Steven James was a keynote speaker at the writers’ conference I recently attended. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard and thought so deeply during one speech. It’s the only CD of a keynote I purchased. It wasn’t that the others weren’t good, it’s just what he said somehow perfectly engaged both my brain and my heart.
The point that he made that was such an “aha” moment for me had to do with throwing your hat over the wall. I had never heard the phrase or the story to go with it before. I did some more reading about it when I got home. The phrase is used to describe commitment, especially commitment in the face of what seems impossible. The story goes that when a young man reached a wall that he didn’t think he could cross, he would throw his hat over the wall because that would ensure that he would get over the wall to get retrieve his hat.
I liked the image. I found a new commitment and courage while attending the conference. I determined that when I got home I was going to hang a hat by my desk to remind me that I was all in on this. I even knew the hat I was going to hang.
After my dad died in 1989, I “inherited” his black driving cap. It looks like this: My husband has worn it occasionally when he plays golf, but for the most part it has just hung by the door and gathered dust. This was the hat I was going to hang by my desk.
When I got home from the conference I started writing, even sent a few things off to be considered for publication. But as the days went by, questions arose in my mind and my resolve began to weaken. I began to replay old tapes. The worst one came from my dad.
The summer between fourth and fifth grades a few friends and I spent our allowance on steno pads and Bic pens and determined we were going to write the next great American novel—only we just called them stories. I wrote like my pen was on fire. I was proud of my story, so I took it to my dad for his approval. His lack of support was devastating. I can still hear his words to this day: “What were you thinking? This is terrible. You will never write anything that anyone is ever going to want to read.”
As much as it hurt, I kept trying. I received positive encouragement from my creative writing teacher in high school. Imagine my delight when we were able to briefly reconnect on Facebook and she reaffirmed her support. In college I continued to write creatively and my pieces were graded favorably and held up as examples. Friends and family, especially my husband, gave me all kinds of positive feedback. I wanted to send things in. Talked about it. Dreamt about it. But never seemed to be able to push past my father’s voice.
While I was at the writers’ conference, one of the things that I took full advantage of was the opportunity to meet with writers, editors, and publishers. I made some pitches, and used a couple appointments to pick some very talented brains. One of the people I sat across the table from was the director of the conference, Alton Gansky. I had nothing to pitch. I went in with a specific question, but when I sat down in the chair it just didn’t seem like the thing to ask. I asked him how to push through, to move from wishing to really writing. He looked at me, seemed somewhat surprised by the question. His answer, while not incredibly original, was exactly what I needed to hear: “Just do it.”
The other night I was awake late. The house was quiet. I felt like I was in a the middle of a weird game of tug of war. I was pulling for all I was worth, but I had this incredible team behind me, writer friends, family, friends, writing teachers and profs, Alton, my husband. Quite an impressive group. I smiled and felt a surge of strength. Then I looked across from me. There was only one person on the other team. It was my dad. And it dawned on me—this isn’t even a fight.
I walked into the office and I picked up his hat. Steven James was right. I do need to throw the hat over the wall. But I’m not going over the wall to retrieve it. I’m throwing it over the wall, and I’m walking away. I don’t know why my dad wasn’t able to be more supportive, but that’s about him, not about me. It’s time. It’s time to believe the whole host of people cheering me on. It’s time to just do this.
I know it won’t be the next great American novel. But I have stories to tell…and tell I will! And maybe I’ll go buy a new hat. One that fits me. One that is worth chasing.