The Truth

At the end of each year, my tradition has been to reflect back on it, and note my progress towards my goals. The process makes me feel happy about the things that I accomplished, and simultaneously helps me recognize any areas that need work. Now that 2012 is over, I’m going to take a few moments to remember it.

I entered 2012 off the job. I was quite unhappy where I was working in 2011, because it was a job that had no upward momentum. I had left in August, and was still not really looking for work by the time 2012 began.

I got engaged, despite the fact that I was between jobs. My younger self always imagined that I would have my career figured out long before I was ready to get married, but that’s simply not how my life worked out. I’m comfortable with that, because I’ve learned that getting ahead in life often requires you to change your plans.

I had faith that I would make things work, and provide for my wife-to-be no matter what it took. Cassie must have known that too, because she said yes.

Not one month after the engagement, Cassie’s father died. It was a damaging blow that took us by surprise, and it still hurts.

It was tough to return to “normal life” for a while.

In early 2012 I was waiting to hear back from the creative writing program I applied to. I had my manuscript and application submitted, but I wouldn’t hear if I was accepted until March. Turns out, I didn’t get in.

I felt disappointed, but not directionless.

The plan when I left my previous job was that I’d take my shot at the creative writing thing, and if it didn’t work out, then I’d go back to work. It’s the cycle I’ve grown accustomed to: Find a job I can tolerate for a while, accumulate some money, and then try to do what’s really important to me.

This time around, though, my strategy for finding work changed.

Instead of looking for a job similar to every other job I had before, I reached higher. Much higher. I was applying for positions that made me feel uncomfortable. Positions that I didn’t have a lot of experience in. Positions that maybe I wasn’t even qualified for. Positions that, if offered to me, I’d be scared to accept out of fear of failure.

I reached regardless. I combed through local job openings, and spent time researching the companies I was applying for. I found myself taking a more selective and informed approach to my job search, and getting on the phone every morning to make myself known. Looking back on it, I realize that I was on a quest to find a job that I would love, rather than just on a hunt for any job offer.

Within three months I was working on a development team for a programming firm. I was among sharp people, learning interesting things daily, and being challenged like no other job has ever challenged me before.

Suddenly, I didn’t care that I needed to get up and go to work every day. It made a huge difference in my mood. It’s hard to convey just how huge a difference, but in an attempt to illustrate it, let’s just say that at my previous jobs, there were days where I’d rather get punched in the face than go to work in the morning. I don’t feel that way anymore.

The biggest accomplishment for me in 2012 was starting a job that mattered. It’s satisfying me both financially and mentally. As an added bonus, it revived my interest in programming — something I thought I lost in college.

There are other things that I did in 2012: move into a house, plan our wedding for July 2013, and compete on the world stage in Donkey Kong, but in this moment, my career is the most significant achievement. I’ve been so unhappy in my career for so long, that I can’t help but take pride in doing great work that I actually enjoy doing… Finally!

To mention something obvious, I’ve been writing a lot less. Though I could make excuses like “Oh I’ve been really busy! Planning the wedding! Working on the house!” — they’re simply not true.

The truth is that writing used to be a necessary outlet for me, when I was stressed out by my job. I was underemployed, unsatisfied with my day-to-day life, and consequently miserable. Writing helped me cope.

I still love writing, and I still believe it’s my passion and calling. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that I no longer need to write to feel happy. I admit, there are still sad days when I realize that “Wow, it’s been months since I’ve written anything” — but it doesn’t tear at my soul the way that it once did.

For me, 2012 acted as a transition into a more fulfilling life. One part of me is proud of myself, for making it happen. The other part of me is grateful, for my new guardian angel sitting on my shoulder. Ever since Steve died, I’ve been constantly aiming to make him proud as though he was watching my every move. It’s been an exciting and productive year, in spite of its shaky start.

I’m really doing it, Dad — partly for me, but mostly for your daughter. I want to be the best man I can be, so that she will always stick by me, and can rely on me. The truth is, that’s what’s important right now.

Cheers, to 2013! Let’s make it great!

Keep Trying Against All Odds

For a long time now, I’ve dreamed of being a writer.

There’s a certain Beatles song, “Paperback Writer,” that I first heard in college and ever since has become my personal theme song. I crank it loud whenever I hear it on the radio, and I really sympathize with the lyrics: “It’s a steady job but he wants to be a Paperback Writer.”

Recently, I left my steady job so that I could focus on writing a story. Specifically, this story was part of an application to a creative writing master’s program. When I was working through the application, I was very aware of how competitive the program was, but I felt like it was important to try.

The University of Iowa is ranked #1 in the nation for creative writing. Imagining that I probably wouldn’t get in, I simultaneously sent my story in to a more local school, the University of Michigan, which just so happens to be ranked #2 in the nation for the same discipline. I felt it was smart to have a backup option.

After sending in my applications in December, I imagined just how exciting it would be to actually get accepted into either program. I wondered what kind of culture existed in the writing schools, and the kinds of students that got accepted. All of them, I’m sure, share the same writing dream that I do. It would be a community of aspiring writers, all eager to bury their heads in their developing stories, and having the best resources and professors at their fingertips. In short, it would be awesome.

In late February I heard back from my backup school. I didn’t get in. A professor from the University of Michigan wrote:

Dear Mr. Boyd:

During the last six weeks, our faculty members have read a large group of applications for admissions to the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. This was among the most impressive group of applicants in the program’s history, and also the most numerous. Places and money, however, are very limited, and we have only been able to make offers to a small group of exceptionally well prepared and compelling candidates (fewer than 2% of our applicants). We regret to say that, in this stringent competition, your application for admission was not successful.

Please know that our decision is meant to negate neither your talent nor your prospects–it is simply our collective judgment that others have first claim on our attention at present. If our experience is any guide, many applicants to whom we can’t offer places go on to fine graduate careers elsewhere. We wish you every success in pursuing further study.

It felt disappointing, but it wasn’t too surprising. I knew simply from the size of the envelope, and the relative quickness that it was sent to me, that I was not accepted. Additionally, I don’t come from a journalism background or have an English degree. Everything that I’ve learned about creative writing, I’ve done on my own. Perhaps they were looking for people with a more formal literary background.

Not two weeks later, I received a similar letter from my first choice. The director of the Creative Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa wrote:

Dear Shaun,

The members of the fiction admissions committee have carefully reviewed your application, and I am sorry to report that we are unable to offer you a place in the Workshop. We have a limited number of openings and must turn away many promising applicants. This year, one thousand and twenty people applied for twenty-five spaces.

We wish you well and thank you for your interest in the Writers’ Workshop.

When I told Cassie I didn’t get accepted into either program, she was disappointed for me. Later, she said that she was impressed how I didn’t seem too upset about it.

“What’s there to be upset about?” I thought. I knew going into it that I was facing incredibly difficult odds. I knew that it was essentially a gamble for a chance at a life that I may never see. Although I’m willing to try my best and reach out for opportunities that aren’t right in front of me, I’m still very logical and realistic.

Still, I feel that it’s really important to try, because you’ll never know unless you do! Furthermore, this isn’t the end-all definitive moment that says I will never be a writer. It simply means that I’m not attending their Fall 2012 programs. I can always try again next year, or the year after that. Similarly, I can still become a successful writer some other way, via a path that’s not yet clear to me.

I look at it this way: The first feedback that Stephen King ever received, after eight years of submitting stories, was a handwritten postscript on a rejection slip. It said “Don’t staple manuscripts. Loose pages plus paperclip equal correct way to submit copy.” Imagine all of the stories and films that would never have been added to the world if King had stopped trying!

At the very least, applying to the programs got me back in the habit of writing my novel-in-progress. I have over sixty pages of it now, and a solid idea of where I want it to go. Also, I have an interest in steadily moving the story forward. And of course, I still have the strongest desire to succeed at writing.

If I want it bad enough, and if I’m tenacious enough, I will get there. Someday, I will be a Paperback Writer. And even if I don’t, I will always have my theme song…

Sometimes You Expect Great Men to Live Forever

My father-in-law died. I suppose technically he’s my “father-in-law to be” but neither title really does him justice. He treated me like family, he is one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, and I’m shocked that he’s gone.

We received the call Wednesday night. Cassie and I were watching a movie when her little sister called. I only heard one side of the conversation, but all I had to overhear was the word “hospital” and I started putting on my coat.

A lot of things go through your mind when you’re en route to the hospital to meet a loved one. You fear the worst, hope for the best, and tell yourself that this can’t be happening. Then you drive a little faster.

A security guard meets you at the front gate, and whistles at you when you try to plow through without letting him open it first. You fumble with the window while Cassie chokes out a faint “My dad’s in the ER.”

You’ve arrived, but there’s nothing you can do. He’s already gone, and your brain can’t understand what was just said to you. “He really liked you, Shaun.”

Liked me? As in past tense? Are you kidding me?

The family arrives in waves. We all cling to one another, still unable to believe what we’re here for. We’re paraded down the corridor to a room where you find the shell of a man you loved, wrapped in a white sheet, one unseeing eye still slightly open.

You cry, and cry, and cry. People take turns being hugged and hugging you. Someone hands you a tissue. You’re rejecting the reality of the situation when Cassie says “I just had a horrible thought.” Someone asks “What?” but she says it’s too selfish. She looks at me and I’m certain she’s thinking the same thing I am:

He won’t be giving the bride away at our wedding.

You try to find out how it happened. He was fine and then gone, no previous health issues. You realize he was barely 59, and as his siblings arrive you can tell they think it’s just not fair.

A staff person bothers his wife for insurance information. He goes on to ask her who will pick up the body. You imagine yourself strangling the kid as he mutters an emotionless “Sorry for your loss” before leaving with his clipboard.

When you finally leave, you barely sleep. The days blur together as everything happens quickly. Meet at the funeral home to discuss preparations. Write an obituary. Select a casket. Meet the pastor. Drive Cassie wherever she needs you to. Press your clothes. Tie your tie. Attend two days of viewing. Remember to eat something. “Thanks for coming, Thanks for being here, Thanks for everything.” Operate on two hours of sleep. Sit anxiously in traffic on the way to the funeral. Sit in the first row. Hold his wife’s hand as she weeps. Let the tears flow during the eulogy. Honor his passing with kind words by friends and family. Carry his casket.

Writing all of this hurts. The more I write, the more I want to delete. It’s just not right to focus so much on Steve’s death. I’m going to write now about Steve’s life, how I knew him, and how we came to love each other.

The first time I met Steve I was really nervous. I was dating his daughter, and all that I knew about him was that he was a powerful and successful businessman. I imagined that all he knew about me was that Cassie met me on the internet. I was terrified that he might not like me.

We met for lunch at an Italian restaurant. Steve and his wife Ellie were already there, sitting in the booth. I’m sure that I was on my best behavior, and I tried my best to make a good first impression, but I cannot recall what we talked about.

The one stupid detail that I do remember about our first meeting was what I ate. I chose a pasta dish: baked manicotti — not because I particularly liked or wanted manicotti, but because it was one of the less expensive items on the menu. The fact that I was concerned about cost shows just how little I knew about Steve back then.

I’d quickly come to learn how generous he was. Steve didn’t care about the price of my dinner. He didn’t care if I ordered a coke, or a beer, or a fine wine. He just wanted to please people with food. Steve would take us out to dinner often, and whenever we went out there was no question who was covering the bill.

Sometimes when we were waiting for a table, he’d walk away for a minute and then come back holding two beers. He never asked if I wanted one, he just assumed that I did and would hand it to me with a big grin on his face.

Whenever there were leftovers he never kept them for himself, and since he always over-ordered he was constantly sending us home with lunch and dinner for the following day. But his generosity was not limited to sharing meals.

When I met him at the casino, he’d give me cash to gamble with. When I found a nice pair of shoes, he’d offer to buy them for me. After I mentioned that I was maybe, possibly, thinking about getting flat screen TV for our new apartment, he showed up at our door with one in his backseat. There really was no limit on how much he was willing to give.

One thing greater than his generosity was his sense of humor. He was a born entertainer, always sharing new jokes and clever one-liners. It’s impossible to fully convey just how hilarious Steve was.

I’ll never forget the time that we bought him a special pillow that he wanted for his birthday. It was twice as long as a normal pillow, and after he took it out of the bag he excitedly balanced it on his head and announced “In honor of my birthday, I will re-enact for you the story of my birth.” Steve folded the pillow around his head, and then made a “HNNNGGGH!” sound while he proceeded to push his face through the pillow as if it were a birth canal.

As time went on, I was confident that Steve liked me. It wasn’t until after Cassie was diagnosed with cancer that I understood that he loved me.

During the first few weeks following her diagnosis, I was spending every waking hour at the hospital with her. Steve stopped by one afternoon and surprised us with carryout. He had gone to the same Italian restaurant where I first met him, and gotten Cassie her favorite chicken pesto pasta. For me, he brought baked manicotti.

I wish that I had shown some ounce of acknowledgement that he had remembered, but all I did was smile and say thanks. After we finished eating, Steve collected his things getting ready to leave. He reminded me to get some sleep, and I motioned to shake his hand goodbye like we always had before. He pulled me in for a hug, and I understood how grateful he was that I could be there for Cassie in this time of need.

The final memory that I want to share is the hardest to write about. Just this past December, I decided that I was ready to make things official, and that I was going to ask Cassie to marry me. I planned on calling Steve to ask for her hand.

The nervousness that I felt on the first day that I met him returned with a vengeance. I put it off a few times, but finally called him the day after he turned 59. I remember seeing his name on my cell phone’s display as the phone dialed and telling myself that this was it.

Steve answered with a friendly “Hi Shaun.”

“Hi Steve how are you?”

“Good and you?”

“Fine thanks. — I wanted to wish you a happy belated birthday.”

“Oh thank you! That’s cool. I got a lot of calls this year.”

“Yeah? How nice. — I do have something else to ask you.”

“Okay.”

“I wanted you to know that this Christmas, I plan on asking Cassie to marry me.”

Without hesitation, Steve said “That’s GREAT news! How wonderful! I’m sure she’ll be so excited!”

“I think so too.”

I had rehearsed what I wanted to say, so I talked over him a little bit at this point.

“After five years, I’m finally ready to make it official. And I want to tell you that I’m really excited for you to be my father-in-law.”

“You’re a great guy and I couldn’t be happier for you both.”

I told him to keep it under his hat until Christmas, but he couldn’t fight off his excitement. I know that Steve told a few people that he knew could hold their tongue: His wife Ellie, and his son Max.

Now that he’s passed, I feel disappointed. I’m disappointed that he won’t be at the wedding, and that I never got to call him Dad. Steve was such a great man, who was larger than life. So much larger than life that he seemed immune to death.

In spite of my disappointment, I’m so happy that he knew my intentions. If I had waited any longer, I would not have gotten the chance to have that conversation with him. It warms my heart knowing that he was excited for us, and accepting of me. Through all of the sadness, knowing that Steve loved me too kept my head held high as he was laid to rest.

I love you and I’ll miss you, Dad.

Steve Metzler

STEPHEN METZLER
December 14, 1952 — January 25, 2012

Remember to Take Your Shot

There’s a scene I like in Rocky where the bartender criticizes a guy on TV and Rocky calls him out on it. The scene goes something like this:

[TV shows heavyweight champion Apollo Creed being interviewed. Apollo encourages kids to stay in school: "Use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make ya grunt and smell. See, be a thinker, not a stinker."]

Bartender: Will you take a look at that guy? I mean, where are the real fighters gonna come from — the pros? All you got today are clowns.
Rocky: Clown?
Bartender: That’s right, clown.
Rocky: You callin’ Apollo Creed a clown?
Bartender: Well, what else? Look at him.
Rocky: Are you crazy? This man is champion of the world. He took his best shot and became the champ. What shot did you ever take?

The bartender says something about how Rocky’s unhappy with his life, and then Rocky gets fed up and leaves.

What I like about this scene is the disconnect between their mindsets. Rocky acknowledges and respects Apollo’s accomplishments. Rocky understands that to become champion, Apollo needed to take charge of his life and take some hard risks. The bartender, on the other hand, is a typical hater.

I think that on some level, the world is divided into two camps. People who take charge of their life, and people who think that’s just too hard. This quick interaction between Rocky and the bartender demonstrates both camps really well.

For most of my life, I was in the second camp. I imagined that I needed to settle for what was put in front of me, and that the interesting and exciting lives were reserved for other people. I was sleepwalking through life, doing this and that, but never really enjoying myself.

I made a conscious decision to change all that, and started taking more risks. This past year, though, I realized that I was falling on old habits. I found myself working in a dead-end job that made me unhappy, and doing little to change my situation.

During one of my lunch breaks I was reading an article about creative writing schools. I found myself remembering what I had set out to accomplish in life, and yearning to be surrounded by fellow writers while immersing myself in their stories. I regretted the fact that I was suddenly aware of how I was clearly wasting my days away at a job I didn’t enjoy, and how it was distracting me from the writing life that I wanted. I kept reading.

The article described the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa as the most renowned in the country. It mentioned how competitive the workshop was, and how the number of people accepted into the program was a relatively small number.

It seemed like a long shot. It seemed hard. It seemed like something that would not happen for me, and was clearly reserved for other people. In spite of all of these initial thoughts, I imagined what a privilege it would be if I’d get to participate.

I have realistic expectations. I applied to a backup school in case my first choice for an MFA creative writing program doesn’t work out for me — but I did apply.

I’m taking a shot. It might work out, and it might not. If it doesn’t, then I’ll have to take another shot after that.

Too many people never take their shot. They don’t take a shot at happiness, at their dreams, or at life. Maybe they’re afraid of failing, or being told “no.” Maybe they think they don’t deserve the life they want, or that they’re comfortable where they are, or that they need to focus on something else for now.

Sometimes we have legitimate excuses for biding our time. More frequently, though, they’re just excuses. We make things up to justify our current existence.

A few weeks before Christmas, I finished the bulk of my application to the schools. It was 60 pages thick and made me smile. I collected everything that needed to be sent away using a checklist, and I dropped everything into the mail with my fingers crossed.

It’s a gamble for a chance at a life that I may never see. But I’m trying my best to reach out for opportunities that aren’t right in front of me.

I may never be champion of the world at anything. Still, I’m taking my shots on my own terms. It feels good.

If you’re unsure of what to do with this year, try taking a shot at the life you’ve always dreamed of. That way, if they’re successful, you can look back with pride knowing they were responsible for the life that you’re living. And even if they’re not, then at least you took charge of your life, and took some hard risks.

There is no “Finishing”

Last night I went to bed thinking that I was done. I had completed the 80 pages that I had set out to write to include with my application, and felt glad that I had accomplished it by the end of November as planned. Today I sat down to re-read my “masterpiece,” though and proceeded to pick apart my opening chapter.

I couldn’t help myself. I saw areas that needed improvement. Things that were unclear, or inconsistent, that needed changing. The first time I’m writing something my primary objective is to get the thoughts out on the paper. If something still needs work I’ll come back to it later and edit it until it’s finished.

The thing is, there really is no “finishing.” Not for most writers, anyway. A girl in my writing group constantly reminds me how “There is no ‘finishing,’ only ‘deadlines.'” And she’s right. If I let myself, I will edit this piece in pursuit of perfection forever.

Some of it needs work. A quick edit I did earlier in the month involved me quickly going through and removing all of my stupid cursing. It’s a bad habit I have when writing a first draft. My strategy is just to KEEP WRITING AT ALL COSTS and so sometimes when I’m trying to think of what to write next I buy myself a split-second of time by slipping in an extra, unnecessary curse word. Although they were all removed in my first “quickedit” when I actually started reading the story there was a lot that I wanted to change.

I find the writing process interesting because now that I’m 80 pages into the story, the character I was first writing about was an unspecific, barely described shape of a man that was thrust into an unusual situation. As my story developed, the character became more fine-tuned and understood. I didn’t realize exactly who I was writing about until later, so the first chapter focused more on the things around him than the main character.

That was okay at the time, because it allowed me to get the story idea out — but today I essentially re-wrote the first chapter.

I didn’t expect to have to do this, because when I was writing it the first time I thought it was fine. But coming back to it after enough time where I almost don’t even recognize my own writing, where I can view it with eyes that know where the story is truly headed, gives me the benefit of editing with certainty — I know that I’m really improving this.

Improving writing might mean taking things out. Unnecessary words bother me. Improving writing might mean adding things in. Clarity is important. Improving writing might mean realizing something you wrote in Chapter 1 is inconsistent with a detail you wrote in Chapter 15, and correcting things appropriately so they make up a coherent storyline.

Meeting a page goal was one goal. The next goal is to make it better than it is right now. It’s a competitive school, and not a lot of applicants get in. I’m viewing this piece as something that could be a ticket to a new life among fellow writers. I imagine that I won’t get in, given the odds. But I want to give it my best, you know?

I need to move forward. I spent over four hours today obsessing over individual sentences and individual words in a single chapter. I’m forgiving myself for investing that much in such a small section of the piece because it’s the hook. Maybe it’ll be the only thing the decision maker reads. But I can’t spend forever on it. There’s a deadline involved.

I told myself that I’d forfeit writing in my blog for the month of November in favor of focusing on my manuscript. It’s important to me. November’s over and there’s still work to be done, but I’m confident I’m practically done. Last night I imagined that I was, and today I learned that I wasn’t.

It’s cool. I’m almost finished. I think so, anyway.

Yet part of me thinks that I’ll refuse to send this away to be judged until the last possible moment. It’s not that I’m obsessed with being perfect, or that I’m a terrible procrastinator — it’s just that this is something that’s important to me, that also happens to be something I enjoy. There’s no “finishing” the things that you enjoy. You just keep doing them.