I took a playwriting class in college, which I did not understand at the time. Our professor was a towering figure, nine feet tall and carved from granite, with glaciers for eyes and rough leather catcher’s mitts for hands. I also seem to recall him breathing fire and talking to God on the telephone, but perhaps I’m confusing him with someone from the English department. With a few rare exceptions, he spoke only in riddles. Despite all this, one of the first exercises he had us do for the course seemed almost laughably simple: he told us to write a story in one or two sentences and read it out loud to the class.
Yet it wasn’t so simple after all. Again and again, as we went around the room, he informed us that the words we’d read were not, in fact, stories. They were characters, or settings, or descriptions, but they were not stories. I became frustrated and confused. It seemed impossible to me to tell a story in one or two sentences. I did not know what he wanted.
Years passed. I graduated from college. I legally drank alcohol out of a flaming dish shaped like a volcano. I moved to a big city. I bought a futon and dragged a coffee table into my apartment from the street. A tiny dog appeared on the floor of my kitchen, yappily demanding things. I did not get any smarter.
And then, one day when I was in MFA Skool at
, the administrators of the program announced an upcoming event: the agents’ party. Combining the most terrifying aspects of a job interview and speed-dating, the event threw a dozen or so agents into a room crowded with an enormous herd of sweaty, overdressed would-be authors in various degrees of inebriation. The cacophony that then filled the place to the ceiling may have sounded like the death bleats of learned goats in an abattoir, but it was in fact the sound of those authors, myself included, attempting to “pitch” their books in one or two sentences. Our volume in delivering these “pitches” was only matched by the disdain with which we set about the task of composing them. Columbia University
For me, at least, such crass salesmanship seemed fundamentally at odds with the work I was doing in the program. In workshop, we read each others’ novels in chunks of no more than thirty pages at a time. These pages gave us plenty to talk about, and talk we did: about the need to dramatize a moment in scene vs. describe it in summary, the appropriateness of a metaphor, the tangibility of a setting. Sometimes a person’s comments would veer toward the larger structure of the novel: “Where is this story going?” someone would cry, as if waking from a dream to discover the landscape outside the windows had changed. But these questions, being unanswerable, largely went unanswered. These books weren’t even finished yet; it was far too early to ask what they were about. That was a question for readers, scholars and critics especially.
Before we met with the agents, we attended a mandatory prep session, where a faculty member gave us a crash course in the art of the pitch. My memories of these instructions are hazy, but the gist was that a pitch was supposed to be a couple of sentences, tops, and yet somehow encapsulate the whole whirring carnival in which I’d installed the better parts of my soul. It was, in fact, virtually the same exercise from that long-ago playwriting class, only this time, instead of inventing a story, I was meant to explain one already in progress. It might have crossed my mind that the task should seem less puzzling to me by now, that perhaps my befuddlement indicated a lingering gap somewhere in my knowledge, but I did my best to ignore these thoughts. Instead, I called bullshit, decried “selling out,” and told my significant other that I planned to start my conversations with agents by saying, “I’m obsessed with clowns” (a worthy profession of which my protagonist numbered). He gently suggested I might want to try harder to appeal to the “clown neutral” reader, and I grudgingly set about cobbling together a less off-putting introduction to myself and my life’s work.
It didn’t occur to me at the time that asking a writer to convey, in words, what her book was “about” might in fact be a perfectly reasonable question. It didn’t occur to me that, perhaps, it was important for the writer to know the answer to this question herself.