12/17/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

The Things You Almost Didn't Do

My daughter was 5 years old when she performed in her first play -- not the kind of production kids put on when company comes over, but the real deal, with lights, costumes, makeup and props. And because it was scheduled for the week of Halloween, the show included spooky jokes, scary songs and a few funky dance moves, all of which Angie had been practicing for weeks.

She rehearsed with her drama teacher every Wednesday afternoon, and went over her lines with me every night before bed. Angie was prepared and excited, but on the night before the big show, she had second thoughts.

"I've changed my mind," she said. "I don't want to be in the play anymore."

It was far too late to back out. With only a handful of children in the cast, the entire production would fall apart if even one were absent.

"If you're not there," I asked her, "who will dance to your song?"

Angie had chosen Michael Jackson's "Thriller" for her dance routine, mostly because it was the creepiest song she could think of. She and I had watched the video, pushed the kitchen table out of the way, and danced like a zombie across the linoleum.

"I don't want to," she said. "My tummy feels weird when I think about it."

I told her everyone feels that way sometimes, especially when they are about to do something they've never done before. We all have moments when we question our choices, doubt our abilities and wonder if it would be best to change our minds.

"You can do this," I said. "You're going to be great."

The afternoon of the show, my daughter was so nervous she was pale. She stood on the stage and looked out at the audience, which consisted of exactly seven people. For her, though, it was Madison Square Garden.

Angie forgot every one of her lines, but when the first few beats of "Thriller" came over the sound system, she became a different person. She slipped dark sunglasses over her eyes, jerked her head like a zombie coming back to life and strutted her body across the stage with more sass and confidence than the King of Pop himself.

She even moonwalked.

This week, I also took to the stage -- to read my writing as part of the masters degree program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. I applied to the school on a whim two years ago, when Angie and I were living on the opposite side of the country. I wanted to change my life, and graduate school seemed like a good way to do that. My 12-year-marriage had just ended in divorce. I had two part-time jobs and a rented apartment in rural Maine. My world felt like a dead end street.

I never expected the university to accept me, but they did, and I spent weeks trying to decide if I was brave enough to enroll. It was the most difficult decision of my life, and I changed my mind on a daily -- almost hourly -- basis.

With the blessings of my friends and family, Angie and I sold our belongings and moved three thousand miles to southern California. After the first week of class, it was clear to me that I was in over my head. My classmates were published authors, successful screenwriters and college professors. I felt small in their presence, and began to think about dropping out and getting a job.

Then things changed. I got a scholarship. Literary magazines started publishing my essays. Classmates stopped me in the hallway to say how much they liked my work. I decided to stick around another semester, maybe two.

As I stood on the stage for Antioch, preparing to read my writing, I watched the guests fill the theater. My hands trembled. My mouth went dry. There were exactly 97 people in the audience, including my daughter, my teachers and classmates and author Susan Orlean -- who happens to be one of the writers I admire most. They were all staring back at me, waiting for me to say something.

I wanted to sneak out the back door, pretend I was someone else, fake a heart attack, anything to get out of reading my story to a group of accomplished writers. But I stood in the center of the stage and began to read.

A hush came over the audience. The lights warmed my face. I flubbed a few lines, but the guests seemed not to notice. They laughed at the funny parts and cried at the sad parts. I felt a sense of achievement that I had never felt before, like I had finally become the writer I'd always wanted to be.

At the end of my reading, I got a standing ovation from one person: my daughter.

I want Angie to know that the things she wants are all within her grasp, even when it's scary to reach for them. I hope she will be brave in the shadow of fear, strong in the presence of doubt, and confident in moments of hesitation. The things that she almost doesn't do are the things that will change her life.

On Sunday, I'll be back on stage, to finally accept that masters degree I've been working on for the past two years. Maybe this time I'll moonwalk.