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No Dogs Allowed

Not yet giving up on agents, two years ago I signed up for a workshop with a panel of experienced agents who would share their approach to selecting, or not selecting, manuscripts to publish.

The room was full of writers and writers-to-be excited to learn more about how to get connected to a publisher via the agent process. I was particularly excited about this workshop because each writer attending had been invited to submit a “best line” to be evaluated, on the spot, by the panel of agents who would offer their hypothetical verdict, either “no thanks” or “send me more.” I was one of five writers whose best line had been chosen.

The workshop was introduced by a prolific writer who described her agent experience. She has six books published and a flourishing career. What caught my attention was that it took twenty years of knocking on agents’ doors and endless rejections before she finally got somebody to work with her. She’s about my age now and I’m thinking, at that rate, I’ll be eighty-four before I get an agent. If I ever do.

Following the introduction, each agent described which kinds of queries they paid attention to. I found all but one agent to be optimistic, encouraging, and open-minded.

So, about the “all but one.” She was a young woman, obviously impressed with all the requests she gets from hungry, humble writers looking to catch a break. I got the impression she felt powerful by being able to quickly and unemotionally discount a writer’s hard work and creativity with a mere “no thanks” response.

One of the “valuable pointers” she gave the participants was, “Don’t ever send me anything about a dog. No dogs allowed! I’ll quickly chuck it in the trash.”

The audience grew silent. I laughed. I laughed not only because of her utterly bizarre statement but also because I knew my best line had been chosen, and guess what? It was about a dog!

I had chosen my best line from “Wolf,” the first story of my memoir about my childhood, Stories from the Stoop. The dog-hating agent was the first on the panel to comment. She studied my slip of paper for nearly a minute of very serious concentration. With some hesitation she finally announced her verdict. “I want more,” she said. This time the audience laughed. I didn’t.

I was angry. This agent’s process was fickle and capricious.

After my first meeting with the “leaky ceiling” agent (see previous post), the writer with twenty years of rejections and now this agent who proclaimed herself to be anti-canine, but it turns out wasn’t or not always, I was rapidly losing hope and patience with this whole agent thing.

I realized at sixty-four, that I wasn’t cut out for this game. That’s when I decided to take a hard look at Amazon self-publishing. And pretty darn quick.

Leaky Ceiling

Steve Bernstein

It took one year to write my manuscript, Stories from the Stoop. Next step: get an agent. Should be a cinch, I thought.

I got myself to a writer’s conference and signed up for fifteen minutes to pitch my book to an agent. A week before the conference, I sent the agent a short excerpt of my book and a brief overview. She loved it, she said. Can’t wait to meet you, she said. With that I was psyched. Slam dunk, I thought.

I arrived early for my appointment. I was optimistic. Why wouldn’t I be? She loved the manuscript. She couldn’t wait to meet me.

She was very nice, albeit she needed a little reminder about what my name was, what my book was, what it was about, details that I thought I sent her a week earlier. No prob, she’s a busy agent and maybe it slipped her mind.

Five minutes into my appointment, while I was basically reminding her who I was and what I wrote and what it’s about, her cell phone rang.

“Oh no, Jim. How much water? Gallons? From the ceiling?”

She looked over at me and mouthed, “Sorry, I’m so sorry….”

Four minutes later, nine minutes into my appointment, she said, “Jim, should you call the fire department?”

“Enough,” I said. I motioned to her to give me the phone. Perplexed, she did as I commanded.

“Hey Jim. Steve here. I’m sitting next to Helen. Okay, okay try to calm down. I’m a master plumber. Tell me what’s happening. . . . Got it. Jim, this is what I want you to do. Go downstairs to the basement to the front wall of the house. Look for a small copper pipe coming through the front wall. . . . No, no, not the big black one. It’s much smaller, and copper. . . . Found it? . . . Good. Follow that pipe a few feet and it will connect to a big brass round thing with a dial on it. . . . Good. You found the water meter. Okay, there’s a shut-off valve right next to the meter. . . . Exactly Jim, it has a round handle. Turn it clockwise. . . . The water stopped, right? . . . Glad I could help.”

I handed the phone back to Helen. Fourteen minutes in.

For the rest of the appointment, one whole minute, Helen both thanked me profusely and apologized. She told me that I saved the day, saved her house, saved her a ton of money. She promised to contact me next week for a new appointment.

“Least I could do,” she said. Never heard from her again.

I wasn’t done with agents, yet. But it was close.

On Becoming a Writer

I am a writer because of Wolf. I fell in love with Wolf in 1968 when I was fourteen. That dog saved my life, but I couldn’t save his.

Twenty-five years later, in 1994, even though it was still hard to think about how he was taken from me, I had to write his story. His story was my story.

The next thing I knew, I was in Office Max buying a Brother WP-1400 D word processor, ready to write our story.  “Wolf” is the first story I wrote. “Wolf” is the first story of my memoir, Stories from the Stoop.

In 1994, at the age of 40, I finally told myself the story of Wolf. I liberated myself from my childhood, a childhood that for a long time I didn’t want to remember.  The first person I shared the story with was my sister, Amy. “Wow Steve, who knew you could write!” Next she said, “This is an important story. What are you going to do with it?” What I did was I went back to Office Max, again, and made fifty copies.

Since my mid-twenties I have been helping at-risk teens become successful at life. That is my mission, my joyful mission.  As I began to share “Wolf” with my teens, a funny thing happened. “Wolf” was an invitation for them to open up and tell their stories. And most often, these were some really tough stories. In opening up, young people were able to free up, as I did. Best of all, they listened to each other’s stories, with empathy and compassion.

“Wolf” didn’t make me a writer. That happened another twenty years later in 2014 when I noticed a classified ad about a local writing group. I clipped the ad and put it on the fridge. There it sat for two months until I woke up one day and said to myself, “Today’s the day.”  I showed up at that group once a week. I wrote six other stories about growing up in the Bronx in the 1960’s. A year later I announced as much to myself as to my writer friends, “I’m writing a book.” A year after that I published Stories from the Stoop.

Writing “Wolf” showed me the way to freedom; writing my memoir set me free.

Today, I call myself a writer.

It Matters

I’m not kidding around no more. I’m jumpin back into literacy-math-academics-vocational education-mentoring–my way of practicalizing equality and ending inequality. Equal opportunity. Level the playing field. Period. Keep an eye on my signs and progress.

Author of the Month Reading

I’m happy to announce that I have been chosen as Author of the Month by the Northampton Senior Center where I will be doing a reading. I’ve attached an article introducing my memoir, Stories from the Stoop, and announcing the reading.

Saturday, Sept. 21st, 2:00 to 4:00 PM, Write Angles Flash Memoir Reading, Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton, MA I’ll be reading a flash excerpt of “Order on the Court,” from Stories from the Stoop. The story describes an early evening on April 4th, 1968. I was shooting hoops on a basketball court at a Bronx housing project when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. As usual, I was the only white kid on the court.

Tuesday, Sept. 24th, 1:00 to 2:00 PM, Author of the Month Reading, Northampton Senior Center, 67 Conz Street, Northampton, MA I’ll be reading “Wolf,” the opening story from Stories from the Stoop, about a dog who saved my life but I couldn’t save Wolf’s life.

I remember . . .

Today is the day that for the last 18 years I slow down and remember my best friend Joe. I remember our childhood. I remember how he never gave up on me through all my twists and turns, even when I didn’t show up for our friendship like he always did. 

And then I remember Ground Zero. That night, a week after the planes, when I was allowed to go on the site because I was family.

The eerie desolation, the smoke, the building exo-skeletons leaning and just hanging on to themselves, the gas masks, the bright lights, the haze, the workers scurrying around, the giant equipment–cranes and bulldozers. Every time they chipped away at debris, balls of fire erupted. 

I remember his cop buddy pointing to where Joe was last seen. I climbed up the seven stories of smoky debris, stopped, looked around, panting through my gas mask. I felt like I was on a different planet. 

And then I prayed.