The Invictus Writers: A Tale About My Students

Ten months ago, I gathered a group of ten students and former students and issued e a challenge: Write a book.

This wouldnt be for class credit. They wouldnt get paid. There would be no external rewards that came with this. They could refuse or walk away without any repercussions.

In exchange, I promised them I would teach them how writers groups worked and make them blueberry pancakes at my house the one or two Saturdays wed meet each month. I wouldnt, I promised them, run the group. This would be their experience. I would only direct them when it appeared they were going off the rails.

The Invictus Writers, as I dubbed them, would set out to answer this question, individually: Am I a writer?

I had no idea whether it would work. Students are a notoriously fickle group. They are young, full of idealism, and ill-equipped as of yet to understand that life is a daily grind. Many big projects fail in colleges because students have not yet developed the discipline to try their hardest every day.

Of course, teachers try to offset this with incentives. Some offer positive reinforcement, supplying rewards for those who achieve. Others (like me) offer a more fear-based approach to learning, creating punishments that are far worse than the actual work itself.

Whichever path the teacher decides upon, students ultimately decide whether to adhere to the Rules of Engagement making outcomes difficult to project.

In this case, I had to factor in the very real possibility that while my chosen students wanted to be writers, they would ditch the project once the very real procrastinations of their lives piled up near semesters end throughout the school year.

What Do We Write?

In our early meetings, these ten writers gathered. They were unsure. They were not entirely clear how their work would become a book. They were not clear what they should write. They were frightened, confused, bothered.

They were also excited, energized, and focused (in the unfocused way you are when your hair is on fire and youre running…somewhere).

They were stuck between the purgatory of Life As Student and Life As Writer. No matter how much I implored them to figure out what to write for themselves, they continually looked to me for answers. (In my way, I did what I always do: not answer. A strategy that I can tell you frustrates students to no end.)

Eventually we did a few writing exercises designed to get them to collectively decide upon a series of topics: travel, adversity, mentor.

More questions came: Should we write three essays or one? Should they be essays or journalism or fiction? How long should they be? What should they have in common? What does travel mean?

For my part, I made pancakes and coffee while the Invictus writers nervously talked in my living room for several meetings.

One Ring To Rule Them All

Students are notoriously shy when it comes to running and managing projects despite their (sometimes) insistence that they know better than those around them.

The surest way to pop that bubble: put them in charge of a group of students, tell them everyone must learn and be accountable for their work, and then give their fellow students evaluative measures against them. (In my world, this is called teaching.)

My student leaders throughout the years have oftentimes found themselves quickly in over their heads, asking the same questions teaches ask (e.g. Why wont they just do the work?), coming to the conclusion that they must be mean to get things done (e.g. Why do they make me yell when they could just do the work the first time I ask them?), and accepting that you cant control everyone (e.g. Well I guess these students just wont pass.)

I feared the same may happen with The Invictus Writers. Not only were these aspiring writers unsure about their ability to write a book (hence all the questions that delayed their actual writing), but they also werent organizing themselves and making decisions.

Nobody, it seemed, wanted to be in charge.

Id tapped three students David Ake, Tiffany Holbert, and Kyle Hovanec to organize the group, but it became clear the Ake, an Army veteran, would be the man who ran the show. We spoke quietly and away from the group whenever he had questions, but mostly he did what leaders do: he did the best he could to create a plan of action, accountability measures, and camaraderie.

By the end of the first semester in December, the group was writing, editing and meeting on a regular basis while I was relegated largely to pancake duties.

The Season Is Upon Us

By the start of the Spring semester, the Gang of Ten had dwindled to seven. Wed attempted to recruit two other writers, but they fell out rather quickly: the Invictus Writers lineup was set.

The problem, of course, was the writing.

Two of the writers, Ake and Laura Allen, wrote in large fits. Their Google Doc pages filled with words. The others…didnt.

This is the problem with so many writers. (This writer is included in said globalization.) There is much talk about writing, but very little actual writing. And what writing is done is oftentimes littered with frivolous, narcissistic ramblings that both refuse to delve into the depths of the writer and offer up attempts as understanding human nature.

That is the curse of the young writer (and maybe of youth): a lack of depth masquerading as an understanding of life experience.

The wise, writer or not, understand this simple idea: life is small and full of details. The events of the moment reveal larger truths. But that doesnt happen through exposition. That happens through an understanding of the moment in a context.

Writing isnt about universal truths. Writing is about individual moments.

Finding those places is difficult, and it cant be done in one night. It cant be done in two nights.

Being a writer means writing every day. It means searching inside yourself for stories, for empathy, for understanding, for emotion. It means placing yourself in your characters lives and understanding who they are and why they are.

Writing is about being human. And you cant do that part time.

Publication Date: To Come

As we barrel towards our last production meeting, these seven writers have entered the panicked writer mode. They have eschewed sleep. They have abandoned any pretense about stories that tell of greater human tragedy.

They must. The deadline now looms.

They have reached the moment when The Fear takes over. Not the fear of failure or the fear of the blank page, but The Fear of the words betraying them. The Fear that they will not have told the story in the way that the story demands. The Fear that they will have pulled up, not gone far enough, and failed with the words.

Only a writer knows of The Fear. And you are not a writer until you have faced it. I say face because you will never conquer it. Like death, it looms in front of every story. They dont yet know this, but they will soon.

No matter how the battle ends, come May we will have our book ready to publish. The Invictus Writers will have written a book of personal essays, If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Tales of Risk & Rebirth. As I told them yesterday during our last meeting:

No matter what anyone ever says about what you wrote or what you have done, remember this: You have made something. Whatever someone says about that, they are responding to your creation. They have not done that. And in this world, making something means something.

I am notoriously poor at communicating feelings and emotions, though, so maybe Ill leave it to what Invictus Writer Kelly Shea writes:

Through working to make this project a reality, weve felt the joy of recognizing this potential in each other, and perhaps finally in ourselves. We are creating something that will be forever inspiring to all of us. And I have an inkling that the honesty, passion and strength Ive read in these stories might have a similar effect on the others that find this book in their hands.

The book space (for now) remains empty on The Invictus Writers website, but were slowly rolling out drafts of the work. The Foreword, written by me, comes first. Throughout the next few weeks we will make others available (and we shall clean up the copy on all of them).

As that happens, dig in, read, and let us know what you think.

The Invictus Writers:


Back row: Tiffany Holbert, Kelly Shea, Kathleen Branson, Rhett Umphress; Front row: Brad King, Kyle Hovanec, David Ake, Laura Allen

Dont forget to check out: The Invictus Writers Facebook page