PEARLS: When To Push and When to Protect Your Art

This week someone looked me in the eye and told me “I’m sorry it’s just too big.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the situation I had always fantasized that sentence would be said to me.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

When I told Jenny,  the head of my writers group in NYC where I’ve been workshopping my book for the last two years, that I was going to attend a writer’s conference in San Francisco, the best way I can describe her reaction is apoplectic.

“NOOO! DON’T DO THAT!”     She said looking at me like I had just announced to the group I had signed up to take a personality test with Scientology.

I tried to explain to her that my husband Saul and I had decided this year was the YEAR OF THE BOOK.  I had been writing my memoir for several years and was finally finished.  Now we were going to do everything we could to get it published.  “NO STONE UNTURNED!” was our motto.  But Jenny felt the that the only thing I would find under this writers conference rock was worms.

I had been to one other writers conference in San Miguel, Mexico a few years ago.  I heard some pretty good keynote speakers like Mary Karr and David Ebershoff, and I took some awesome workshops.  There was a lot of talk about the importance of social media and how so many writers are notorious for sucking at it.  (Which reminds me, please Venmo this blog if you like it).   But the gist of these conferences as opposed to a writer’s workshops involves talking to and hearing from agents.

Agents have a tough reputation.  Like lawyers and policeman and prostitutes, you tend to think negatively of them until you really need them.   I have always liked agents.  I had one when I was a TV writer, and one of my first jobs in NYC was working for an agent.   I knew Fran Mcdormand (that’s what we insiders called her) and Joan Allen when they were up and coming young actors.

But at these conferences, the agents who attend have something that the thousands of writers who are there want.  They are the narrow gateway into getting published traditionally. And the writers who want to walk through those narrow gates are a mixed group.  My writers group in New York is a small, serious group.  But at conferences, you have serious writers mixed with writers who want to write a book to get rich (You are better off playing the lottery and it’s a lot less time consuming.)  Billions of writers who come from crazy childhoods think  their life would make a great book (oh wait..that sounds suspiciously like me).    So there is a bit of a feeling at these conferences of being looked down upon by these agents.  You don’t feel like you might be the next David Sedaris, but more like you are part of the delusional masses who think they can write a bestseller but are more likely to die alone of consumption.

The agents don’t quite say that, but throw out a lot of hints that this is what they feel.

This is why the head of my writers group didn’t want me to go.   She believes a serious writer needs to treat their writing like something precious.   I have found that when people have any type of artistic gift, whether at being a musician or artist or dancer or writer or editor– or any of the number things that requires talent—they tend to be very insecure about their work.   And the more talented–the more insecure.   “Hi, I worked on this book for twelve years of my life.  I’m sorry.” would be my “elevator pitch” if left to my own devices.  The paradox is that to make any type of art, you also have to have some bold self-confidence deep inside of you or you just would never do it.

Despite Jenny’s dire warnings, I got through the first few days of the conference pretty okay.  I heard again I need to have a stronger “platform” (please twitter this blog if you are enjoying it) and was told by one agent that I had the best pitch she had ever heard.  In fact, she said “If I were to teach a pitch I would use it as an example.”    Well…I was the star of the conference.  Poor Jenny was wrong.   I was on my way to riches as a book writer!    Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket!

The next day I had a one-on-one fifteen minute meeting with that very same agent.   I was ready.  I had my pitch, my one page synopsis, and the first five pages of my book.

The first ten minutes of the meeting went well.  She told me how great my pitch was “Oh really?   Why thank you!  I believe you did mention that the other day.   Gosh.  Thanks.  I mean it was just off the top of my head.

But in minute fourteen things went awry.

How many words did you say your memoir was?  I forgot”

She didn’t forget.   I had deliberately not mentioned it.   I had learned at the conference that most first books need to be 90,000 words and mine was 126,000 words.  Apparently,  agents and publishers frowned upon so many words.   But she and I were  getting along so well, so I sheepishly told her the total.

She looked at me like I had confided to her that I enjoy blinding kittens.

“Well, you need to cut 36,000 words out of that.”

Now of course I wanted to say, “But what about The Goldfinch, or Harry Potter or David Copperfield, or War and Peace but I knew I would sound like a delusional fool.

So I looked appropriately ashamed of all my words and promised her I would cut them down.  “Sure.  Easy no problem.”  But I wasn’t ready to completely surrender.  “But can I leave you the first five pages?”

“No,” she replied.  “When you’ve really worked on the book and it’s ready, I’ll read it.  But don’t worry.  I’m not going anywhere.”

Now that was a tiny bit insulting.  I  recently found the first vestiges of my book from back in 2003 in my computer.   I have been working on it for years and intensely working on it every single day for the last two years.  I even rewrote the ending after my sister died.  It wasn’t just a notion scribbled on a napkin.

I was devastated.  I had been knocked out of the running by how many words were in the story of my life.

I went into the lobby  and texted my husband who was in our motel napping.  “Hope your nap is good.  I’m really depressed.”    I wasn’t really that concerned with his nap, but it seemed like a less self-involved way to start the text.   Saul immediately called me up and boosted my morale.

But the big question was the next day.   I was scheduled to do a “speed-dating” pitch to several agents.   I just didn’t think I had the heart anymore.  I’m scrappy, and I know that rejection is part of the game, but I didn’t want to set myself up for a string of speed rejections.   Before I met Saul, I speed dated all the time.  In fact, my early blogs are all about speed dating.   I was terribly unsuccessful at explaining my life and my appeal  in a short amount of time and I didn’t think I would be any better with explaining my book and its appeal.

The next morning after a good night’s sleep, I talked to my friend Leanne about it.  Leanne is a minister.   I’ve known her since college and she even married Saul and me.   I love Leanne.  I wish every minister were as cool and open-hearted as she is.   I told Leanne the entire story and my dilemma about speed dating with agents she replied, “Well, I hate to quote Jesus…”  (she actually doesn’t hate to quote Jesus but that’s part of her charm)  “..but you shouldn’t cast your pearls before swine.”

Now let’s be clear.  Those are Jesus words not mine and I don’t think he was talking about his agent when he said that.  I don’t think that agents are swine.  DO YOU HEAR THAT ANY AGENT WHO JUST STUMBLED UPON THIS BLOG?

But what Leanne and Jesus meant, in my opinion, is that you have to protect your art and you have to protect your soul which is where your art comes from.   I just wasn’t ready on that day to cast my book upon the rocks of rejection.  When I dated, I would have to take breaks from dating every once in a while to shore up my defenses before going back out there. It worked for me then, and I suspected it would work for me now.

So, I didn’t go to speed agent dating and I don’t regret it.

Maybe I will eventually decide to cut my book down.  Maybe I will keep it as long as it is and will die with the unread heavy manuscript burned next to my tired-from-typing-too-many words hands.   All I know is that last week I made the decision to protect that little fragile thing inside myself that so loves  to create, and I believe with all my heart that can never be a bad thing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:   KEITH HOFFMAN learned at his last Writers Conference that blog entries should be 750 words.  This one is 1577.   He is a rebel.  Follow him on Twitter @khravenlunatic #SocialMediaSavvy







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Keith Hoffman lives with his artist husband, dog and two cats in the small town Lambertville, New Jersey 72 miles outside of New York City. He has completed a memoir entitled The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.

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