Two weekends ago, through a fog of not-yet diagnosed bacterial pneumonia, I went to my first writers’ conference pitch session. Think about speed dating in hell with a lot more at stake, maybe 3 plus years of work on a particular project.
The gun goes off. The pitchees were led upstairs, trying not to look too eager or too desperate. Like beauty contestants. Pick me, pick me. One man looked decidedly green. Another woman was fluffing her chest. At least no one got trampled underfoot.
Tables were spread out over the hotel mezzanine with the agents’ names written on wire placards right at eye level. Not in any discernible order. But then I was running a fever and not too observant. Three chairs around a table. An agent sat in one, leaving two others. Which fucking one to sit in?
I sat down. My mind went blank. The agent raised an eyebrow at me. I couldn’t remember whether to extend my hand or not. Looking around the room, the pitchees were doing all kinds of things. I had been warned that some agents bite, and other agents found shaking hands was too much of a commitment. Possibly they were shy or had OCD—either way, my deodorant had stopped working, and I’m sure they could smell the flop sweat.
I decided to state the obvious. “I am very nervous.” Formal. Without contractions. This from a person who makes one-hour evaluations of other peoples’ mental health that are legal documents and forever attached to their Social Security Number. On average, I meet, put at ease, and ferret out the secrets of 30 plus people a week. And that day, with years of work riding on it and a literary agent looking at me expectantly, I could not pull out minimally adequate social skills for ten minutes.
It went downhill from there. Adrenaline flooded my body, and my prefrontal cortex (residence of essential functions) ran away, leaving my reptilian brain in charge. My reptilian brain was not a rambunctious T. Rex – compelling and challenging to look away from. My reptilian doppelganger was one of those tiny chirping baby reptiles – hopping up and down annoyingly and only able to attack in groups. Instead of roaring about my book as the next bestseller, unique but not too, entertaining, thoughtful, insert descriptor here, I bit a chunk out of the inside of my cheek. Now, not only was I preverbal, but anything that came out of my mouth sounded like I had swigged a bottle of Jack Daniels on the way up the stairs.
The agent looked at me kindly. There was an awkward pause. I managed to mumble a few words about my multiple-year project. I wanted to yammer on, “But I have a Ph.D. I’m quite thoughtful. People think I’m not bad at this writing thingamabob.” Thankfully, I couldn’t make my tongue form the words because I am sure they would have been accompanied by buckets of saliva. And I would have been the first aspiring writer to drown an agent in her spit.
The bell sounded. Both of us looked relieved.
I got up, thanked the agent, tripped on the stairs going down, and went in search of a bar. Instead, I should have driven home immediately, stopped at the nearest Urgent Care, and then went straight to bed.
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