“The Long War,” by Andrew Neylon

Before I’d even started putting together a roster for The Invictus Writers Vol. 3 project, several professors told me that I needed to make sure to include Andrew Neylon.

Normally I put little stock in the recommendations of others. I prefer to work with students I have taught. I want to know how they think, and more importantly I want to know how they work. The Invictus Writers project succeeds (or fails) on the ability of a writer to relentless draft, edit, and rewrite. They must be willing to go into dark corners, and write what they see without worry. Without that, the project fails and the writing suffers.

I was reticent to allow Andrew into the project because I’d never taught him. Fortunately, he came along as I was tinkering with the format and so my strict rules had been mostly cast aside.

That turned out to be a very good omen.

* * *

I’m always intrigued to hear what young writers discuss when we first broach the topic of our essays. Oftentimes they are a bit hesitant to discuss their personal lives, in part because they haven’t really figured out yet how to make personal experiences meaningful to others. Nobody wants to sound silly or shallow. This is doubly so for writers, who are meant to be thoughtful about the world.

Andrew’s original pitch was related to his vision impairment that renders him legally blind. For the first few weeks of the class, he discussed the impact of that condition on his life. I was nonplussed by the topic. It felt forced as he talked about it. Invariably as we’d sit in the round and discuss our lives, the class would ask him how he’d been impacted by this. When he answered, he continually returned to the very difficult relationship he had with his father.

The more he shared about that complex relationship, the more the class pushed him towards that story. His story wasn’t about a medical condition, it was about a parental condition.

I latched on to that idea, and pushed him to write the story of a father-son relationship gone off the rails.

Almost immediately, I felt as if I’d made a mistake. In his early drafts, Andrew was churning out rage-filled scenes with exposition damning his father, who had abandoned the family and trapped them at the same time. I wondered if this story might be too powerful for him to write.

Worse, I had no idea whether he could handle the emotional process he would need to go through in order to write the piece. To write a story, you have to distance yourself from your emotions. You can’t write other characters honestly if you can’t empathize with them. You can’t write their motivations if you damn them before you begin.

The week I was going to speak with him about changing his story, he dropped a bombshell: His father had just committed suicide.

Suddenly the story became more real than I’d expected. The demons weren’t imaginary anymore.

I sat down with Andrew and told him he could only continue with the story under three circumstances:

  1. He talk to his mother about the story
  2. He speak to a professional about the story
  3. He tell me, at any time, if he needed to abandon the story

Before he decided, I told him this: “If you write this story, I am going to edit you like a writer. My job won’t be to take care of you emotionally. That’s for your mom and the professional. I’m going to help you understand your story like a writer.”

He took a few days, discussed his options, and told me that he want to write this story. We agreed to move forward.

* * *

Throughout the next 12 weeks, Andrew wrote draft and draft, each one layering in a new level of sophistication into the narrative. This story that began as an angry rant about his father turned into an introspective account about a young man coming to realize the depths of an illness that engulfed his father. He began to inhabit the collapsing world around his father, and he began to explore what happens when a man breaks.

His characters — that is to say, his family — came into focus as three-dimensional humans complete with flaws and insecurities as well as hope and optimism. Nobody escaped his view of the world. To paraphrase Tom Wolfe, he wrote about a family in full.

In my three years working on this project, I’m not sure I’ve had the pleasure of watching a writer so completely evolve a story. I’m also not sure I’ve read anything that is more powerful.

His story stands as one of the shining beacons of The Invictus Writers project precisely because he did what I ask. He allowed himself to go deeply into the world of his characters and to treat them with honesty and humility.

I don’t know if Andrew sees his father differently than he did before. I don’t know if this story gave him closure of any measure.

I do know this: Those who read his story will see truths within the story that resonate in their own lives.

* * *

With that I’m very proud to announce the release of the first The Invictus Writer, Vol. 3 essay, “My Long War,” written by Andrew Neylon.

This will be one of three essays in our forthcoming book, Damaged Goods: A Little Messed Up, And A Tiny Bit Brokenwhich will be released in the coming weeks. Please check back as we continue to release our essays before the launch.