The high-school girl theory of being in the world

In a recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine, a group of literary agents was asked, “What are some common mistakes that beginning writers can avoid?”

Melissa Flashman, an agent at Trident Media Group, answered:

Some writers undercommunicate, and I call this a “high-school-girl” theory of being in the world—you want everyone to come to you and recognize how great you are. But you have to be out there with other writers and communicating with your agent. If you publish a piece in the New York Times, I really want to know about it and tell your editor and tell my foreign-rights people. For those people, I would say be less of a “high-school girl.” Be like a “high-school boy” who wants all these girls to know who you are. I don’t mean that in a sexist way.

I had an unpleasant shock of recognition as I read this. Because, it now becomes clear, I’ve been operating in the world as a high-school girl.

For a while now I’ve had intimations that something was wrong with my ability to self-promote that didn’t stem from shyness—I’m not especially shy. It’s more an excess of manners, an unwillingness to disturb someone else by asking for something, a misplaced self-reliance. And, ultimately, a deep-seated feeling that I have to earn the attention of others by proving myself through work of such quality that everything else falls magically into place.

Which is ridiculous, because people like to be asked for help (within reason), and generally like to feel that they’re magnanimous. Not to mention, as a writer you really, really, really need to get the word out—no matter how good the work is.

Can I blame someone else? I’ll blame the books I read when I was an actual high-school girl. These were, for the most part, novels about the English upper classes for whom the most tasteless behavior was an appearance of trying and striving. E.F. Benson, Henry James, P.G. Wodehouse, etc. Even the fantasy novels I read contributed, and I was struck at an impressionable age by Tolkien’s “All that is gold does not glitter.”

What a terrible lesson.

Is it possible to stop being like this? (And no, I don’t think I want to morph myself into a high-school boy—it really is a weird analogy.)

Well, I can communicate more. And in the past I’ve set myself little exercises like, “Ask for something each week.” (That’s a good one.) As I learned from Cross-fit, it’s important to do things you don’t like or don’t think you can do.

On a larger level, I realize I still need to see myself as a writer. Even though I’ve published one book and have more in the works I think of how much more I could do to commit. Am I leaving myself an out? I can always blame my busy life of work and kids’ soccer practices and whatever else.

Or I can add this to my to-do list: “Change my way of being in the world.”