Friday, the official start of the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference and Workshops, I longed to attend the manuscript session with Dinty W. Moore or the one with Kristen Iversen. “Making Words Cinematic” with Michael Rosenwald and “The Personal Essay” with Lee Guitkind and Neil White also beckoned. But the workshops occurred at the same time. It would’ve been a grueling decision to make. Fortunately, the choice was moot. I knew what I had to do.
I faced my fear and signed up for “A Day with Literary Agents,” which advertised: “Renowned literary agents Jeff Kleinman and Gillian MacKenzie will spend a day with participants covering query letters, secrets of nonfiction book proposals, everything you need to know about working with agents and a ‘Buy this Book’ role-playing workshop.”
Perhaps the description should have enticed me, but only terror and dread buttered my hotel’s complimentary breakfast bagel on that chilly November morning in Oxford, Mississippi.
I’d just completed a memoir after four years and two days of collaboration. I needed to find an agent—a problem since I don’t know any literary agents and these people I didn’t know were shadowy figures who chased me in dreams. People scoffed at my fear. I scoffed at my fear. Why did this part of the process frighten me? I’m not a shy person. In fact, I’m a talker. I ask for directions and recommend books to strangers in coffee shops, bookstores, and airports. I’ll talk to anybody.
So, like I’ve done dozens of times, I resolved to face the phantoms of sleep. It helped that I took a former world champion of women’s boxing with me. Deirdre Gogarty and I rushed off to the Overby Center third-floor meeting room on the Ole Miss campus. We sat at a huge oval table built to seat a presidential assembly. I steadied my hands and removed a completed proposal from my bag. Then I sat down and promptly forgot the pitch I had rehearsed earlier as Deirdre pretended to watch TV.
When the agents, Jeff and Gillian, arrived they seemed normal enough. They asked us to scoot our chairs in closer for more intimacy. Great. I was already seated near where they plopped down their briefcases. Jeff sat on his spine with his long legs stretched out in front of him. I focused on his black slip-on loafers, then Gillian’s black pumps. I worked my way up to discover Jeff had the kind of face aunts and grandmothers would be tempted to pinch. Gillian’s features, no doubt, attracted innumerable pinch-cheeked boys.
With knowledge and humor, Jeff and Gillian doled out advice. Jeff scrolled through his cell phone and read a few examples of bad query letters and then one that led to a New York Times bestselling book. Gillian emphasized the need for writers to be courteous and punctual. “No one wants to take on a troublesome client,” she explained, “no matter how salable the manuscript.” This was a relief to hear because not only am I courteous, I’m neurotically on time.
My unfounded fear of literary agents began to subside. I took a few deep breaths and felt my shoulders drop and my hands steady. Then I volunteered to role-play and told Deirdre’s story.
Here, I discovered the mistake in my pitch. I needed to get to the selling point of the memoir as quickly as possible. When pitching agents, selling is primary. Story is secondary. Not because they don’t care about story, but because there is so little time. As a writer, story is everything. I’d now have to think like a vendor and revise my pitch. I had more work to do and little time to do it.
We wrapped up the workshop at 4:00 p.m. In two hours Deirdre and I would attend poet Beth Ann Fennelly’s discussion of “Curiosity as A Narrative Force in Creative Nonfiction,” then hitch a ride to Memory House for a reception and cocktails.
It would be a late night. And the pitch fest was the next day.