See Me Now: Pride
I have been shortlisted as a possible Agent of the Year by the British Book Industry Awards*, which is a great honour. But oh, I nearly didn't make it.
All I had to do was to write a 1500 word essay about myself and my agenting, together with an account of my achievements and successes during My Great Year of 2015 in particular. Given how many words I have written about myself and agenting here, on Publishing For Humans, you would think 1500 more would be easy. But I could barely get started. Every time I sat down to write, I choked on it.
What a terrible agent most of us make for ourselves, even those of us considered to be candidates for Agent of the Year, so effective are we in our agenting of others. Why? What is this subterfuge, this dodging of credit, this inability to look in the mirror, and say: "hey, you! You did that well! Good job!"?
It is true that there were other reasons why I found it particularly difficult to look back over 2015. As part of my submission, I had to ask my peers for supportive testimonials. One of my generous advocates wrote: "2015 was the year everything came together for Lizzy". Yes, that was how it had felt - a coming together. In my professional life, that meant seeing many of the lovely coloured threads of my work over the past two decades weave themselves together into a beautiful tapestry. But, in a more private version of 2015, it was as though everything in my life had yes, come together, but heavily, catastrophically: as though in fact everything had collided, with me at the heart of the accident.
After a few weeks of trying to write my submission essay, all I had was one line - a good one, but self-defeating - about the way that writing an account of my contributions to my authors' success, and that of their publishers, broke the first rule of agenting: to Never Claim The Credit.
As an agent, my job is to be a shadow girl, following behind my authors and their publishers, picking up any valuable things dropped along the path to publication; to be their intermediary, speaking to each party off camera; to create the spark that lights some fires, but then to step back; to act in the spaces before success; to bridge the gap between the main players; to mop up after the party. My essay had to be an attempt to describe this off-stage action. To break the usual rule: to step up, to be Seen - to name my contribution and to take pride in it.
One of my jobs is to cultivate my authors' pride in what they do. I tell them: You deserve your success, your work is valuable. I urge them: Whatever your private doubts and fears, develop a public pride in yourself and in your writing. An author's excitement about their book energises their agent and inspires their publisher; it offers affirmation and respect to their loyal readers, too, to say - yes, you're right to love my book. For a successful author to diminish their achievements is to name each of their fans a fool. Of course, for me to refuse to acknowledge my great year would be similarly disrespectful to all my authors who were so wonderfully successful in 2015.
I am in awe of the courage my authors have in presenting a public version of themselves for review and interview. To write is to express something intensely personal. But to be an author is often to be forced to express oneself in public.
We are taught to be wary of pride and the fall that inevitably follows. But it isn't arrogant to develop an idea of who we are in the world, it is essential. It is pride that enables us to build our social construction of self; our shell, the version of ourselves we show to the world and invite to be loved, or judged - to be Seen.
And it isn't arrogant either to allow pride to burn inside, a small hot flame like a pilot light, maintaining our sense of who we feel we really are and what we need and what we deserve, whatever others may think of us, whatever others may see, however much we might give or give up.
The truth is that we need both kinds of pride. We need our public pride, our shell, to protect this vulnerable private self inside, to keep the little flame alight. And, without an internal sense of our own value, our public selves would become brittle and fracture. In a good year, the two become connected - public success feeding internal pride and vice versa so that we feel we are one whole person; our true selves, at home in the world.
I have written a lot here about my work, but I've been writing from the inside out. My agenting is intensely personal to me - I've written before of the importance to me of caring about my job, of how I was taught by my first mentor to love my authors, how we should use our human kindness even when we are doing business. In writing my submission to the award judges, I was forced to look on myself from the outside for once, to build a more public sense of pride. To be seen, and not to flinch from it. What I saw is that it doesn't matter how 2015 felt to me inside: the fact is, it was an extraordinarily successful year for me professionally.
By the time I had finally written my submission essay, I felt proud. My best friends urged me to write about myself and reflected my successes back to me in the same way I urge my authors on to feeling pride in their work. I used the respectful and warm testimonials I was sent by publishers and other industry professionals to buff the shine on my lovely golden public shell self. I looked in the mirror they held up to me and said: "Hey you, you did that well. Good job. Take the credit. I see you." And inside I glowed.
* Postscript: I won!