A monthly column from The Writer’s Center

by Whitney Fishburn

When the Agent Burns Down Your House

I was in like Flynn, baby. I had people responding to my inquiries, people making connections on my behalf, and then…crickets. At this point, I resorted to my usual routine. I took inventory of all the ways I clearly had offended someone, had maybe gaffed in my communications…I couldn’t come up with anything based on fact or evidence, so next I did what any serious writer should do. I called on my writerly support network for perspective.

“Why can’t I even get a call back that says they are taking a pass?” I whined to another writer friend. Well, I didn’t really whine, but you know, I wasn’t really happy about it. At that point, I was less annoyed about not being what they were looking for—apparently—and more that I had been shut down and left in the dark. “Am I out of my mind to expect a polite decline?”

“Uh, yes,” came my friend’s reply. “The world has changed since you started in this business, how can you not know that?” she said, or words to that effect.

After listing a series of rejections and disappointments of her own, my friend, the author of several novels and recipient of many literary accolades and prestigious honors, reminded me of an old joke.

A writer came home to find his house had burned to the ground, the dog was dead, and his wife was black and blue.

“What happened?” the writer asked, desperate and frantic.

“Oh, honey! It was awful. I found your agent in the back yard setting fire to the house! I tried to stop him, but he beat me up! The dog tried to defend me, but your agent hit him in the head with a rock and killed him!” his wife said between her sobs.

As she collapsed in the writer’s arms, he asked: “Are you saying my agent came to see me?”

It’s funny because it’s familiar.

We all want our work to be met with praise and delight, if not publicly, then at least by those with whom we share it. No feedback is often as painful as crushing criticism, maybe even worse, because when people don’t like our work and are vociferous about it, we at least know we are not invisible.

But my friend’s point that the world has changed since she and I started down this literary road decades ago is well-taken. I studied creative writing in what was at the time one of only a handful of creative writing programs nationally. Now, such programs are ubiquitous. Fiction writers, memoirists, and essayists—as well as ways they can publish and be distributed—abound.

I didn’t end up writing much fiction, becoming a writer and journalist instead, sometimes full-time and sometimes freelance. These days, being a freelancer can often be more lucrative than a full-time employee, provided you know how to hustle and don’t mind a little anxiety about keeping several balls in the air at once. That’s because in today’s saturated literary and news environment, journalists are paid crap, often in danger of being laid off, or said to be “on staff” when they are actually working on a contract basis with no benefits.

The fact is, writers are everywhere, content is cheap, and yet everyone wants in on the action. A recent survey shows that authors make about $6,000 a year from their work. That’s a successful author.

And yet, The Writer’s Center is seeing a growth trajectory.

New members to The Writer’s Center are asked what motivated them to join. There is a constellation of reasons, but they all point toward the likelihood that a good story well-told will never go out of style, and since so many of us have a good story to tell, we naturally want a place to help us make that happen. It seems that at our heart as writers is a need to connect. What we want is a community and The Writer’s Center offers that a-plenty.

“There are any number of reasons why you never heard from them again,” my friend said. She listed several plausible ones, including that they are too busy to be polite, or even that maybe I am so awful, they are too polite to say.

Because for years, I have made my living exclusively from writing, I had to laugh at that one. A little black humor serves as a good reality check.

It’s not what we write, but that we write that is a measure of who we are. If writing for some is hardly lucrative, if it’s harder than ever to stand out for writing well, then why do it at all? Because we know we matter and what we have to say is important. That we have a community growing around us for the sake of wanting to connect with others who feel the same way is testament to that as truth.

We don’t need an agent or anyone else to validate us. And for goodness’ sake, don’t let them burn down your house.

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Whitney Fishburn is an award-winning journalist based in Chevy Chase, Md. You can find her at documental.substack.com