SAN DIEGO — How does that old joke go again, the one about the psychiatrist convention? Oh, yeah. Three psychiatrists are talking shop after the symposia and realize they share the same concern: while they solve the world’s problems, no one is helping with their own. They decide each should confess his darkest failing to the other two, so they can treat each other for free. The first cries about his drug addiction and writing false prescriptions to feed his habit. The second owns up to a gambling urge and fudging the books to cover the missing moneys. Finally the third man’s turn: “My compulsion is I can’t keep a secret.”
If I only had the elemental narcissistic dog-eat-dog catfight rat race mentality required for success as a writer, I would keep the convention I just attended secret. Why open the floodgates to admit hordes of my rapacious competitors? This was as delightful and edifying an experience as the literary realm has to offer its denizens. It was a chance to sally forth into the field and find they really, really like me. Authors and agents and editors, oh my! In toto, we scribblers love to be where no one cans us anymore. Where is this Oz? The 23rd annual writers conference at San Diego State University, where a delightful congeries of conferees assembled this January 26-28.
Yours truly went west, young man, toting a dogeared novel that took a dog’s year to piece together from the crannies of a scattered life. A fearsome and wondrous thing is that maiden tome, cobbled and knitted and woven and glued and patched, tweaked and prodded and raided and gutted and trimmed. After all that jury-rigging, the greatest fear is facing a rigged jury. Approaching an agent who rejects your opus because she is currently taking on only projects about elephants can make you feel mighty small. Striding into a den of 67 agents, editors and creative writing professors at SDSU, I felt like Daniel, punished for praying.
But all’s well that begins well and the conference got on track and off on the right foot right quick. In the space of an initial two-hour meet-and-greet, I encountered a gamut of gemutlichkeit from people of every age, station in life and description. When things began in earnest the next morning, there was already a reservoir of good will to draw upon.
Poet and playwright Jack Grapes led things off with a keynote address that had me scrambling for tissues, the first of many such rummages. He read a numinous poem seeing our search for mislaid possessions as a quest to restore lost facets of self. (The Biblical root for this idea is in Numbers 10:25, where the tribe of Dan, traveling last, was deputed to gathering the lost objects of the vanguard. Also in the Talmudic tradition that Jacob in Genesis 32:25 was alone and vulnerable to attack because he returned for “overlooked items.”)
Over the course of the next two days, agents and editors revealed the byways of their craft with startling transparency. The coyness and the curtness they usually wear as soul armor were discarded in favor of a disarming vulnerability, like the Fonz asking a college girl to dance. It was very poignant to see agents being vulnerable enough to admit — emotionally, more like to confess — to having gaps in their “list.” I remember well the first time I sat in front of a flippant banker, shyly vying for a mortgage until daylight suddenly dawned: “He needs me as much as I need him.” An agent without writers is a bigger loser than a writer without agents; the agent fails at her job while the author fails in a tangential arena of salesmanship.
The most evocative spectacle was a mock auction in which publishing legend Loretta Barrett, once Jackie O’s boss at Doubleday, piloted an imaginary volume through the Scylla and Charybdis of two editors who wanted to pay big money but set conditions. Was it better to sell the U.S. rights only for a little less and get a hardcover debut? Or take another few dollars and give up world rights, with a release as a trade paperback? The drama of the negotiation was utterly arresting. When William Morrow editor Jennifer Pooley added a casual afterthought — “…having three daughters clutters the narrative so we’ll pare them down to two…” — the audience all erupted in a mixture of horror and marvel.
Most memorable line goes to Ms. Barrett: “I know more than I want to know about publishing and less than I need to know.” Most compelling image awarded to organizer Diane Dunaway: “A writer needs ‘plum spirit.’ My grandpa taught me that the plum tree grows strongest the year it loses its blossoms to frost and bears no fruit.” Most helpful insight about my own style comes from agent Sally van Haitsma: “The Simpsons creators call it the 3 Percent Rule. You can tell a joke only 3 percent of your readers get as long as the line flows reasonably for the rest.”
Hopefully next year they’ll invite me back as a presenter. Although if I sell a couple of novels by then I might be better served at the psychiatric convention, cadging free advice.