What holds writers back is sometimes between the lines, as Dan discovers when he attends a writer’s conference.
In March of 2007, I had finished the first rough draft of Freedom’s Just Another Word, a memoir about the events around the time of my Dad’s death. It had been a critical time of my life and it led to me remember a violent incident with my Dad that happened when I was a teenager — and that made the bizarre events in my world begin to make sense. I had given all my handwritten notes to my friend Karen to type up, so I could let the manuscript get cold before I looked at it again.
In April I began to study the publishing industry to find out how to move forward with Freedom’s Just Another Word. I didn’t have strong assurance that I wouldn’t walk away from a book again – as I had done twice before. But I had to try. I knew that. I had also uncovered a memory of damaging messages laid on me when I was eight years old by my grandmother who, when I told her of my dream to be a writer, said, “They’ll call you crazy – and lock you up.” I was beginning to realize those messages had been much more of the reason I had avoided publishing books than I had realized, and it was time to push past those old messages.
One of the things I found was that writer’s conferences could be very helpful in finding out more about the industry, and even in connecting with agents. I discovered there was a conference in Austin, three hours down the road from where I was living, in June so I signed up to go. The most exciting part was that you could sign up for a 10-minute pitch meeting with a New York literary agent, to try to sell your manuscript. I studied the list of agents, picked my top three choices, and sent in my list.
I didn’t make the connection until later, but starting in April, shortly after I signed up for the writer’s conference, I started having trouble sleeping. I would lay awake until very late at night, and sometimes my legs shaking violently for a long time. When I had uncovered the violence with my Dad, I’d had a similar experience. I knew I must have touched something really deep; I just wasn’t sure at that point what – or why.
By the week I was supposed to go to the conference, I was shaking with fear nightly, and was really concerned that I’d be so sleep deprived and unable to sleep that I’d miss out on most of the conference, or at least not be able to participate fully because I was so out of it. I drove to Austin with a knot in the pit of my stomach, went to the hotel and signed in, and got my conference materials. I realized is that there was a humorous side note about the literary agent with whom I was to meet. Her agency also represented another author with my same name, who had written a memoir about sailing around Cape Horn with his father. So I was looking for an opportunity to at least meet the agent before our pitch session, and clear up the possible confusion.
I had signed up for a pre-conference workshop on the topic of creative nonfiction, given by the keynote speaker. I didn’t know what the term meant, and wanted to find out. As I went in to the workshop, I sat down next to a woman, and we chatted nervously for a bit. I found out that she hadn’t finished a book, and was going to use her pitch session with an agent to ask which of three directions she might go with her book. I was pretty surprised, but I was to experience that a number of times over the weekend – authors who hadn’t finished a book, and were just in an exploratory phase. I felt better about having completed my manuscript. But then I met a man who handed out business cards with his book and a website listed. That opened my eyes to the business side of the writing life: I knew I needed to get that part set up as well! The phrase creative nonfiction turned out to be essentially writing memoir with the fiction elements of scenes and dialogue – the way I wrote my books anyway. It just felt like a new term for an old writing style.
After the workshop, I found my chance. I saw the agent with whom I was to meet walking through the lobby. I walked up, introduced myself, and asked if she had a minute. She was very cordial, and agreed. I told her that we had a meeting set up for the next day, and mentioned the other Dan Hays that her agency represented, just so there wouldn’t be any confusion when she met. She laughed and thanked me for the update.
I had dinner, came back to my hotel room, and tried to settle down. I shook with fear until very late, and decided to skip the introductory session and go to one of the workshops later in the morning. I learned a lot at the workshops, but was so nervous about meeting the agent that I didn’t remember as much as I might have otherwise. I finally left one session before my meeting to walk around. I went up to the second floor where they were having the pitch sessions. It was a beehive of authors pacing nervously waiting, mentally rehearsing and going into several breakout rooms.
My turn came and I went into a small room with four cocktail tables spread out and agents meeting with authors at each. I sat down with the agent, shook her hand, and began my pitch. I was so nervous I felt like I was blabbering. I described my memoir, gave her some background on it, then listened for her input. She compared my book to a memoir that was totally unlike mine, and it was obvious she didn’t really get what my book was about. I realized later that I had inaccurately portrayed my memoir – emphasizing the darker side first and making it sound ponderous, instead of highlighting the hopeful message later in the story. (Sabotaging myself unconsciously?) She passed on the manuscript; I thanked her and left. I ducked in and out of several workshops that afternoon, but my heart was racing for quite a while. I I felt very anxious and couldn’t pay attention.
Saturday afternoon, after the last sessions and agent meetings, the conference organizers offered a happy hour mixer in the lounge downstairs. It was packed and noisy so I went out onto the porch to escape the density and noise. I visited with several people then began talking to a man I sat next to at lunch that day. He was visiting with a blonde woman, and she and I began to talk. Her name was Beth, and she asked about the book I had written. I told her about the faith journey that was Freedom’s Just Another Word. I told her how the book had started with me going to a spiritual mentor who was supposed to help me, but who was very harsh toward me. Beth asked, “So was he trying to hold you accountable?”
“Yes, in one way you could say that,” I replied, “but the way he was talking was more like a putdown – like he was mad at me or something.”
She nodded. “I see. And that was pretty hurtful to you.”
“It was, but the part where it got tied to the past was what happened after that. The guy said some rough things to me. Sure, it would make sense that I reacted to that. I was mad at the time – I wrote down everything he said and was furious at what he had said. But two days later, I was suicidal. That part didn’t make sense – it was a more extreme response than the events warranted.”
Beth nodded, listening intently, and I could tell she understood what I was trying to say. “So what did you get out of all of that?” she asked as people and conversations swirled around us on the now-crowded patio.
“It wasn’t apparent at the time,” I said. “The next thing that happened was that my Dad died and I had to deal with that.”
She nodded again with a sympathetic look on her face. “But through a whole sequence of events,” I continued, “I remembered a violent incident with my Dad from when I was a teenager that made everything that had happened make sense and fall into place.”
“Wow,” she said, shaking her head. “This sounds like a powerful book. You talk about it with such strength and conviction. You know, Dan, I just know God wants you to publish this book. I just get that. It is going to happen, and you’re going to find a way to make it happen. You have to share this story.”
So there it was – it felt like a mandate or a call to action. Her words resonated and were the fuel to keep me moving forward, even through the fear.
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