Thursday, August 15, 2013

She’s Your Agent, Not Your Mother

By Dennis Palumbo

There's an old joke about the relationship between writers and their agents: a veteran writer comes home to find police and fire trucks crowding the street, surrounding the smoking remains of his house. 

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 published author myself, as well as a psychotherapist who works with creative people, I'm very familiar with the complicated, confusing and sometimes combative connection between writers and their agents.  Yet what makes that relationship so difficult often has nothing to do with the agent, and everything to do with the writer.

Like it or not, here are three 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.

It’s important to remember these facts. Otherwise, a writer can come to expect too much from an agent in terms of esteem-building, validation and empathy. Which means that every unreturned phone call, 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.

Otherwise, what you’re seeking is not an agent but an approving parent. And, hell, I ought to know. I’ve done it myself. And still do, on occasion.  So, despite what I’ve just said, when you find yourself feeling the same way, give yourself a break. Take a breath, mentally re-group, and get back to writing.   

In the end, nothing---and no one---is more validating.   

About Dennis: 

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), DENNIS PALUMBO is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of the Daniel Rinaldi mysteries, the latest of which is Night Terrors (Poisoned Pen Press). 

Visit Dennis at

The latest Rinaldi book:

In NIGHT TERRORS, the latest in the acclaimed Daniel Rinaldi mystery series, the Pittsburgh psychologist is asked by the FBI to treat one of their recently-retired profilers. 

After a 20-year career inside the minds of the most infamous serial killers, Agent Lyle Barnes can no longer sleep through the night. Not only is he tormented by horrifying nocturnal images, he's also the target of an unknown assassin who’s already killed three others on a seemingly-random hit-list.

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