Born Out of the Fires of Failure

Andy Graff hadn’t written one creative sentence since editors rejected the novel he’d spent seven years writing. Two years had passed since the manuscript he’d labored over through college, grad school and beyond found a home in his dresser drawer, never to be read by anyone else.

So he sat in front of his fireplace on a Wisconsin winter night, feeding old college papers, notes and syllabi to the flames. As he went through the boxes, throwing the reminders of his college days into the fire, he came across an essay. Flannery O’Connor’s “On the Nature and Aim of Fiction.”

He didn’t burn it.

He put it aside and read it later that night. After finishing the essay, he picked up a notebook and wrote one sentence about boys pushing their bikes down a gravel road between marshes.

It was that essay and this sentence that got him back to creative writing – that helped him pick up the pen again after his seven years of failure.

A creative writing professor at Cedarville University, Graff arrived at the school in the fall of 2015 with his wife, Heidi, and their son, Levi. Since then their daughter, Edith, has joined the family. The journey to Cedarville was rough and frustrating at times, but he said he doesn’t regret it because it changed him.

Writing the novel

Graff grew up on a hobby farm in Niagara, Wisconsin. As a child, he gardened, rode and fixed tractors, played in barns and hunted in the woods with his two brothers and his Alaskan Husky.

The son of a mechanic at the local paper mill, Graff loved working with machines. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force as a jet mechanic. After spending some time in Charleston, South Carolina, and Frankfurt, Germany, Graff went to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2002.

“I look back at pictures of myself holding an automatic weapon at 19 years old and I think, ‘Wow, you didn’t know what you were doing at all,’” he said.

Graff’s memories of Afghanistan are bittersweet.

“When I look back, I’ve wanted to go back often, because I’ve rarely felt that alive,” he said. “Like brushing your teeth behind a tent on a sand dune in Afghanistan, knowing there are Taliban in the desert watching you through scopes, was just extraordinarily exciting.”

After four years in the Air Force, Graff decided he wanted to get a college education. He enrolled in Lawrence University as a 23-year-old college freshman. Initially, he intended to be a paramedic, but he “decided that was not for me once I got into the back of an ambulance.”

He decided to major in English because he’d always liked reading and writing. His sophomore year, he began writing his novel, but it started out as a first-person essay on landing in Kandahar.

“The runway there was austere, it was packed concrete, it wasn’t meant to be landed on by 400,000-pound jumbo jets, so it was a really rough landing,” he said.

What interested Graff about his story was the tension of a jet mechanic in a war zone. He had a war story without any combat in it.

“How do you go all the way to the edge but you’re still second-class?” he said. “How do you go all the way to Kandahar, Afghanistan, but you’re still not quite in?”

The story wasn’t working in a nonfiction format, so Graff decided to switch directions.

“I just discovered in time that I needed more freedom to mess with events and stuff to try to make it dramatic,” he said. “I didn’t pull it off, but it became fictional. So the sights and sounds and smells of that novel are from that life, the events and things like that are not.”

He had a 200-page manuscript by the time he finished college, and he used it to get into the University of Iowa’s graduate-level creative writing program.

At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Graff worked on his novel three to four hours every morning. He studied under Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, such as Marilynne Robinson and James Alan McPherson. The latter told Graff to try to get the novel published.

So he did. Near the end of graduate school, he connected with an agent. He left the University of Iowa with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing with an emphasis in fiction. He accepted a full-time teaching position at a community college in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He taught six or seven classes per semester at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. The workload was so heavy he didn’t have time to work on his manuscript.

“I had to, in some ways, drop the whole idea or self-image of Andy as budding novelist, just in order to survive and pay bills for a while,” he said.

Graff spent his summers working on the novel, and two years into his teaching job at the community college, he tried selling it. His agent pitched it to several publishing houses, and in a few months, they had all gotten back to him.

They said they loved the writing and that they thought the characters were true to life. But there was one problem with the manuscript, and it was consistent across the board. All the editors thought it was the most boring novel they’d ever read.

And just like that, Graff’s dream of becoming a novelist died.

When Graff got the news, he stopped writing. The next two years, he didn’t write a single creative sentence. He was filled with confusion.

There was a definite period of mourning,” he said. “I had worked for the better part of a decade toward this goal, toward this moment and it didn’t pan out. And you have to question, ‘What am I doing then?’

Finding truth

Graff grew up in a Baptist church, but his attendance was irregular at best. When he left home, church was not on his mind.

“I did walk far and wide during my time in the Air Force,” he said.

When he arrived at Lawrence University, Graff became enamored with postmodernism, and he said this influenced his novel.

“I was writing it from a secular, postmodern, snarky, all-is-relative, there-is-nomeaning worldview,” he said. “So the book was dark and moody and everyone said, ‘Wow, this is so good!’ Because if you write something dark and moody in secular academia, even if it’s junk, it’s still art.”

But Graff realized he couldn’t live his life according to a postmodern worldview.

“Practically, the thought that you have to find your own way and your own moral ground in life is completely bogus,” he said. “You can’t do it. You need an external code. So I realized that, and at least in my own life was saying, ‘Wow, none of this is working.’”

Graff started attending a small Church of Christ behind a park with a fountain. Graff saw that the people in the congregation had something his friends did not have.

“What I noticed about them was they smiled a lot, and they used words like ‘hope’ and ‘peace’ without laughing sarcastically afterwards,” he said.

Graff began attending church regularly, and he eventually placed his faith in God. In grad school, he got baptized.

“I came back to (Christianity) as an adult, very seriously, having counted the cost, so to speak, and I haven’t looked back,” he said.

Graff’s newfound faith influenced not just his everyday life but his current project as well. When he became a Christian, the novel began to fall apart. His new worldview didn’t mesh with the one he had presented in the manuscript. So in grad school, he tried to weave his new beliefs into the story.

“I wrote what I thought were great scenes, like these characters were sitting on the wings of broken jets in the desert talking about God, and no one else thought that was great,” he said.

Andy Graff

Creative writing professor Andy Graff spent seven years writing a novel that didn’t get published. But that failure helped bring him to Cedarville (photo: Hannah Gallardo).

A crazy summer

After four years at community college, Graff felt it was time to move on. He was teaching composition to 30-year-old welders. He also taught technical writing and the occasional creative writing class. It was difficult, he said.

“I had to do a lot of work to convince welders why reading Virginia Woolf is important,” he said. “And I had some good times there, too, but overall, I really wanted to get back to a liberal arts environment.”

Graff also wanted to teach in a Christian environment. He wanted no part of the relativistic worldview that he saw in many secular colleges. So he began applying to Christian liberal arts schools around the country.

Meanwhile, at Cedarville University, the English Department was looking for a creative writing professor. It had a vacancy that hadn’t been filled since the spring of 2014. Kevin Heath, the department chair at the time, got ahold of Graff’s resume and saw that he had studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. So Heath decided to take a closer look.

In the early summer of 2015, Graff got a phone call from Heath. They talked, and Heath said he had a good feeling about Graff.

“It just felt like we were in sync, talking about writers, talking about the goals of the department when it came to creative writing,” Heath said. “The things that I wanted to do and still wanted to accomplish were still things that I thought sincerely he wanted to do.”

Graff visited Cedarville for an interview that summer. During his visit, the department put together a class so it could see Graff teach. Senior English major Rachael Tague met Graff in that class.

“He came in really high energy and excited, which I was glad about because I loved fiction,” she said, “and he did a really good job, it wasn’t too long, and he did a really good job of actually teaching.”

Graff was offered the position of creative writing professor, and he accepted it. That summer was a busy one for the Graff family. Graff finished teaching summer classes, sold the home, packed, found a place to live in Cedarville and moved. While all this happened, Heidi was pregnant with their second child.

“It was a crazy summer, but I have zero regrets about coming here,” he said. “We feel more at home in this town than we did in our four years in our last one.”

Putting an octopus to bed

Senior graphic design and English major Elise Parsons was a student in  Graff’s first creative writing class at Cedarville. Before she met him, her other professors had described him to her, but not in much detail. She expected a tall, blondish, military-type professor.

Graff surprised her when he walked through the door of Ambassador 21 on an August evening last year for the first day of advanced fiction.

“He was about my height, with shaggy dark hair and a dark beard and a Wisconsin accent and he was actively rolling up the sleeves of a red and brown plaid flannel shirt,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is going to be so much better than anybody warned me about.’”

Parsons said Graff was enthusiastic about the class.

“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Hello, y’all. Getting this together was kind of like putting an octopus to bed here, but we got all the details sorted out, and four of you managed to survive it, so I think it’s going to be a good class,’” Parsons said.

She said she felt she was going to enjoy the class after listening to Graff talk for a bit.

He went on to tell us that the kind of class where you couldn’t figure out the logistics and you met in the bottom of an old house was exactly the kind of class he’d always wanted to teach,” she said, “which struck me as encouraging, because it was kind of the class that I’d always wanted to take.

Heath said Graff has done well so far and that the future looks bright.

“He’s killing it. He’s done a great job with the Cedarville Review. I really like his energy,” Heath said. “He and I both probably err on the side of ‘We want this to be the best thing ever.’ So I like his ambitiousness about the program.”

Graff’s students agree that he’s done a good job of teaching. Tague, who took advanced fiction with Graff, said she likes his approachable personality.

“My favorite thing about him is that he’s a professor and he’s really great at what he does, but he’s also a friend,” she said.

Parsons said she admires Graff’s ability to approach different styles of writing.

“He will take whatever you throw at him, immediately recognize what kind of a project this is that you’re doing, and adapt his expectations to pushing what you’ve got further and seeing what happens,” she said, “so in a lot of ways, he’s more accepting of a wide variety of things because he’ll accept success in a wide variety of appearances.”

He also taught her how to write better descriptions.

“One piece of wisdom he gave me was, ‘Everything needs to have flesh,’” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it does, as long as it’s physically there.”

This idea of physicality, of making an imaginary world seem real to the reader, got Graff back to writing fiction.

Finding inspiration in the fire

One Wisconsin winter night in early 2015, he brought out boxes of his old college notes to the fireplace.

“I’d kept all of my papers from my undergraduate years, all the syllabi, all my notes, all my papers, all my readings, I just put them in boxes,” he said, “thinking I was going to put together some grand portfolio that would express my undergraduate training some day.”

Instead, he used them to start a fire. He picked up pieces of paper and threw them into the fireplace, showing no discrimination. He came across Flannery O’Connor’s “On the Nature and Aim of Fiction.” He almost set it on fire, but instead, he set it aside.

Once he had thrown everything into the fire, he read the essay. He arrived at this sentence: “A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.”

With this in mind, Graff picked up a notebook and wrote one sentence, making sure to apply what he had just read.

“I wrote a line about two boys pushing their bikes down a gravel road between marshes,” he said. “And I included sound, and I included visuals, and I included a sense of touch.”

This line has turned into Graff’s next manuscript. He began writing it early in the spring of 2015.

“It’s kind of like a modern day Huck Finn type of adventure,” he said. “Two 10-year-old boys running through national forests away from something and towards something.”

He has not had much time to work on it since arriving at Cedarville, but he expects to finish it by early summer.

“I have 75,000 words now of a novel that started on a piece of scratch paper, you know, inspired by an essay I almost used to light a fire. It’s really weird.”

The art of waiting

Graff has no plans to rewrite, or revisit, his first novel.

“I’m glad I have the failed novel in my sock drawer, and it will always stay there. I’ll never throw it out,” he said. “But I’ll probably never look at it again. Maybe when I’m 75 I’ll read a little bit of it and say, ‘No wonder they didn’t publish it. This is garbage.’”

Graff said, however, that at the time, he was devastated his novel didn’t publish.

“It felt like a complete failure, but it was good for me to learn how to deal with that,” he said.

Graff said he enjoyed exploring the ideas of the novel because they were his to explore, but those ideas didn’t interest the editors too much.

“In a dramatic sense, like, ‘Hey, here’s a novel about someone who sits in the desert and thinks about the desert and doesn’t do much,’” he said. “That’s not a good novel at all.”

Graff said he’s glad the novel wasn’t published because it’s not indicative of what he believes now.

That novel in the sock drawer retains parts of it that were written from that bitter, secular, lifeless, hopeless worldview. And that didn’t publish,” he said. “And now, I’m actually thankful that it didn’t publish, because I think to myself, ‘Man, I wouldn’t really want that thing pinned to my back.’

When he looks back on the seven years he spent writing his first novel, he doesn’t regret it, he said, despite all the work he put into it only to see it fail.

“I think that’s a good skill, to have something really, really, really not pan out,” he said. “You worked your tail off toward it and it didn’t pan out and then you flounder. I waited for a couple years. I did get to a place, I didn’t spend those two years saying, ‘Woe is me.’ I had those moments, but I got over it. I thought, ‘All right. God didn’t want that.’”

Those seven years turned Graff into a better writer, he said, but they made him a better person as well.

“It taught me how to live, learning that truth wasn’t relative, that my characters and I brought the worst of the war upon ourselves via behavior,” he said.

He said that the failure also shook him out of his idealized worldview.

“I think I started to feel entitled,” he said. “Here I was as an undergrad and everyone tells me that everything is great and life is going to be great, and I went to grad school and I was sitting in classrooms with Marilynne Robinson, and I started to think, ‘Well, of course, it’s going to be like this forever.’ It’s not.”

But the most important thing he learned from that time, he said, was how to wait on God.

“I think that’s where the waiting came from,” he said, “is getting over that confusion and just being able to say to God, ‘Fine. I’m fine with it. I’ll sit here by my fire in Wisconsin for the next 50 years if this is what you have me doing, and that’s enough.’”

To master the art of waiting, Graff said, one must place complete trust in God.

“It means to not question, poke and prod,” he said. “It means simply to just say, ‘OK, God. I’ll stay calm until something comes.’”

Graff waited for the job at Cedarville, he waited for his novel to take shape, and they arrived.

“I believe in providence. I think this job came at a time where I was just ready to say, ‘I got to get back into something I’m excited about or go do something else,’” he said. “This job came, and the way that the novel has come about, too, it’s just been writing itself. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but I just feel like it’s just been given to me to write.”

Jonathan Gallardo is a senior journalism major and sports editor for Cedars. He has no idea what he’s doing, but he knows he’s doing it really, really well.

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