personal story

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.

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Why I’m Not a Republican (Or a Democrat)

My father always said there was nothing worse than a Moderate. Fence Sitters, he called them. Can’t make up their minds, can’t stand for anything because they have no cause.

I’m a Moderate. Currently, at least. A couple decades ago you might have called me a Conservative. In some circles, simply by virtue of the fact that I voted for Obama, I would be known as a Liberal. What I definitely am not nor ever will be is a Republican. Or a Democrat.

Dad was hard right. He sold Impeach Clinton bumper stickers at his gun store and blasted Republican trumpet Rush Limbaugh through the stereo he kept near the register loud enough so the cows in the neighboring fields could hear it. Dad believed Rush was right about, well, pretty much everything. Back then, so did I.

I was the cartoonist for the school paper during high school and my signature was working in the phrase “Rush is Right” into each and every cartoon I did. Sometimes it was a shirt, other times a street sign. I did it because I believed in the political doctrine espoused by Rush. He was RIGHT. So was the National Review and William F. Buckley and George Will and all the rest.

Yeah, I had a subscription to the National Review during high school. And yeah, all the girls wanted me.

My attraction to the Republicans was deeply rooted in my religious beliefs and morals. Republicans were all about family values. So was I. They were against abortion. So was I. They were in favor of a strong military even in times of peace. So was I. They were for welfare reform. So was I.

And you know what? I still am, on all of that and more.

I’m also in favor of Universal Health Care and the Buffet Rule and I sympathize with what the Occupy movement is trying to do and say (even though I think they need to get a reality check, toss the drums, and break up the circle).

When the change happened, it happened fast. By the time I registered to vote at age 18, I did so as an Independent. “You’re throwing your vote away,” my dad said. “Only in the primaries,” I countered. “Bah,” he said in my imagination as he walked away shaking his head.

Dad died almost a year later, so he never really got the see the full transformation that began, oddly enough, because of Rush Limbaugh.

When I was 17, I started really listening to Rush. I mean really listening. He sure liked to talk about himself. Loved to tell his listeners how great he was and how blessed they were to be able to hear the incredible wisdom that fell from his lips like raindrops on barren soil. His arrogance and ego were so ridiculous that they played as comedy. But I noticed something. He wasn’t winking when he said those things.  He was never anything less than serious in his self interest. The comedy was just how he sold the idea.

So then I started really listening. A lot of the stuff Rush said didn’t make any sense. He betrayed the very basic rules of logic in order to make his points. He made huge leaps to get to some of his conclusions and accusations, and then didn’t back them up in any substantial way.  He presented inflammatory comments from the other side with no context and then spun off into wild speculations and tales of hidden agendas and master schemes for which I had to take his word. Didn’t matter what was true or not, what mattered was what could be true. And what could be true was probably–

–most likely–

–oh, let’s face is it was–

TRUE.

Rush’s loyalty wasn’t to the actual truth, I concluded, it was to his ratings, his followers, his political party and his money. Self interest was the current that ran through everything he did. And he was honest about it! I just, for a long time, didn’t believe him.

If Rush… then what about Republicans?  The Grand Old Party had money and power to protect, too. Was it possible those things could be more important than what was good for the country? Did the Republicans act out of self interest?

Well, duh.

It didn’t matter that the GOP shared many of the same values and beliefs as me. That started looking more like a flag they were waving and less like a genuine set of ideals. If their chief priority was the perpetuation of their power and influence, then the ideals would have to change according their degree of inconvenience and the times. How could I be a part of something I didn’t trust and that could be so fluid in its composition and purpose?

I was adrift. I looked towards the Democrats. Ich. No way.

So, I registered Independent. Years passed and, out from under the gun of a party line, my political views freely lined up more with my moral and religious understanding. I ended up a Moderate. Probably a little right of center, but a Moderate. Cue roll in Dad’s grave.

Dad never could have guessed things would get this deeply divided. I often wonder what he’d make of the political realities of 2012. Of clowns like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and “news” stations like Fox  News and MSNBC. As a guy standing in the middle, it’s super obvious to me that the two sides aren’t even having the same conversation or using the same language anymore. Would Dad see that? Or would he have grown and changed with the party line?

I have no way of knowing, of course. But I do know this: I resent being in the middle. I resent being a Moderate. I feel on the outside of just about every political conversation and, for the most part, I choose not to indulge the political side of myself anymore. I find it incredibly frustrating and exhausting disagreeing with everyone. That’s a lot of fights to pick.

It’s probably Dad in my head, but I’d rather pick a side. I don’t think the truth is always in the middle. Sometimes, one person is right and the other is wrong. Right now, unfortunately–in this country– it’s not that simple.

Maybe the real problem is that I picked a side a long time ago and I stayed there. It’s everybody else that moved.

Why It is Not Good for Man to Be Alone (Or At Least Me)

Why does she ever leave me alone?

Why did I get married? Because I’m a loss as a human being by myself.

Two of our girls went out of town with their grandparents last weekend and Erin took the baby down to the LA area to pick them up on Monday. I wanted to go with them, but I had work. This left me alone in the house for almost two full days.

This is never a good idea.

Whenever I’m left to my own devices, I have one thought and one thought only. Well, two thoughts: I must get seafood as quickly as possible (Erin is allergic) and I can turn up the surround sound as loud as I want.

The surround sound is actually not as much fun as it used to be. I’ve grown so accustomed to turning it down for sleeping babies that now it sounds obnoxious when I turn it up to THE TRANSFORMER IS IN MY LIVING ROOM! levels.

But seafood… ohhhh seafood. It’s my favorite food and it is never served in our home. Unfortunately, there are precious few seafood places near where I live and my favorite is about 40 miles away. (For you locals, it’s Crab Cakes in Oakhurst. That’s right, Oakhurst.) I couldn’t justify driving that far with today’s gas prices and my lead foot.

I chose West Coast Fish ‘N’ Chips instead. Fast food seafood, but it’s a short mile from my house and pretty good if you like deep fried and going way, way off diet.

I pulled up, noticed all the lights were off. I got out of the car, walked up to the door and sure enough: CLOSED. It was 6pm. They close at 2:30 on Mondays. As a character in a movie currently on heavy rotation in my house would say, What the Wocka!?

I got back in the car and drove to “Old Town” where most of the locally-based eateries are. This is when a wife would have really come in handy.

I drove up and down the streets trying to figure out what, besides seafood, sounded good to me. I couldn’t make up my mind. My wife always yells at me for taking forever in the 7-11 trying to figure out which candy bar to buy. She is absolutely right to do this as I feel that picking the right candy bar is one of the very most important decisions a human being can make, so I take my time. Now, I was looking for an entire meal. Only the President trying to decide whether to bomb Iraq could possibly understand the depth of conflict within me as I drove and considered and weighed each dining possibility in my mind.

At one point, I ducked into a Vietnamese restaurant to check out their menu. I’ve never had Vietnamese food. Turns out, all they serve is soup. Noodles in soup. Rice in soup. Beef in soup.

I DIDN’T WANT SOUP.

A full hour went by. A. Full. Hour. I still hadn’t made up my mind. Erin would have long since made me pull off the road and forced me to eat at Wendy’s. And I probably would have been fine with it.

Not knowing what else to do, I finally settled on Chinese food at a small Japanese restaurant (yeah, I don’t get that either) I’d never tried before. I ordered way too much food, and none of it seafood. But at least it was good.

And it only cost me $8 and an hour and a half of my life.

Are you married? What bad habits do you fall into when you’re all alone?

Elora’s Four Dollar Apology

My daughter Elora doesn’t disobey so much as get overcome with emotion. There’s a certain watery chore that is necessary for the health and welfare of all peoples that she just absolutely HATES. She doesn’t mean to throw a tantrum every time she’s told to do it. She just hates it so much that she can’t make her body move towards it.

Last night was a particularly bad scene. Erin and I were playing Skip-Bo with her at the kitchen table. It was getting late and I realized that if we didn’t stop the game immediately, she wouldn’t have time to perform her chore. The chore is deplorable enough as is, but to stop a super fun game to do it? Her 9-year-old brain couldn’t process it. We might as well have told her to go gut herself on a pike. The girl would not budge. Her parents were being such punks.

Erin tried Parent Voice™. When that didn’t work, she threatened to take away her allowance for a week. When that didn’t work, I stepped up and gave Elora until the count of three to get up from the table and MOVE. If not, no allowance in April. The entire month of April.

Erin pulled me aside to tell me that was way overboard. Elora’s braces were tightened earlier in the day and she was hurting and there was the curtailed Skip-Bo game. No need to cut the child off the knees so quickly. A toe would have sufficed.

But you can’t argue with the results. Elora got up and did what she was told.

Knowing she’s usually such a good girl and feeling bad for her, Erin and I decided Elora could stay up and watch Survivor with us, so long as she understood it wasn’t a reward for bad behavior. I felt particularly bad about the giant hammer I threw down on her, so I offered to go to 7-11 to get her a treat. Also, I wanted candy.

Once Elora was clean and done with her chore, she and Erin had a heart-t0-heart. Elora was extremely apologetic, confessing that she didn’t know what came over her. I offered to take Elora with me to the store so she could pick out her own candy. She jumped at the chance. Our little, ever-growing girl was back to normal.

I got a Coconut 3 Musketeers bar for myself (new, and quite good) and Elora picked up a roll of Bottle Caps. We got something for Erin as well and made our way to the register. I really should have seen what was coming next, especially after Elora had asked me in the car how much I thought our treats would cost.

The cashier rang us up. “$4.00.” I moved to pull out my cash, but Elora got there first. “Here,” she said. “I’ve got this.” From her multi-colored, duct tape wallet, she pulled out a five dollar bill.

Myself, the cashier and the couple behind us in line dropped our jaws. “No, no,” I said. “You don’t have to do that, Elora.”

“Consider this my ‘I’m Sorry’,” she said with big, sheepish grin.

I tried to protest more, but she wasn’t having it. Defeated and humbled, I let her pay for the treats. We walked out and before getting back in the car, I gave her a big hug and a kiss on the top of her head. All the money she had left in the world afterwards was one, solitary dollar.

Are you a parent? Ever feel like you’re raising a generation better than yourself? I know I do. Constantly.

Why I Took My Wedding Ring Off Six Years Ago (And Why I Put It Back On Yesterday)

I’ll have been married twelve years this coming July and for half of that time I’ve kept my wedding far, far away from my finger. I hate rings. Hate them. They are annoying and they catch on things and dig into my skin.

Actually, I hate all jewelry. What’s the point? God made me pretty. I don’t need sparkly things catching the light to distract from all of… this:

So, when I joined Weight Watchers six years ago and lost a bunch of weight and my fingers went skinny, my ring wouldn’t fit anymore. Joy. I waved my hand or moved quickly and the ring went flying. Overjoy. I happily put the ring away, in my wife’s own jewelry box.

“Sorry, sweetheart. It just doesn’t fit anymore.”

“But Brock,” she said. “You could go get it resized.”

“La la la la. I can’t hear you! La la la la…”

When pressed, I told her, sure, I’ll get it resized one day. I mean, why not tell her that? Promises for some unknown point in the future are the easiest to make. Did I actually intend to get it resized? Of course not. Oh, sure, I told myself I did. I didn’t want to be a liar. But come on. I’d have thrown that thing in Mount Doom if possible.

Years came and years went. The ring lay forgotten until it passed out of memory and into legend. (Sorry, leaving Lord of the Rings kick starting… now.) Even my wife had accepted the fact that I would never again wear my wedding ring.

And then yesterday was my wife’s birthday. Last year was a difficult year for us, but especially for her. The one bright spot was the birth of our third daughter, but everything else went sort of, shall we say, sucky. I wanted to do something extra nice for Erin this year. I wanted to show her just how much she means to me and how much I love her.

And what’s the greatest show of love? Sacrifice.

So, I got the ring resized and yesterday morning I presented Erin with a box containing jewelry. For me. And I put the ring back on.

Never to be taken off again.

I still hate it. The ring bugs me and I’ll never, ever get used to it. I already know this because this is my second go at it. So, now more than ever, the ring is proof of the great love I have for my wife. And the look of happiness on her face as she slipped it back on my finger was all the proof I needed that she feels the same way.

Happy birthday, sweetheart.

The McDonald’s Song

Most times, when I drive by a McDonald’s, I think of hookers.

Let me explain. My father was big on car games. One of his favorites was to predict when the traffic lights would change from red to green. It was a magic trick. He’d say “1… 2… 3… lights change!” and then they would. Every time, without fail. Whenever I or my brothers would try it, nine times out of ten we’d get it wrong. It helped that Dad was playing against 8-year-olds. We didn’t understand until years later that he was just watching the traffic lights of the cross traffic to make his “predictions.”

Another game was spotting McDonald’s restaurants. Now, I’ve seen the documentary Super Size Me and I don’t really like to eat there, but there was a time when seeing a McDonald’s was exciting. The trick was to be the first to see it, however far away it was. If you did and you sang the song, you won.

McDonald’s… McDonald’s…

Duh da da duh duh duh

Duh da da duh duh duh

This, of course, was a game we could play multiple times during even the shortest of car rides. So America’s struggle with obesity does have its perks.

Dad’s absolute most favorite game was one only he played because it wasn’t really a game. It was torture. Dad liked to pick out random, ugly women walking the street and tell my brothers that they were my girlfriend.

When you’re pre-adolescent, the worst thing in the world is girls. You know you’re gonna have to date and marry one eventually, but the thought of it makes you want to vomit and stick bugs up your nose. You hope, at the very least, that she’ll be pretty. That will at least make it somewhat tolerable.

“Look guys, there she is!” Dad would say with fantastic delight. “It’s Brock’s girlfriend! Look, it’s BROCK’S GIRLFRIEND!” And then he’d making loud kissing noises. And then he’d laugh. And so would my brothers.

I’d protest, but the more I did the worse the taunting got. Dad never chose women in other cars or attractive ones on billboards, so invariably I’d end up “attached” to bag ladies and, yes, hookers. This is how I learned who was pretty and who was not. And I became deathly afraid of liking a girl who wasn’t pretty. I didn’t want to be made fun of.

Memory confuses things and puts things together that don’t necessarily go together. When I’m driving through town and I see a prostitute walking the street, I think about about those car games. I think about traffic lights and McDonald’s. Conversely, when I see a McDonald’s, I think of hookers.

Huh. Maybe that’s why I don’t like to eat there.