The Mark Blog

On Agents

I met my agent in 2006 at Lee Gutkind’s now-defunct (or perhaps hibernating) Creative Nonfiction conference. I’d only been writing in earnest for about six months and I’d never been to a conference before. I picked that one because: a. Mary Karr and Kathryn Harrison were dueling headliners and I adore all of their books; and, b. my (then) employer offered to pay for it in lieu of sending me on a spa weekend for some magical feat I’d performed.

Sidebar: I never had the collegiate experience, being a 10th-grade high school dropout and all, so I was seriously alarmed when I arrived and was shown to the dorms. Holy fuck. The housing situation at conferences is dire. Look for a rant about that in an upcoming post.

My workshop was with a woman who runs an MFA program at a prestigious Southern college. On the last day, she took me aside and said, “I want you to know, this is the best work I’ve seen at the conference level.” Needless to say, I fucking cried. I went back to my hotel (what, you think I stayed in the cinderblock prison?) and ran 3 miles on the treadmill (okay, 2), and cried some more.

There was a hideous speed dating agent/editor event that evening. I plopped myself into a metal folding chair opposite a weary, young man with a shaved head, clutching a sweating Bud Light. I told him the story of my workshop experience and he asked to see the pages I’d submitted. I had zero expectations (which is like a unicorn sighting in my world), so I wasn’t nervous. He asked me to send him everything I had.

Flash forward: I sent him the work (all anemic 50 pages of it) and he offered representation. My expectations grew exponentially.

Flash forward: I met with him every time he came to L.A., and sometimes in other places. He was amazingly supportive, bought me dinners and wine, spread out my entire manuscript in the lobby of an airport hotel and went through it beat by beat with me, steering me toward a viable product. He was a mensch.

Have you picked out the words that are the beating heart of this cautionary tale?

Viable product.

There’s a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon between how I needed to figure out my story and viable product.

I tried. Trust me, I tried. We worked on a proposal for months. This was at the trailing end of the publishing comet that was memoir. He believed in me. I believed in him for believing in me. And you know what? It wasn’t enough. I needed time and space. There’s a brilliant Einstein quote, and I’m sure I’m bastardizing it, but it’s something like: You can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it.

It took five plus years of writing my little vignettes before I started to achieve critical mass and finally figure out where my story was rooted. In the meantime, I beat myself up on a daily basis for writing badly while someone was avidly waiting to see my new output. It was stultifying. And it led me down a series of twisty paths that ended in dark, scary cul-de-sacs where I was pretty sure I’d fucked everything up for good.

My longwinded point is that writing is complicated. We sit in lonely rooms (even if we’re surrounded by people at the coffee shop) and try to make meaning out of the words that bubble up out of our subconscious and into our pens. (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, especially if you’re under 30.) The publishing world is morphing and changing as we speak. And there’s a huge difference between what we, as writers, do every day, and what the publishing world wants from us.

Now, all these years later—and after a few fallow periods when I thought all was lost—I’m technically agentless, cocooned by PEN, and working my ass off to tell the story I wanted to tell in the first place.

I hope I’m a cautionary tale to every unpublished writer who thinks that the endgame is finding an agent/publisher/online venue to champion their work. Just write your story, the one you can’t not tell. If you’re fortunate enough to run across agents who express interest in your work, smile, be polite, and tuck their cards into that little flap inside your Moleskin notebook. Tell them you’re flattered, and you’ll be in touch. And get back to the page.

You’ve got a story to tell.

(Jesus, I sound like such an asshole, but it’s the advice I wish someone had beaten me over the head with in 2006.)