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Agents are Human, Too

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.

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What Michael Lewis Can Teach Us About Writing in the Real World

I went to see The Big Short last week. As someone who has worked as a writer, editor, writing instructor and book coach for 27 years, I am not a person who has a natural understanding or affinity for numbers, but I am a reader of newspapers, and I have a mortgage, and I am a generally aware citizen, and care about the state of our world, and I am just as susceptible to the buzz of a big movie as anyone else, so I thought it would be an interesting way to spend an evening. It was – though not in the way I expected.

I went to the movie with my husband, who has an MBA, is a CFO, and worked on Wall Street for several years after college. He is, in other words, a person who has spent 27 working with numbers. Throughout The Big Short, Rob was belly laughing. Totally cracking up. And I kept looking at him thinking, “What? What?” Afterwards, he declared that he loved the movie. He thought it was hilarious and important – a masterwork.

I understood the storyline – Adam McKay worked hard to make sure that someone like me would – and I understood what an important point the movie was making about our banks and our culture. It was, in that way, quite frightening, and also motivating in terms of making sure I continue to be an aware consumer and citizen. I also recognized that some of the acting was amazing, because I largely forgot that I was watching Brad Bitt and Ryan Gosling – which is hard to do.

But what I took away from the theater was this: a million questions about how it was done.

Not every movie – or book -- causes that reaction in me. I saw The Force Awakens over the holidays and also Spectre, and loved the experience of those movies. They were fun – Star Wars even despite the obvious plot holes and plot repetition. But with a movie like The Big Short, which by all measures shouldn’t work (a movie about banking and bankers and the arcane facts of trading?), I am just dying to know how.

How did the writer get the idea? How did he know it was a good idea? How did he organize the material the way he did? How did he choose whom to give a POV? How did he convince anyone else this story was a good idea? How did they get Brad Pitt?

When I came home from the theater, I hit the Internet to answer my questions. We live in extraordinary times, that we can do such a thing – just instantly get answers to almost anything. I learned all kinds of interesting things about casting, and the bit with Selena Gomez, and then I happened upon an article by Michael Lewis about his surprise that the movie got made at all. I want to share it with you today, because it’s a beautiful and profound explanation of what it means to be a writer in the real world.

What do I even mean by that? Well, it’s pretty easy to be a writer who sits in her room alone and never shares her work with the world, but to be a writer who thinks about her reader, and who thinks about the marketplace, and who is brave enough to want to be read and to do what it takes to make it happen – that’s hard. That's what I mean by being a writer in the real world. It’s what I work to help people become, and it’s what I want to be in my own work.

In this article, Michael Lewis shows us how it’s done – step by step, from the moment the idea hit him, through his exploration of it, through the doubt he felt about it, and all the way until the big movie rolled into the theaters. I annotated in yellow the passages throughout where he shows us these things, because it’s not always explicit. But it’s there – a subtext to everything he is writing. I explained my thinking so you can see exactly what I mean. I hope you take inspiration from it for your work in 2016.

>>>> CLICK HERE TO SEE ANNOTATED PIECE

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