THE BLOG

HOLLYWOOD ON THE COUCH: She's Your Agent, Not Your Mother

05/25/2011 01:25 pm ET

There's an old joke about the relationship between writers and agents: a writer comes home to find police and fire trucks crowding the street. As he scrambles out of his car, he sees that there's nothing left of his house but a pile of black dust and smoking embers.

Stricken, he asks the officer in charge what happened. The cop shakes his head and says, "Well, it looks like your agent came to your house, murdered your entire family, took all your valuables, then burned the place to the ground."

To which the writer responds, with an astonished smile, "My agent came to my house?"

A telling joke. As a former Hollywood screenwriter myself, and now a psychotherapist who works with writers, I'm very familiar with the complicated, symbiotic connection between writers and agents.

Especially now, as the new merger between talent agencies William Morris and Endeavor, as well as shake-ups in other agencies, threatens to cost dozens of agents their jobs---which will then create even more anxiety and uncertainty for their creative clients.

But, even in less turbulent times, there are few relationships as shrouded in myth, half-truths and just plain misconceptions as that between a writer and his or her agent. Moreover, what makes any discussion of agents so difficult is that, in my view, the most important aspects of that relationship have almost nothing to do with the agent, and everything to do with the writer.

So, before talking about what the writer needs to recognize as his or her own contribution to the sometimes puzzling, often painful relationship between writer and agent, let's list some sobering facts:

First, your agent is not your parent. It's not the agent's job to encourage, support or validate your creative ambitions, insofar as they reflect your inner need to be loved and cherished. Such needs were your birthright, and, hopefully, were given to you in your childhood. If, however, they were not, it's not your agent's job to pick up the slack.

Second, your agent is in business to make money. This is not a crime against humanity, an affront to the arts, or a personal repudiation of your aesthetic dreams. It's just a fact.

And, lastly, while your agent may indeed admire your talent, and share with you lofty creative and financial goals, he or she is not obligated to care about them as much as you do. In fact, no one cares about your career as much as you do. Which means the burden of worrying about your artistic aspirations, income, reputation in the field, and level of personal and professional satisfaction rests entirely on your shoulders.

These three points aside, what every writer needs to understand is that the very nature of the artist's position in society contributes to the asymmetry of the relationship between writer and agent. The moment a writer offers his or her work for evaluation to the marketplace---whether to a book publisher, a magazine editor, a film producer or a TV network---that writer is instantly placed in a vulnerable position, similar to that of child to care-giver. Since the marketplace is often experienced as holding the power to validate one's work, it has the ability to mirror back to the writer either affirming or debilitating messages about the writer's worth.

When dealing with an agent---a person equally embedded in the machinery of the marketplace---the writer's vulnerabilities often lead him or her to exaggerate the agent's opinion; to place an unrealistic burden on the relationship with an agent, in terms of its providing solace and support; or to use, as a child does, the agent's responses as a mechanism for emotional self-regulation.

The reality is, the writer-agent relationship can't handle such burdens. The writer expects too much in the way of esteem-building, validation and empathy. Which means that every unreturned phone call by the agent, every less-than-ecstatic response to a new piece of work, every real or imagined shift in vocal tonality during a conversation is experienced by the writer as an injury to his or her self-worth.

The wise writer understands this, if only theoretically, and should at least strive to keep his or her relationship with an agent in context. Hopefully it will lessen the blows, whatever they are and whenever they come.

Which is good, because then you can get back to your writing, the one true source of any success---financial or otherwise---you're likely to enjoy.