So close I was to forgetting. So close I was to walking away.
Invictus Volume I was the first time I had ever worked in a writing group. In fact, it was one of the only times in college that I ever volunteered to participate in any group activity. Outside of my time in the military, I’ve never been much of a team player. Groups have never been my thing. I’m a one-man-wolfpack, and when I received an email from Brad King in August 2010 inviting me to participate in a writing group, my instinct was to reply, “Hell no!” I didn’t fit in with a bunch of kids that were 4-5 years younger than me, and what the hell were we going to do anyway? Sit around and talk about writing?
But then I remembered the promise I made to myself during a trip to the Boundary Waters a couple months earlier. It had to do with the way that I had come to see the world after being trained to be a warrior. When you get out of the military, the world you come back to expects you to flip a switch and go back to the way things were. But any combat veteran will tell you it just doesn’t work that way. In the military I fit in and looked, talked, and moved like everyone else. When I got out, though, I was all alone and didn’t fit in anywhere.
I became the quiet kid in the back of the college classroom. The closer I got to graduating, however, the more I realized that my self-imposed isolation was doing me harm. In almost four years of school, I’d made no friends. Professors tried to reach out to me but I had mostly shunned their attention. But in the summer of 2010, in a remote place called the Boundary Waters, I made a promise to myself that I’d come back and start saying yes when people invited me to participate. I was finally going to see what it was like to be part of the group. To Brad’s invitation that August, with hesitation, I replied, “Yes.”
Over the next year, the original Invictus Writers met and leaned on each other for support while exposing things about themselves that they had never told anyone. It was an amazing transformative process for everyone that participated and I’m proud to say that we are all still friends. Working with that group made me realize what I had missed during the years I’d spent seeing my new world through the eyes of a ex-soldier that didn’t want to try to fit in. In the fall semester of 2011, when Brad and I launched Invictus Volume II, that transformative process is what I wished for the new crop of kids. I wanted them to understand the importance of working in a group–especially as writers–because of what it had done for me.
In December 2011, about six months after we launched the writing project a second time with a new group of kids, I graduated and left the confines of Ball State to move home and save money while I waited to hear from some prestigious graduate schools I had applied to for fiction writing. In the meantime, I drove across the country and got married and returned to anxiously wait to hear something back from the four programs I had mailed applications to. During my travels I watched the Invictus Volume II kids come together through social media. They were sending each other messages, encouraging each other to write and I could tell that the group was coming to life. They were making appointments to write together and finally getting what the Invictus Writers project has always been about.
Things for me, however, were not going so well. Soon after I returned home from my elopement/honeymoon, I got my first rejection letter. Then the second one came and I started wondering what I was going to do if I didn’t get into any writing programs. Then the third rejection letter came and, in addition to the mounting disappointment, I still had a story that I owed the Invictus Volume II writers. When we launched Invictus II, I had decided to write about my trip to the Boundary Waters, but as the deadline drew closer and the rejection letters piled up, I had trouble starting it. I sat down many times and just couldn’t get the words to flow. And then, on March 25, I received the fourth and final rejection letter and didn’t feel like writing at all.
For the next week, I seriously considered wishing the people I’d befriended this time around good luck and dropping out of the project altogether. They had found that they could rely on each other for support and didn’t need me any longer. They may never know how close I was to walking away from the project.
Not long after I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to be able to complete my story, I got an email from Brad inviting everyone to the last writers meeting for the Volume II kids before they go into production and the school year comes to a close. I prepared myself to let my longtime mentor and friend down. In the same day I got an email from Ambria asking me to look over her story again. Curious, I opened it and saw how much work she had put in since the last draft I had helped her with, and all at once I realized what my Boundary Waters story was all about. It’s about trudging through the muck, bug bites, and sore muscles to get to the other side. It’s about enduring pain to reach something truly beautiful rewarded to those with the gumption to reach the other side. I realized that if I quit, I’d be forgetting everything that place had taught me. So, after reading and editing Ambria’s piece, I finally sat down and began writing my own story. I’m behind the others in the group, but I’m fighting through the pain to find something beautiful.
I left after work last night in Lafayette, Indiana, and drove home to Monticello, and then to Muncie so I could attend the last Invictus Writers meeting for the Volume II kids. Then, after our two hour meeting I turned around and drove my wife back to Monticello so she could be at work before 5 p.m. That’s 242 miles in less than 24 hours just so I could talk about writing with other writer nerds, but it was a meeting I needed to attend. Once again, the power of the group has surprised me.