She’s Your Agent, Not Your Mother by Dennis Palumbo
There’s an old joke about the relationship between Hollywood writers and their agents: a veteran screenwriter comes home to find police and fire trucks crowding the street. As he scrambles out of his car, he sees that there’s nothing left of his house but a pile of black dust and smoking embers.
Stricken, he asks the officer in charge what happened. The cop shakes his head, and says, “Well, it looks like your agent came to your house, murdered your entire family, took all your valuables, then burned the place to the ground.”
To which the writer responds, with an astonished smile, “My agent came to my house?”
A telling joke. As a former Hollywood screenwriter myself, and now a psychotherapist who works with creative people, I’m very familiar with the complicated, symbiotic connection between writers and their agents.
After all, there are few relationships as shrouded in myth, half-truths and just plain misconceptions as that between a writer and his or her agent. Moreover, what makes any discussion of agents so difficult is that, in my view, the most important aspects of that relationship have almost nothing to do with the agent, and everything to do with the writer.
So, before talking about what every writer needs to recognize as his or her own contribution to the sometimes puzzling, often painful relationship between author and agent, let’s list some sobering facts:
First, your agent is not your parent. It’s not the agent’s job to encourage, support or validate your creative ambitions, insofar as they reflect your inner need to be loved and cherished. Such needs were your birthright, and, hopefully, were given to you in your childhood. If, however, they were not, it’s not your agent’s job to pick up the slack.
Second, your agent is in business to make money. This is not a crime against humanity, an affront to the arts, nor a personal repudiation of your aesthetic dreams. It’s just a fact.
And, lastly, while your agent may indeed admire your talent, and share with you lofty creative and financial goals, he or she is not obligated to care about them as much as you do. In fact, no one cares about your career as much as you do. Which means the burden of worrying about your artistic aspirations, income, reputation in the field, and level of personal and professional satisfaction rests entirely on your shoulders.
These three points aside, what every writer needs to understand is that the very nature of the writer’s position in society contributes to the asymmetry of the relationship between artist and agent. The moment an author offers his or her work for evaluation to the commercial marketplace, that artist is instantly placed in a vulnerable position, similar to that of child to caregiver. Since the marketplace is often experienced as holding the power to validate one’s work, it has the ability to mirror back to the writer either affirming or debilitating messages about that writer’s worth.
When dealing with an agent—a person equally embedded in the machinery of the marketplace—the writer’s vulnerabilities often lead him or her to exaggerate the agent’s opinion; to place an unrealistic burden on the relationship with an agent, in terms of its providing solace and support; or to use, as a child does, the agent’s responses as a mechanism for emotional self-regulation.
The reality is, the writer-agent relationship can’t handle such burdens. The writer might expect too much in the way of esteem-building, validation and empathy. Which means that every unreturned phone call by the agent, every less-than-ecstatic response to a new piece of work or proposed project, every real or imagined shift in vocal tonality during a conversation is experienced by the writer as an injury to his or her self-worth.
The wise writer understands this, if only theoretically, and should at least strive to keep his or her relationship with an agent in context. Hopefully it will lessen the blows, whatever they are and whenever they come.
Because, to be candid, there’s something I’ve come to believe after 27 years in practice working with writers: consciously or otherwise, most people sign on with a literary agency in search of an approving parent. And it’s the worst place to find one. ■
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in “From Crime to Crime” (Tallfellow Press). His acclaimed series of crime novels (“Mirror Image,” “Fever Dream,” “Night Terrors” and the latest, “Phantom Limb”) feature psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. All are from Poisoned Pen Press.
For more info, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com.