Do What You Gotta Do

Photo: “Highway Landscape” courtesy George Bohunicky from


It’s kind of difficult to be an unpublished author these days. You have to start, finish, and get published, and each step is heavier than the last. Even worse, it seems like everyone else who tries it succeeds. Look at all of the books that are published every month. It seems like everyone has a book out but you.

That isn’t true, of course. What you see in bookstores, on websites, and other outlets for book sales comprises the tip of the literary spear. The point, or tip, as it were, consists of people with varying level of talent who absolutely, positively refused to take “no” for an answer, and who particularly didn’t take it from the familiar face they confront in the mirror every morning. You can’t control every step of the process, but you can control part of it, the part that is in front of you. It is like driving. You can’t control other drivers, road hazards, or unexpected engine failure, but you can control something, at least, as long as you keep your hands on the wheel and your foot within reach of the gas and brake pedals. Don’t surrender control to chance. Otherwise, you’ll never get where you are going. I, of course, have a real-world story about this, one that has nothing directly to do with writing but everything to do with what is possible in the face of adversity.

I had a part-time job working in a supermarket during my high school days in the late 1960s. I was on my break during a particularly busy Saturday afternoon when someone hesitantly came up to the table where I was sitting. He appeared as if he wanted to talk to me but didn’t quite know how.

I didn’t know him, but I did know of him. “Steve” had been a couple of years behind me in grade school where he resided at the nadir of the Mariana Trench of the social order.  I had heard stories about Steve’s family and home life. The sad punchline to all of those tales was that he and his siblings didn’t have squat, either materially or parentally. His situation was so bad that no one picked on him, probably for fear that whatever bad luck microbacteria clung to him would rub off. He was also incredibly shy in the manner of an individual who has the words  “kick me” indelibly inked on his forehead.

I hadn’t seen Steve in over four years and had never in my life spoken a word to him. I accordingly was somewhat surprised when he approached me. I nodded and said, “Hey,” the way one would when he sees someone he recognizes but doesn’t really know. Steve, without any further social dancing, sat down next to me and said, “My girlfriend’s moving.”

My initial and unstated reaction was So? I realized that such a retort would be kind of harsh at the least, so I bit it back and instead asked him, “Well, uh, who’s your girlfriend?” He said, “Tabitha.” I asked, as if I were in the middle of a knock-knock joke, “Tabitha who?”  “Tabitha Stanley,” he said.

Whoa. I had a year or so before briefly “dated” “Tabitha Stanley,” who had been in one of my classes.  We kind of slowly and carefully drifted together and then painlessly drifted apart without any apparent damage to anyone all within the space of a few weeks. We remained casual friends, speaking in the halls, but that was the extent of our contact. I hadn’t exactly kept tabs on her so I had no idea at all as to how she and Steve had connected. Since Steve didn’t attend our high school and would not have had the opportunity to observe us I could only guess that at some point in their relationship they had gone through the boring begats of their romantic histories so that 1) my name had come up as a footnote and 2) my reflection in her rearview mirror was more favorable than otherwise, given that Steve felt he could approach me, however uncomfortably, and tell me that she was moving.

I at first couldn’t understand why he was telling me. I quickly figured it out from his demeanor. He was asking me for advice. He looked as sad without crying as anyone I had encountered up to that point. I also, from knowing his backstory, figured that Tabitha was probably the best thing — maybe the only good thing — that had ever happened to him. Stalling for time, I asked him where Tabitha was moving. He named a city two states away. That was a much larger distance and potentially insurmountable distance then than it is now.

He just sat there then, waiting for me to offer him some wisdom. I don’t know where my advice to him was conceived but from somewhere inside my totally clueless, hormonally driven, eighteenish self, I told him to stay in contact with her. Remember that this was in the late 1960s. They couldn’t text or skype or tweet or, um, send each other selfies or emails over cell phones or computers. There were snail mail letters and landline phone calls. That was pretty much it. I  told him to write to her as often as he could and to call her once a week. He told me that his house didn’t have a phone. I told him to save up his quarters and use a payphone, but to call her, to get a job and scrape up enough money to send her flowers on her birthday, and to send her a card once in a while. I also advised him that, when he got the chance and the ability to drive to where she lived, which was that city two states and a world away, he needed to do that, or, failing that, to take a bus. It’ll either work out, I told him, or it won’t. “If it does, you’ll know it. If it doesn’t, you’ll know that, too, and you can find someone else,” I said. “Either way, do what you gotta do.”

My break was over. I wished Steve good luck and went back to work. I never saw him again. I actually never even thought of him, or Tabitha, or the entire conversation until earlier this week, a half-century on. I ran into a high school friend, an encounter which resulted in an hour of “do you remember” and “whatever happened to what’s-her-name.” Later that evening I started looking folks up on Facebook. I happened to think of Tabitha for some reason and checked to see if she had a page. She did. It features a picture of her with Steve. They’re married, living in that city two states away, and have at least one son, a man in his forties who seems to be an upstanding guy with kids of his own. Steve still looks shy, but he also has the demeanor of someone who won the Powerball at least once. So does Tabitha. I’m reasonably certain that neither one of them ever split the atom, wrote a bestseller, recorded a Top 40 hit, or amassed a fortune, but they look like they’ve done just fine, even if they had to overcome geography, background, poverty, and undoubtedly a bunch of other seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get to that photo on Facebook, some five decades on.

So. Tell yourself anything you want, but don’t look in the mirror in the morning (or any part of the day) and say that you can’t do something because you there are too many too manys in your life. There aren’t too many books, or too many obligations, or too many expenses, or too many obstacles in your life to keep you from doing what you want to do. There are just enough barriers in front of you so that once you overcome them you can appreciate what you have and get what you want. If you don’t believe me, think of Steve and Tabitha. Every word I’ve told you (except for their names) is true. If they can reach their dream, so can you.

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

39 thoughts on “Do What You Gotta Do

    • Debbie, I’m not sure how Steve managed to find to me since we hardly hung out or anything. I would have been less surprised if he had shown up at my house. As for being wise…thank you, but I think it was more of a practical application of the infinite monkey theorem. He just happened to ask at the right moment.

  1. Wonderful story and wise advice for Steve. As Debbie noted above, he surely picked the right guy to ask for advice.

    As to the ‘there aren’t too many books” part–I realized during a conversation with a friend yesterday that there definitely aren’t too many books. We were discussing their top picks for a particular aspect of fiction & they quickly rattled off at least 5 books they could think of. When I tried to pick a comparative list, I couldn’t name as many.

    Which is to say it served as a reminder to me that no matter how many millions of books are out there, no one has my take, my angle. My view on things. It’s worth pursuing my own writing, because next time I try to come up with that comparative list, I want one of my titles to be in it.

    • Unfortutunately, Patricia, that is probably what I would tell him if he asked me that now! Back then, however, he looked so devastated that I wanted to give him some sort of hope that things just might have turned out okay. They did. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Great post, Joe. I had to pause and reflect on how isolated we were back in the 60’s. – “the late 1960s. They couldn’t text or skype or tweet or, um, send each other selfies or emails over cell phones or computers. There were snail mail letters and landline phone calls. That was pretty much it.” I remember heading off to college in 1970. My family was lucky to get a letter from me once a month. I never called. I showed up at home on the holidays, with a bag full of dirty laundry.

    But, the isolation part relates to how easy it really can be if we are determined to publish, to not accept no. I’m in the process of updating my MS Office, so I can download the Word plug-in for KDP, so I can format my book right in Word. It can’t get much easier than that. But, like you said, we have to refuse to take no for an answer.

    Thanks for a great story and the inspiration.

    • You’re welcome, Steve. Thanks for stopping by. Re: being isolated…for sure. We are all connected now. As with everything else, there are good and bad points to it. You were able to make the break when you started college. Now, I wonder if the break doesn’t happen until much, much later…

  3. Joe, as you can tell by now, your retelling of this event, like so many others I’ve seen from you, hit a chord. (It took me a long time to read through the responses before I got to open space.) This was not an infinite monkeys comparison. Monkeys with good hearts oftentimes get it right early on, even when they’re not trying. Well done, sir.

  4. This was a very positive and uplifting post and as a newbie gives me hope. Thank you for all of your help! Steve was a very lucky guy to have you to inspire him. Life is interesting, isn’t it? Just when we think things are dull and the same old grind surprises and opportunities can be waiting right around the corner.

    • Rebecca, you’re welcome, and thank you for stopping by so faithfully, as well as for that reminder about surprises and opportunities. They are everywhere.

  5. My hubby, kids and I just got back from our friends’ Chinese restaurant where we celebrated his birthday, our son finishing his master’s, our daughter buying a house, and me getting cast in a new show.

    Hubby and I celebrated our 40th anniversary in July. Our lives now are not exactly the lives we planned, but we got the important parts right. We are still.each other’s favorite person and our kids grew up to be wonderful adults. We all still enjoy getting together when we can (even though it may take a few weeks to sync schedules).

    Would I still like to be an Academy award winning actress with a string of best selling novels or screenplays to go along with it? Absolutely. Would I give up what I have now to get it? Nope.

    Weekend mornings I’m at my garden table writing my stories and tossing peanuts to the squirrels. Weekday mornings I’m up to write before my day job. (Nights are for rehearsals and learning dialogue).

    Will it ever pay off? I hope so. I’d like to retire to my beach house.

    Thanks Joe. I love that story.

    • You’re welcome, Cynthia. I loved your story even more.

      Please circle back and let us know when your show premieres.

      • Abigail/1702 opens Oct 6 and runs through Oct 28 at Breakthrough Theatre in Winter Park, Florida.

        We’re actually one of two plays about the Salem Witch Trails running on alternate nights. One is about the original happening and our show is 10 years later.

        Come see us!

        • Thanks for the 411, Cindy. Any TKZers in the Winter Park area should check this out. As for the rest of us…that sounds like a good reason for a road trip!

  6. Joe, This is a great message. I wonder how many lives have been changed when someone received encouragement from a stranger or little-known acquaintance.
    This should give us all motivation to keep going and to offer encouragement to others along the way.


  7. Most of the time when you’re kind to someone and it changes their life, you don’t ever know the result. How cooll that you were able to piece it together. Awesome story!

    • Thank you, Kelly. Re: piecing it together…you could have breathed on me and knocked me over when I saw that they had put things together. It made my week…

  8. Joe, I always enjoy your posts but this is one of my absolute favourites. So many lessons to be learned and just a really good story. Thankyou!

  9. Thanks for sharing your story, Joe. In taking that moment to form a compassionate response instead of an easy, flip response you changed the lives of Steve, Tabitha, and all the generations that will live because they got together. What a blessing for you and for them. Thanks for the inspiration.

  10. Joe,

    What a great post. Just what I needed to hear. I’m my worst enemy when it comes to my writing. I was a much braver writer when I was in college. Trying to regain that confidence again.

    Thank you.

  11. D, Thank you. Your response was just what I needed to hear as well. Tomorrow, look your enemy in the mirror first thing and tell them, “I love you, but you’re not holding me back for another second.” It works. Good luck!

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