Hey! It's National Traumatic Artistic Betrayal Week! Yay!

My big-name literary agent called me and said, "Are you sitting down?"


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Cary Tennis
February 5, 2007 5:17PM (UTC)

Dear Reader,

Traumatic Artistic Betrayal Week is shaping up nicely. Welcome, massive self-doubt compounded by the dashing of intimate trust loyally given! Welcome! I myself am already quivering with rage, shame, humiliation and a curious weakness in the extremities. I can't wait to hear how you're feeling!

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As one reader writes, "The creative personality is subject to betrayal by others because they/we are so ready to betray ourselves. And we are more than likely to have been the betrayer, to have caused immeasurable and unconsidered hurt to others in our quest for purity and perfection. Or in our quest for dreams and debauchery."

Now, at least one reader has pointed out that the suffering with which we seem to be so fascinated this week ranks rather lower on the scale of human torments than a myriad of other tangible tragedies of our age.

There's no accounting for taste, is there?

Unfortunately -- as those who know me can attest -- I like to work a subject until everyone has fallen asleep or left the room or gone to their cars to sit and listen to the radio with the heater on.

Dear Cary,

Your comments about the creative spirit and the wounds of betrayal really hit home for me.

I am an advertising writer who writes novels "on the side." I scored a huge name agent on my first try with my first book, and within a week, he paged me at the office and asked if I was "sitting down." With shaky knees, I sat down and learned my novel had been sold for a modest sum. "It's happening," he said. "It's really happening. Enjoy it."

And then ... one week later, he called me back to say that the acquiring editor was new in her job and had not received approval from her publisher to make the offer. The publisher was not comfortable with the novel and the offer was rescinded. He said this was "unprecedented" and had never happened in his 30 years of doing business, and that he was sorry. So sorry.

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I think you know what's coming next -- and it isn't success. It is over a dozen years of trying, failing, writing new novels, switching to a new, younger, female agent who "got me" ... and then trying and failing again, and landing, exhausted, with a fistful of new rejection letters in a tea shop in SoHo with that weary agent who told me the thing that I should have heard a long time ago. "Maybe," she sighed, "I have failed you. Maybe we aren't right for each other after all. Maybe you need to write something more personal. Something raw and angry and true."

And we parted, my second agent and I, on that bitter cold snowy day. She headed back to her fabulous office in her suede pants, and I trudged back to the train station in my old Ugg boots.

When I reached Penn Station, it was blizzardy and the cab slid against the curb. I went down the escalator and sat in the Amtrak waiting area when a man dressed in white appeared next to me. An angel? Of sorts. It was Tom Freaking Wolfe, dressed in white right down to his spats. Did I speak to him? Did I tell him my tale of writerly woe? Did we trade colorful anecdotes as we waited for the delayed train and he went off to first class and I sat in coach?

No.

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But I did take it as a sign: that he switched careers at midlife, and so would I. To hell with everyone, so would I. Someday, dammit, I too would don spats!

I hope you'll be glad to know this story has a happy ending. I came up with the plot for a new novel on that train ride. I wrote it in a five-month frenzy. I found another damned agent and she sold the novel in 10 days. (Of course I rewrote it with the editor for almost two years -- but we don't want to discourage anyone, do we?)

Am I gratified now? Yes. But the struggle has been enormous.

The despair has been overwhelming at times. And, like so many before me, the long, meandering story began with a huge, life-altering betrayal.

Older and Wiser

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Dear Older and Wiser,

Yikes. That is quite a story.

I note that, in the way of categorizing the various betrayals the artist may endure, this particular betrayal was of the relatively innocent variety -- that is, your agent does not seem to have intended you grievous harm, does not seem to have wickedly and knowingly deceived you for his own gain or his own sadistic pleasure; presumably he meant well ... although let us hope that now he always without fail awaits final corporate approval before calling a client.

Still, who doesn't dream of running into Tom Wolfe at the train station?

I do heartily enjoy the ongoing debate on this topic, particularly Ivanveen's insistently honest statements -- particularly his recommendation that we try to discourage as many writers as possible from heeding the call. If one cannot both laugh and nod the head sagely at such a many-layered remark, if one cannot appreciate the acrid mixture of dark, dry humor and literal truth in it, then perhaps one indeed lacks some essential nose for the thing and is condemned to blunder around, mocked and scorned.

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But hey. Life goes on. Some Super Bowl this weekend, huh?

When I was in graduate school, concentrating my studies on Wallace Stevens, Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner, I once spent most of a drunken evening trying to persuade my aunt that poetry could indeed be reduced to mathematics.

So, right, I was a huge snot. But I still seek aesthetic bliss and I still rise and fall with the despair, melancholy, rage and elation that attend such a search. So when I said that one writes to save one's life and find out who one is and so forth, let's be clear: That's just me. That's not to say I know where the best writing comes from. The best writing comes, tautologically, from the best writers. And they are singular. They occur on their own. We don't really know where they come from or how they get to be that way. They do it on their own.

And that's the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say.

I'm in it for the long haul. That's all I really know.

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