bills. That was reasonable, but then what did you do? You spent more than a decade telling yourself that you needed a lot of money first so you could then become a writer! You were already a writer, but you threw that away. You said, ‘I can’t be a writer until I’m wealthy.’ Well, that’s one hell of a financial distraction, isn’t it?…And when all of the money you earned began to disappear, when it became clear that you were going to be broke instead of wealthy, how did that affect your dream of becoming a writer?”
“It destroyed it,” Alex wrote with a sense of epiphany. “I felt like I had to let it go…”
“So, you began your life as a writer; then, for some stupid reason, you decided to tell yourself that you weren’t a writer; that you would become one after you’d earned a lot of money. When the money evaporated, you never changed the story playing in your head. It isn’t simply that you’re not the writer you envisioned; it’s much worse than that. According to the story you’ve told yourself for the past decade, you’re not a writer at all.”
“Damn, that is seriously heavy,” Alex muttered to himself.
“When you were a kid, did you need to be rich to be a writer? Did you need a paid-off house, a big, fancy writing desk and a high-dollar agent? Or was it enough to have this exact same basement, a pencil, a pad of paper, and a couple hot meals per day? You might as well be rich, Alex because you have everything you need. Your mother isn’t going to throw you out, and in the worst-case scenario, you’re going to run out of money and have to file bankruptcy on what you owe. Is that really the end of the world? Did you grow up thinking, ‘Man, I hope I never have to file bankruptcy,’ or did you grow up thinking, ‘Someday, I want to write a book that I can be proud of’?”
Sometimes these self-help sessions really paid off and today was a perfect example. Alex figured out a long time ago that psychologists couldn’t compete with honest self-analysis, and he’d gotten pretty good at it over the years. Solving mental and emotional problems requires accurate information, and nobody had better access to Alex’s brain than Alex himself. If he was willing to be honest, he could usually find some good answers. He put forward a final, sincere objection.
“OK, Alex typed. “That is extremely helpful, but I do want to get out of my mother’s basement, for God’s sake. I’m a grown man.”
“Understandable, but that isn’t what you’re supposed to be focused on right now. If you sell your car and use your savings, you can easily pay your bills for eighteen months. That’s more than enough time to write something you can be proud of. Do what you know you’re supposed to do now, and then worry about the other stuff later. What would you prefer to have done eighteen months from now: You’ve moved out of the basement, or you’ve written your book?”
“Obviously I’d rather have my book written.”
“OK then; so write your book. Lose the best-seller crap. Forget about whether people will love or completely ignore it. If you’re hung up on that, you’ll get nowhere. Focus instead on simply writing what captures and holds your attention. If there is an opportunity to earn money and help get you out of the basement, great! That’s a bonus. But writing the book is the most important thing, and you have everything you need right here and now to get that done.”
Alex felt the tension, self-loathing, and insecurity — all of which began during the real estate collapse — leave his body in an instant. His mind was calm for the first time in years. He felt an amazing sense of clarity, gratitude, and peace.
He looked at the clock and saw that he’d been writing for nearly an hour. This knocked his enthusiasm up another notch. Whenever he was writing — really writing — time always flew by. Though he wouldn’t use what he’d written today in his book, he had no problem applying it toward his goal of one page he could be proud of and build on. What he’d written today certainly met that standard because it led to an extremely important insight: He was a writer. It didn’t matter whether he was wealthy or not. It didn’t matter whether he was a ‘best-selling author’ or not. It didn’t even matter whether a publisher paid him for his manuscript or not. All of these things would be a great bonus, but they would no longer define him.
Even through the heavy fog of his hangover, Alex saw some much-needed daylight peeking through. His mind began turning almost immediately, and a character popped into his head. He jotted down a rough sketch:
Joe Riggs, a down-and-out real estate agent, forced to live in his crazy mother’s basement, discovers that the financial crisis of 2008 was a manufactured event. A handful of powerful bankers not only orchestrated it all, but they became fabulously wealthy wiping out the economy and bringing the U.S. to the edge of insolvency. As powerful insiders, they used their wealth and influence to guarantee maximum profits and zero accountability. They had laughed all the way to the bank. Joe, an ex-Special Forces soldier, would laugh last.
Alex felt the old creative impulse breathing back to life, and it felt good. But just as he began visualizing some fairly violent action scenes that Joe Riggs would be a part of, he thought of his mother. She knew Alex planned on writing a book, and she looked forward to reading it. But she wouldn’t approve of what he currently had in mind.
“You’re doing it again, Alex!” he thought. “You’re killing creativity before it can even begin!”
But it was true…His mother wouldn’t approve.
Much to her dismay, Alex had always written very dark stories. Blood, guts, and vengeance…demons, vampires, and sociopaths rampaging through the streets; these story lines began pouring out of his head in buckets by the age of thirteen and they became progressively more graphic and violent as the years passed. Alex’s writing scared her, and she feared, predictably, that she’d somehow damaged her child emotionally. It wasn’t hard to make the case.
Worse than an accident, Alex was born of a one-night stand. He had never met his father or even seen a picture of the man. Mom’s multiple attempts at providing a viable substitute — three failed marriages — all ended in less than two years. The boyfriends in between marriages didn’t last long and weren’t any better. By the time Alex was fifteen they’d moved six times; new school, new friends, new disciplinary problems; rinse and repeat. Were the morbid characters just the product of a creative mind at work? She didn’t think so.
“They’re just stories, Mom. I don’t want to do what the characters do!” Alex would say with a smile, but his assurances fell on deaf ears. His writing, in her mind, proved that she’d failed as a parent, and that was too much for her to bear. It reached a point where she refused to read any of it. And she didn’t believe Alex when he said he didn’t want to do what the characters did. Whether it was her fault or not, Alex struggled to control his violent urges — and they both knew it.
For instance, Alex could slip into the role of Joe Riggs very easily. He’d spent some time over the past six months trying to figure out exactly what went wrong with the economy. He wanted to understand how everything could be excellent one minute and then, out of nowhere, spontaneously combust. He wanted to know why the people who warned about the coming collapse were laughed at and ridiculed while the “experts” who assured everyone that everything was fine were never challenged — even after the collapse. They still appeared on TV, running their mouths and being treated as though they’d never gotten any of it wrong!
The closer Alex looked, the more he felt like he wasn’t supposed to understand. The experts always explained the concepts poorly, using vague and unfamiliar language. After about a hundred hours of effort, and thanks mostly to a few online bloggers who broke the disaster down into simple terms, he finally pieced together a very disturbing picture.
The people who determine monetary policy — another vague term — were responsible for the problem. They control the machine that prints all of our nation’s money, and they printed way too much. As a result, the well-connected financial elite made a killing as the bubble formed, then they got bailed out when the bubble burst — screwing everyone else in the process.
Alex didn’t fully understand it all, but it was hard to believe that those pulling the strings didn’t know exactly what they were doing. The more he looked into the individual players, the angrier he became. When he caught himself compiling a list of names, he decided it was time to calm down a bit.
But now, with his new Joe Riggs character, he could safely resume his research. Alex could never kill of the guilty, not without consequences anyway, but Joe could. And it could make one hell of a story…maybe even a best seller.
“There you go again with the best-seller crap” he thought.
Alex closed his journal file. He was feeling pretty good, despite the hangover, and was ready to cut the grass. It was still early, so the temperature outside would be tolerable. Some extra clothes to keep the mosquitoes from eating him alive and a little bug spray for the head and neck; he’d be all set. Then, he’d get cleaned up and maybe meet Ken for a late lunch. Ken had only been half as crocked as Alex the night before; he could fill in all the blurry details.
Unfortunately, the heat and humidity were far worse than Alex had expected, and the bug spray amplified the pounding in his head. Any enthusiasm he’d had for a late lunch with Ken was long gone after an hour and a half in the yard.
Covered in grass, dust, sweat, and bug spray, Alex plopped down on the couch with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, some potato chips, and a Diet Coke. He seriously considered skipping the shower, but a quick sniff under the arm convinced him otherwise. A half an hour later, free of dirt and stench, he headed for the cool, dark basement for some clean clothes and, more than likely, a nice long nap.