missionary

The Mirror Image Anniversary

My father died 19 years ago today, on Nov. 23rd, 1996. I try not to take note of the anniversary of his passing every year (don’t know why, really, but I think I’m trying to not be guilty of not moving on). This year, however, is a significant one. As of today, from my perspective, he’s been gone as many years as he was here. That feels like a big deal, though it’s just math.

I was 19-years-old and ten months into my two-year, full time work as a missionary. I hadn’t seen Dad since he dropped me off at the training center in Utah. My last words to him in person were an optimistic “See you later.”

Elder Vaughn​ and I came home early that night. On the answering machine we shared Weldon​ and Suggs was a message from our Mission President to call him immediately. He told Elder Vaughn to be there for me as I was about to receive some pretty terrible news from my grandfather.

Grandpa told me Dad had been shot in a robbery, again (more on that in a bit), but no one knew how bad it was yet. He told me to pray. I knew Dad was dead.

I prayed anyway. I prayed that God would spare my father, that the pain would not be too great and that the feeling in my gut that he was gone was just youthful, useless cynicism. I prayed in vain. I prayed anyway. For the next 45 minutes my knees didn’t leave the carpet.

Mom called to tell me the news. Dad had died almost instantly, moments after a loud BANG cut their telephone conversation short and he ordered her to “Call the cops, Jill​!”

Two shots to the heart. One to the stomach. He went quickly, just like he always wanted.

Dad knew he was going to die relatively young. He talked about it often. In his own, what-seemed-to-us-pessimistic way, he prepared us well for the inevitable. What seemed a cruel and unpleasant joke when he was alive gave comfort once he was gone. There’s an order to things, a structure. Some of us are gifted with peeks at the plans, and always for a reason.

I’ve never thought it unfair that my father died when he did. Maybe because, as the oldest of four brothers, I had the longest time with Dad before he went. Logan​, McKay​, and Tyler​ all experienced this particular, mirror image anniversary a long time ago, and, of the four of us, only I ever knew him as an adult. But I don’t think that’s it. Now matter how much time you get with a parent or a loved one, it’s never enough.

I’ve never thought it unfair and I’ve never asked why my father had to die because Dad taught me better than that. He taught me, more than anyone, about having the proper perspective. This life is but a moment. There’s so much that’s grander just ahead. If the next life is Disneyland, then we’re in the car, maybe in the backseat, on our way right now. Who gripes about the car ride when you know you’re gonna end up in Disneyland?

I never thought it unfair and I never asked why. Maybe that’s why I got an answer anyway.

The next morning, after meeting with my compassionate, supportive Mission President and his wife, I left the mission field to return home for five days to be with my family, help get my dad’s affairs in order, and organize the funeral. I spoke at the funeral, which was one of the hardest–and easiest–things I ever had to do. A wise man, a spiritual leader I respect very much, pulled my family aside shortly afterwards and told us that it was his distinct impression, for whatever it’s worth, that Dad had to move on so my brothers and I could become the men we needed and ought to be.

That’s a bold thing to say. In the wrong context or to the wrong ear, that can be a cruel thing to say, but in that moment I understood perfectly what he meant. My brothers and I had a responsibility to take who our dad was and what he taught us and really add it all up. We had to see in a way we couldn’t see when he was alive just who he was, good and bad, and make some decisions about who we wanted to be. Our identities are wrapped up in who we belong to. We didn’t belong to Dad, the strongest man who ever lived, anymore. Strength now had to come from within. Not our old, weak strength that failed us and made us come running to Dad for help, but a new strength. A suspiciously, gentically familiar strength, but our own strength.

In the past 19 years I’ve done my best to nurture that strength, though I do fail. I fall. Dad failed a lot, too, but he always got back up again. I think, ultimately, that was his biggest strength. He knew how to fall and get back up again and keep going like no one I’ve ever met. Or will likely meet again.

19 years. He hasn’t been there to catch me in a long, long time, but he doesn’t need to now. I figured out how to get back up on my own.

Thanks, Dad.

(This video is part one of Dad’s biggest fall. The circumstances in this first shooting were exactly the same as the ones that killed him. The only differences were: 1) he was shot thirteen times, not three, and 2) He lived. In my house, we call that a miracle.)

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How My Writing Reached the Top of a New York Skyscraper and Then Fell Back Down Again

…or What the Heck Happened with That Book I Wrote

BrocksWritingSpace

My writing space: Dining Room Table. Tunes. Notebook. Laptop. Flowers.

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for a long time. When I started writing my book, Raised By a Dead Man (which everyone seems to agree is a terrible title and yet no one has ever come up with anything better), my plan was to a) become a writer and b) start big. Just to be clear: starting big is writing a 95,000 word book when the longest thing you’ve written previously was a 2,000 word report on North Dakota. In the sixth grade.

I’m be facetious. I had also done some blogging. (Okay, now I’m really being facetious.)

You ever feel like you can do something–I mean really, actually do it–even though you’ve never even attempted it before? Me neither, except for this one time when I spent every night after 10pm for two years writing this book. I knew I was a writer. I just knew it.

And I knew I had a great story to tell. A boy’s coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of his father getting gunned down in not one, but two armed robberies. The second time, the father dies and the boy–now serving as a missionary–has to come to grips with not only himself but the legacy his father has left behind. Somehow, this all ends on a happy, positive not. It’s a feel-good tragedy. Y’know, like those sorts of things always are.

The best part was that it was all true. It was my story. A memoir.

I sent the book out to friends and family and people I didn’t know so well for their feedback. This was valuable because the book wasn’t quite ready yet. Thankfully, I have good people I can lean on who are both enthusiastic and honest.  The book got better and finally, in April 2011, I started submitting it to literary agents.

(I had some initial ideas about self-publishing but after doing my research I quickly determined that was not for me. My reasons are a whole ‘nother blog post, but even my subsequent failure hasn’t turned that into a viable option.)

My thought was, why not shoot for the stars? You never know, right? And if all I hit is the moon, that’s okay, too, because there’s no points for not trying. “Whatever happens, happens,” I said.

Here’s what’s wrong with this: nobody likes putting everything on the line and then admitting defeat, especially when they’ve been foolish enough to say, “Eh, whatever happens, happens.” Human beings invented the word “whatever” against the advice of God when we really, really felt like we needed one word to cover up all the feelings we insist aren’t there.

God said, “Look, I invented language and I didn’t include ‘whatever’ for a reason. It’s a transparent, nothing of a word. People are gonna see right through it to your real intentions.”

“But maybe not!” we said. “Maybe it will be the one word that allows us to barrel through difficult things in all confidence that we’re fooling everybody!”

God said, “Sometimes I wonder why I bother.” Then, He invented the Ten Commandments because anything more nuanced would have gone right over our heads.

I knew–I knew before I even started writing–that I’d be devastated if the book didn’t reach the top of the bestseller lists. I also knew expecting a book from a first-time author with little writing experience to reach that highest of heights was unreasonable. But I didn’t care. In fact, I still kind of don’t think that was the wrong attitude to have. You can’t maintain a passion for something over the course of several years without absolute belief in its viability.

So, my book went out to agents. This is a punishing process. It requires submitting a one page letter of both introduction and summation and a small sample from the book. Then, you wait to hear back. Could take two minutes or several months. If the agent likes what they see, they ask for more, sometimes (if you’re lucky) the whole book. A few agents did ask for more. A lot more just rejected the book outright. Then, in August 2011 one agent liked it so much she read it all in a week.

That agent, Bonnie Solow, is my now my literary agent. She thought the book should be seen by the top editors in New York–people who had worked on bestselling and Pulitzer Prize winning memoirs–and she had the connections to get it there.

Now, in case it’s not clear, this–that I got that far–is a BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL. I fully appreciate that many authors will try to get an agent for years without success. And getting an agent is really the only way to get your writing in front of the right eyes. That’s what a good agent does. That’s what Bonnie did for me.

I’ll spare you the details of the months of additional drafts and and the development of the 30-page proposal designed to convince the editors and publishing houses to buy the book, and skip right to the end: despite a lot of enthusiasm (and, sure, some real lack of enthusiasm), Raised By a Dead Man failed to find a home. It will not be coming to a bookstore or online retailer near you.

It’s been a full year now since we stopped shopping the book. I’ve talked in person about its failure freely with whoever asks, but I’ve never really written anything down. The written word is where I can be the most honest and sometimes you just want to lie to yourself a little longer.

Yeah, I was devastated. In a most spectacular, soul-crushing way. I poured everything I had into that book. It reached the top of the New York skyscrapers (I actually have no idea where the New York publishing offices are located, but “high up” seems like a safe bet) and was put on display in the right offices. Then it got ejected.

Rejected. Out the window. Ground floor, coming up fast.

Let me tell you, there’s no arrogance like the confidence of the undiscovered and nothing so bitter as the defeat of the uncovered found wanting. Creativity turned into a chore. Music stopped sounding good. I thought about writing about vampires in love on a boat. “Vampire Love Boat.” Tell me that’s not a bestseller.

All of this was temporary. See, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m an idiot. Instead of playing video games every night and just being happy with my amazing wife and our girls and a job that puts a roof over our heads and friends that are super cool and you wish you had, I kept writing. I didn’t even take a break, really. I wrote on the good days and I wrote on the bad days. I just wrote. Because, by now, I know that’s what I love to do.

Like I said, idiot.

My new project was (and still is) a second memoir (idiot!). It’s a not-a-sequel that starts about a year and a half after the first one and relates the Mormon Romeo/Protestant Juliet journey my wife and I and our future in-laws took to the altar. Bad dates, secret romance, religious conflict and abysmal attempts at flirting abound.

My agent is actually pretty excited about it. Whatever happens (there’s that word again), I know that the 52,000 words I’ve written so far is the best stuff I’ve ever done.

With any luck, the second time’s the charm. If not, I have no doubt I’ll go for the hat trick of failure and write something else. And then something else. And then something elser. If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that I suck at failure.

Post Script:

So, what of Raised By a Dead Man? After all, it’s still listed in my bio. I still hope it will see the light. An author can create demand for his work by simply becoming an in demand author. I’ll no doubt do some more drafts one day and, who knows, that might just be what the book needs.

But, y’know, it still kind of bums me out that no one outside of a very small circle has ever read it. Here, then, is the first few pages of Raised By a Dead Man just because. I hope you enjoy it at least a little more than New York did.

RAISED BY A DEAD MAN

by Brock Heasley

Ready

After the funeral, my family and I were ushered down the long, silent hallway and out through the back of the church to avoid the news cameras out front. For a while we stood silently at the edge of the parking lot, huddled close together. Looking down. Mom, in her black skirt and bright red top, dried her tears and smiled faintly. She looked almost relieved. This day had been coming for a long time.

I wrapped one arm tightly around her and the other around my two youngest brothers, who stuck close to me. My other younger brother, Logan, stood as an island unto himself, shivering slightly with arms draped in as much stillness at his sides as he could manage. It was one of those oddly cold, bright days where if you weren’t standing directly in the path of the white and warming sun, you’d freeze. A few cousins, Mom’s parents, Dad’s brother Jim, and Dad’s parents soon joined us. We talked about how nice the service was and not much else.

Grandma, a longtime smoker, could barely breathe and leaned on Grandpa for support. There was a bitterness to her mourning that choked out sentiment, leaving nothing but the sharp anger she displayed all over her face. She muttered the same refrain she’d been repeating over and over again since Saturday night: “Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children.” No one disagreed with her.

The hearse pulled up and we moved to the nearby trees along the sidewalk surrounding the church to allow room for the casket to be rolled out. We watched as the box and the body were loaded in carefully by the hired hands from the funeral home. They were so solemn and so precise in the way they went about it. They didn’t know Dad; for them, it was a performance—routine and impersonal. Were they thinking about the game later that night? Hatching dinner plans? Digesting breakfast? I hadn’t been able to eat that morning. I was too nervous about my speaking assignment.

The door to the hearse clicked as it locked. The signal given, we all piled into cars to start the long journey out to the cemetery way beyond the edge of town. The cameras followed us, but only until we were out of sight. Mom, in the front seat, wiped her tears. She turned around to tell me how much the talk I gave during the funeral meant to her and how impressed she and everyone else was with it. Embarrassed and flattered, I thanked my dedicated, proud and delusional mother. (Though the many compliments I received proved her to not be entirely alone in her insanity.) She dismissed my modesty as false and said the talk reminded her of a moment she’d had with Dad just a week earlier.

They were sitting on the couch in the living room, talking. It was one of those conversations that meandered from the inane to the consequential, a web of familiar concerns particular to all longstanding couples. Dad, who was not sick, spoke, as he often did, of his impending death and how much he looked forward to the afterlife. It would be wonderful. Glorious. So much to learn and to see.

Mom hit her limit. After years of Dad’s supposedly fatal fatalism, she’d had enough and finally asked him the one question she had wanted to ask for years, but had never before dared:

“Bill, do you want to die?”

Dad fell silent. He took a moment to consider his words carefully. Mom could see by the look on his face that he was desperately trying to craft the correct answer to her very direct question. He didn’t want to hurt her. Finally, he gave his measured response.

“If it weren’t for you… and the boys… yes, I’m ready to go now.”

Thanks for reading. Seriously, thanks. That’s all anybody who writes wants anyway.

11 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was 20

Me, circa 20. That's a monsoon behind me. How appropriate.

In no particular order:

1. All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True (And Some You’re Not Wild Enough to Guess At Yet)

A lot of what you desire you don’t have to worry so much about. Stuff is either gonna work itself out or you’re gonna figure it out. Either way, don’t be afraid to hope. You’ll be rewarded.

That said, dream bigger, dude. Don’t limit yourself by what you think you can do now. You can do a lot more. You will do a lot more.

2. All of Your Worst Nightmares Will Come True (And Some You’re Too Scared to Even Imagine) 

No, not the one about your parents with baby bodies and football helmets. And not the one about the giant evil face outside your bedroom window that tells you no one loves you.  I’m talking about the tough stuff ahead that will pound away at your faith and confidence and people you love until you beg the cup away from you.

You’re not going to be able to avoid that stuff and, once it gets here, it’s not going to go away. You’re an adult now. Things last.

But you’re going to be okay.

3. You Will Get Married

No, your ability to attract and flirt with a woman will never improve (sorry), but when you find the right one it won’t matter. So stop worrying so much about it. Your insecurity is your least attractive quality.

What’s that? Yeah, she’s pretty. Geez, man, there are other things that are way more important. But yes, she’s gorgeous. Calm down.

The helmet kind of takes away from what I'm trying to achieve here.

4. Don’t Stop Writing in Your Journals

Don’t make the same mistake I did. You write every day in your journal and that’s excellent. Just. Don’t. Stop. Your life will disappear if you don’t make a record. Your memory isn’t as good as you think it is.

5. Learn Now to Slow Down Your Anger

Little girls really freak out when you are quick to anger. You and your wife will raise at least three of them. You’re not going to abuse them or anything, but unless you want to feel like the worst human being ever on a regular basis, learn now how to count to ten.

6. Loosen Up

Your uptight attitude and tendency to look at your watch every few minutes puts people off. Toss the watch, loosen the tie. Yeah, I know you’re a missionary, but even now there are people you’re not reaching because they think you don’t care about them. They think you care about the trains running on time.

Life’s not all about the trains, man.

It's not so much that I was small. That was just a very big dryer.

7. At Some Point After You Hit 30 You Will Begin to Lose Your Hair

Don’t stress. That just makes it worse.

8. You Need a College Degree

Stop fighting this and the next few years will be a lot easier for you. You’re going back to school and that’s final. I promise the degree will come to mean a great deal to you. No, it’s not gonna seem that way for a really, REALLY long time, but if you don’t go you will lose some amazing opportunities–not the least of which is meeting your future wife.

9. Get Some Apple Stock

I don’t care how bad off the company looks at the moment or how you get the money, invest now and as much as possible.

Oh, and never buy first generation.

10. When Something is Happening You Know is Not Right, Speak Up

Some of your biggest regrets will come because you didn’t say something when you should have. I know, hard to imagine a loudmouth like you shutting up about anything, but it will happen. Use good judgment and don’t be a jerk about it, but don’t be so afraid to offend that you hold back when you should be standing up for your friends and what is right.

My 21st Birthday Party. I'm the super cool one in the suspenders.

11. Don’t Read This List

Too late, I know, but I don’t really want you to change anything (mostly). I’m not perfect, but I’m the result of all the good things you will do AND all the mistakes you’re about to make. I don’t want to risk losing anyone or anything.

Also, you’re a world class second guesser. You’re never gonna be able to interpret any of this advice correctly.

What would you say to your 20-year-old self? Would you say anything at all? Are you 20 now? In that case, bask in my wisdom.

(By the way, I completely stole the idea for this post from the great writer and blogger Shelli Johnson. You should go read her version now.)

Exposition SUCKS!

Now that I’ve secured an agent and am putting together a proposal for publishers, I’ve had a chance to reflect a bit on what I’ve accomplished thus far. Quite a bit, as it turns out.

When I started the book, I had no idea how or if I would ever finish it. The longest thing I’d ever written topped out at about 10,000 words, maybe less. My word count goal for my memoir? 85,000 – 100,000. The longest draft (so far) was the first at almost 97,000. Subsequent drafts brought it down to 90,000 and now it’s back up at 95,000. Lots of big additions and changes in the past couple drafts. But why would my word count go BACK up?

The manuscript has been through a lot of evolution. While it is a true story, deciding which parts of the story–my life–to tell and which to leave out is very, very tricky. Adding to the complexity is that I’m Mormon. I exist within an entire subculture that has its own terminology and operates according to its own rules and which most people on the outside find really, truly strange. As a storyteller, I have to bring the reader into that world while at the same time not overburdening them with detail. They have to both understand and not be bored. Man, that’s tough to do.

Here, look at these terms: Ward, Bishop, Elder. Or, in the minds of most people: a place for crazy people, a senior Catholic clergy (or chess piece), and an old person.

In my world, a Ward is a church congregation, a Bishop is our equivalent of a pastor or priest, and Elder is a title given to missionaries–who are usually 19-years-old!

Glossaries are tacky. I loathe them. I don’t like flipping back and forth and, to me, when they’re there it feels like the author gave up. The challenge is to incorporate the information into the story without making it seem like you’re just throwing facts at the reader. You gotta entertain.

As a reader, you know exposition sucks. Writers often have more than a story in mind, they have an entire world. They want to tell you about it and must if their story is going to have any kind of context. Bad writers dump that information on you, thinking wrongly that every corner of their imagination must be shared because it’s just that awesome and the reader NEEDS to know it all. More often than not, the reader doesn’t. The reader doesn’t mind a little mystery and discovery along the way. I’ve stopped reading books because I was that turned off by the way the author doled out pertinent information.

My aversion to exposition is strong enough that around draft 7 of my own book I had taken so much of it out that there were sections that were unintelligible to outsiders. I went too far the other way, which can happen. That’s why my word count went back up, but I didn’t just add stuff back in. If you’re able to take something out in the first place, chances are it’s not that great to begin with.

The best kind of exposition is through a story. To explain that missionaries are called “Elders” and some other bits of Mormon and missionary lore, I went back to the beginning of my mission and wrote about my time in the training center and how difficult it was. The training center got very little coverage in earlier drafts. My new draft not only explained the world of the missionary in a very succinct way, it also gave me the chance to raise the stakes and better show the intense pressure missionaries are under from the get-go.

15 Years Ago Today

A still from the segment on "Rescue 911" that featured Dad's story

Today marks the 15th Anniversary of my father’s death. This is insane because I was 19-years-old when he died. (I’ll wait while you do the math.) I’m fast approaching a time when it will be longer since he’s been gone than the time I had with him. And yet, in a lot of ways, it feels like his death was just last week.

Coincidentally, I wrapped up my latest revision of the manuscript for my memoir today. (I’m not yet ready to talk about WHY I did another revision, but suffice it to say that this is a significant day for more than one reason.) The one passage I think I’ve struggled with the most over the course of my many, many rewrites hasbeen the one where I describe my thoughts and feelings immediately after finding out Dad had been killed.

For those of you that remain unaware (and, as often as I freely talk about it, that’s almost hard to believe), my father was killed in an armed robbery at his store 8 years after surviving a previous armed robbery. At the same store. Sometimes, lightning does strike twice. (Especially if you sell guns.)

Getting down on paper the various odd, monumental, despairing, uplifting, cynical, hateful, joyful and, ultimately, peaceful things that went through my head that night has just been an absolutely huge challenge. How do you take people on that journey with you? What words could possibly communicate those feelings? It helps that my memory of that night is about as clear as any memory I have, but still… it’s been a challenge.

I was in a unique situation when it happened. I hadn’t actually seen him in the flesh for 10 months.  I was serving as a missionary in Arizona, off in my own little world of cacti, no grass and a big, hot sun. When the call came in, I had just gotten home from a long day of knocking on doors and riding my bike and looking ridiculous with my helmet and tie ensemble. I couldn’t have been more shocked by the news–nor less surprised.

Dad always said he was going to die relatively young. He insisted he wouldn’t get to see all of his sons reach maturity. I’m the oldest of my four brothers and the youngest of us when he died was 9. (Hi, Tyler.) Everybody thinks bad things happen to other people. I grew up thinking we were the other people. It was kinda true. That’s a lot of what the book is about–what Dad knew and how that changed the way I saw the world and how much of a gift it was when he was finally taken from us. A bad thing does not always equal “a bad thing.”

There’s a hope and a responsibility that comes with knowing, and I’m glad Dad had the wisdom to tell us what was coming. My life hasn’t been the same since, but I can’t honestly say it’s been for the worse. Dad’s death marked a moment in my life when I stopped being who I was and became someone else entirely. We don’t get many moments like that, but when they come–however they come–they are an opportunity, I think. To grow, to change, to reassess, to gain empathy and understanding and experience. I hope I’ve taken advantage of that opportunity fully. I think that’s pretty much the point to life in general.

I’ll go visit his gravesite later today. I know he’s not there, but that’s as good a place as any to reflect and remember. And to be grateful.