Four months before the writers conference it’s easy to do: sign up for the post-conference pitch session in front of an agent. Thirty-five bucks for five minutes. Sure, I can do that. No longer the scared little stuttering girl, I can do anything now.
Years ago when I told a longtime friend I was getting out of the kitchen for a job in equipment and design sales, she asked me, “Are you sure you want to do that?”
And I’d read nuance between every word of her sentence:
- She’d known me in high school when I couldn’t speak in class and everyone teased me.
- She didn’t want me to embarrass myself.
- She cared about me, so her question wasn’t mean, just realistic.
For years I practiced avoidance therapy and it didn’t work for me. Avoiding speaking by working behind the scenes as a chef. Reprimanding my staff by memo. Avoiding the telephone as if it were an anaconda. I became miserable in my job but mostly I was miserable with myself. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. (At four years old, before the stuttering began, I wanted to be a comedian. Not an astronaut but a comedian.)
Now, twenty years after diving into the quagmire of equipment sales, the stutter is all but lost. I did it! Sometimes I think about those early days in my real-life job away from the cocoon of the sweaty kitchen. I think about the restaurant managers, developers and architects upon whom I cold-called. Do they remember me and wonder, “Who was that girl who came in that day, barely able to speak, poor thing….”
(At nine, in the full throws of embarrassment-by-stutter, I wanted to be a rock star. Not the president, but a rock star.)
No matter, now I read my stuff on stage. So I can pitch my memoir to an agent.
About a month before the writing conference, I begin to devise my pitch. I research online and craft what I think is a pretty good representation of my memoir. …in the spirit of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild… I read the pitch to my writing group. I rehearse it in my car. I work at making my pitch sound conversational instead of rehearsed. …struggling for recognition in the male-dominated world of professional kitchens; fucking up relationships along the way; drinking too much…
I also learn online how writers are typically nervous about pitching an agent. Why? Did they all stutter until they were 39? Naw, can’t be. I’m not nervous anyway. Too late in life to be a comedian or a rock star, but surely, I can pitch an agent.
The conference is lovely. I attend with a poet acquaintance, and we are fast becoming closer friends. She mentions I should practice my pitch on her, and (secretly, of course) I freeze.
Like the old days, I imagine my words fighting their way from my mouth and her eyes upon me, judging, pitying. No, I have to perform my pitch to a stranger. Strangers don’t judge, do they?
The last day of the conference, at lunch at the hotel bar, I have my opportunity finally, to practice my now-memorized pitch. What I love about writing conferences is that we wear nametags that announce we are from the same tribe. It’s easy and fun to start talking to people because you have this thing —writing— in common. So, from “Are you enjoying the conference,” to “Where’d you travel from,” to “Are going to pitch this afternoon?” to “Let’s hear your pitch,” there I am giving it a go over tomato soup. Out it all comes, slow and sure, with smiles and expressions, missing one sentence (oops), to a Midwestern writer-former-attorney-lady who says, “Oh, I’d read that book,” then she gives me some helpful stats on women-chef-writers.
So I was all set!
After the closing Keynote speech, my poet friend on her way back home, I find the conference room for the pitching sessions. I am fourteenth on the computer sign-up list. At least sixty-five minutes I’ll have to wait, twisting out my aching back against the velvet-brocaded wall or groveling around on the carpet. The other writers are lip-synching to their brain-memorized pitches, or playing around with laptops. Oh, maybe they are writing. I wish someone was with me. No, relieved I’m alone. No, really, what did I get myself into?
I’d been called upon in class to stand and read a passage from On Cherry Street. My heart told me this before the teacher’s words even reached my ears, because blood pounded up into my brain so hard, the rest of my body went slack like a dead girl’s. My hands shook and my breath shot out of me as if kicked in the stomach. So many eyes were on me! I wanted to cry. But I had to stand and read. Or else. My eyes watered as I stood clumsily with the heavy book and the wood chair scraped against the cold classroom floor. Fingernails on a chalkboard. I took a deep breath, hoping courage was in the air somewhere.
My back is killing me! Was it the hotel bed or my bowels? I sit on the carpet, have a short smiley conversation with one confident looking gal sitting cross-legged with her laptop who writes light porn stories. Good luck to her. Then I move to the wall across and stand. Then I lay flat on the floor, hoping to hear a vertebrae or two click into place.
Standing back up against the wall, I count six more writers in front of me. Thirty more minutes! “This’ll be fun!” I blurt, the others looking at me, smiling politely. I am seven years old and my grandmother is staring down at me, “You have been such a pill,” she says, the frown lines on her face etched into her flaccid skin by an angry sculptor. I cannot say anything. The etch lines will grow worse if unsure words start ricocheting from my mouth.
My memoir is good. Several chapters have been published as stand-alone essays. They‘ve been read aloud to strangers! “This’ll be fun!” I say again, to some light chuckles. Gurgling and aching, my body does not pay attention to my brain.
At Arnaud’s in the French Quarter, I become the first female line cook in the restaurant’s one hundred year history, but the owner won’t pay me the same as the boys.
Three more people before me. Fifteen minutes! Why is my body in fight or flight? The turpentine of adrenalin burns my stomach.
For eleven years I held my silence while married to an alcoholic. Fear will do that to a person. Easier to put up with dead-eye stares than to confront with unsure words. To grapple with those words. To speak of self. To have a voice.
And it’s my turn. “This’ll be fun!” I announce as I enter the vast room, inside which are a desk and two chairs, the agent lady, her back to me, sitting at one.
I walk through liquid toward her perch and sit across from her. Look into her crystal blue eyes. Inhale a vast balloon of courage. Smile. And start to speak. Slowly, I introduce my memoir and word count. Then my brain, with its rigorous training to trump the turpentine stomach, massages the words of my practiced pitch into words of natural conversation:
I wanted to be a chef, because my embarrassing stutter would prevent me from becoming a stand-up comic. But in1980’s New Orleans, girls in the kitchen baked or made salads.
I didn’t plan that the first paragraph of my pitch would put the habits of that seven-year-old girl and that thirty-nine year old woman on notice, but once those first words marched from my lips, a key turned, a door opened, and the rest of my words willingly followed that first honest sentence.
Afterwards, I burst from the room, flash a thumbs up to the attendant, and rush up to my hotel room. I fly onto the bed, twist around and hyperventilate for five minutes. I did it! I climbed Mount Everest, sure-footed, not slipping even once. The agent had asked me questions (a good sign) and I answered.
Later, savoring a Guinness at a nearby pub, dropping slowing from my well-earned high, I finally began to think . . . “Hmmm . . . I wonder if she liked my pitch. I wonder if she’ll call me.”
But that wasn’t really the point, was it?