I recently watched the movie, The End of the Tour, which is a movie about a Rolling Stone writer who spent some days on book tour with David Foster Wallace right when Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest was blowing up the literary world and people were declaring Wallace the kind of writer who comes along only once in a generation. It stars Jesse Eisenberg (as the reporter) and Jason Segel (as Wallace.) I deeply wanted to love this movie because David Foster Wallace is such a fascinating figure, and I have enjoyed both Segel and Eisenberg in all kinds of other movies and shows, and I was very taken with the conceit of the story – an exploration of what fame is and what it does to us.
Turns out the movie was sort of odd. The acting was fabulous but I felt like there was not enough of a sense of the writer’s motivation (his desires/fears, his misbelief about fame or Wallace or writing…) to hold the audience’s interest. It was slow and lacked the emotional punch I thought it could have had.
What it did, however, was drive me back to Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College in 2005 – a speech which has become legendary as one of the best ever given. I have listened to this speech and read it at least a dozen times and it never fails to move me or teach me something.
So I went back to it after the (sadly dull) movie and was riveted once again – this time by two things:
1.) What Wallace describes – this state of only being able to see our own point of view, of only being able to feel ourselves as the center of the universe – is a perfect description of the concept that a lot of students in my current Story Genius workshop are struggling with. I had never looked at Wallace’s speech as a place to learn about writing – but it’s wholly there.
We read to get into someone else’s head. To get out of our own narrow worldview and into someone else’s. That’s the whole point. The whole power of it. That’s why you can’t – in fiction – start with plot or end with plot or depend on plot. You have to start with who the person is and what they believe and you have to trace it all the way through to the moment when, against all odds, they learn to believe something slightly different. Same thing in memoir.
It’s a genius description if you read Wallace's speeech like that – as a treatise on what writing is and how it works.
2.) The point Wallace makes about how critical it is to try to get out of your own point of view – how important this exercise is to being a good human being. Wallace writes about what it feels like to make that shift. He is describing being frustrated and furious in a traffic jam full of gas guzzling SUVs.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
I have long loved this point from this speech – and what’s funny is that in my head it’s always a story about going to the post office, but there’s nothing about the post office in it at all. It’s a grocery story. It’s always been a grocery store, but I have somehow managed to turn it into a post office in my mind.
Anyway, I have loved it and have used it to talk myself off the ledge many times. But when I looked at it this time, it reminded me about a reality related to literary agents.
Quite the leap, I know, but bear with me….
There is this thing that happens when writers start to pitch agents: They take the agent’s responses very, very personally. They are so wholly in their own heads that they can’t for three seconds picture the agent’s reality – that, for instance, the agent has 50 manuscripts she is trying to read ahead of yours. That her start client may be going on The Today Show that day. That their kid may have broken their leg skiing that afternoon. All the writer can think about is that the non-response, or the negative response, is 100% a referendum on their own failures and frailties as a human being.
It’s not. Agents are running businesses. They are not out there doing what they do to try to make friends or enemies. They are looking for books they can sell on a national stage, serving the clients they work with who are making them the money they use to live, trying to do their work with as much care and compassion as they can – but aware that it is, in fact, work.
I often tell clients the David Foster Wallace graduation speech story (about the post office!) to remind them of this truth, but alas, it doesn’t often get through.
I am working with a client whom I shall call Mathilda. She has been pitching her extremely well crafted, timely and moving memoir and getting a whole lot of negative letters and a whole lot of non-response. There was one agent, a tippy top agent, who had expressed interested in her query months ago – I mean way before Christmas – and who had requested some pages. My client sent the pages and had heard nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
She didn’t want to send a follow up because she didn’t want to hear any bad news, and because if she didn’t follow up, she could preserve the illusion that the news was going to be good. So she went back and forth between these two extremes -- “He hates it and doesn’t want to tell me” and “He loves it and is just waiting for the right moment to tell me.”
I assured her that neither of these realities was likely true. The truth was probably along the lines of, “My kid broke his leg.” Or, more realistically, that the agent has totally lost track of the submission in his inbox and hadn’t read it at all.
Mathilda finally screwed up the courage to ping the agent back. Here is his reply:
“Thank you for the prod. My apologies for the delayed response, but no, I have not read the material. In fact, I don’t even know where it is. It was a while ago now. Can you resend it to me?”
It’s helpful to remember that agents are just people like you and me. Their inboxes are full. Their days are full. They want nothing better than to discover a great book and help a writer break into the big time – and their rejection or their silence is not necessarily a referendum on your worth, either as a writer or a human being.
It can feel like that. But it’s very often not true. And I think it helps a lot to remember that.