(Not) Having a Literary Agent

Before the night of my thesis reading for my MFA in creative writing, I had been told that it was possible there would be agents, publishers, and editors in the audience coming to listen for those who might be the next up coming talent in the literary world. I read a few pages from my thesis, which I had been working on for the past two years. The focus of my thesis were the three or so years I had spent teaching and then visiting in a Karenni refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border. The passage I chose to read from retold a day which one of my students had told me about when he returned home from watching his family’s buffalos to find that Burmese soldiers had shot and killed his grandmother and his little brother in his home.

In spite of the fact that I had been told there might be agents there, I was honestly a little surprised when one contacted me the next day asking to meet with me. I was excited, nonetheless. I asked my thesis professor for advice. “I’ve never done this before,” I told him. I was more than a little deflated when his response was, “Tell her that you’re not ready for an agent yet but you will be in touch with her when you are.” And, yet, what I read around the edges of his response was the idea that once I was ready for an agent, I would be able to pick and choose.

This was not the case.

I did end up meeting with this agent. But, truly, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea that agents are people who work for writers and what sort of questions I should be asking her. And at the end of the meeting, I told her (almost verbatim, I’m sure) what my professor had told me to say.

In the intervening years, I did write to a few other agents, some of whom I had met through my MFA program. I didn’t receive any responses. I gave a reading at an event at a bar in New York that was specifically billed as a way for grads of my program to meet agents. This event resulted in a single email from an editor at the new Vice website. My reply to this editor’s request to see some of my work did not earn a response. Eventually, I decided that I’d been waiting around to be “ready” for too long and with no clear signs one way or the other, I decided to contact the agent who I had met after my thesis reading.

I sent her some more pages of my thesis. And quickly signed with her thereafter. I was an agented writer. I sent her more pages. Months passed with no response. When I followed up, she apologized. She had decided that she couldn’t represent non-fiction work, but sent along a list of agents who might be a better fit. The only person on the list who responded to me was a woman who I had gone to high school with. We reminisced via email briefly but she never asked to see my work.

I would like to say that this is a blog post about persevering and not giving up in the face of rejection. I’d like to say that I kept trying and pitching and writing until finally I contacted the right agent and so on and so forth. But that’s not what happened. The truth is that I pretty much stopped writing for a long, long time.

And perhaps that was for the best. The truth is that what I had been writing about in graduate school was other people’s stories of incredible hardship and heartache and pain and destruction. In retrospect I think perhaps those are not the stories that I want to tell or that I believe I have a right to tell. Part of me knows that had I had any measure of success by telling these stories that belong to other people, I likely would have felt very guilty. Rather than feeling like I was helping by bringing attention to the situation, I would have been piling more pain on to it.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself: some version of “it was for the best.”

And I have started writing again. Here, on this blog and from time to time I chip away at a longer piece of fiction. I don’t get paid for it (in fact, I pay to maintain this site). And I don’t, perhaps, reach hoards of readers. But it is satisfying nonetheless: the routine of it, the sense of accomplishment that I’ve sustained over a month’s worth of five posts a week. I wish I had any kind of bold, reassuring words for fellow writers out there who might be struggling. The only thing I’ve got is incredibly trite (perhaps cliche the real reason why I’ve never gotten and held on to an agent!): do it for yourself.

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