Last month I attended a pitch session for instructors in Washington College’s Academy of Lifelong Learning Program. WC knows how to entice an intellectual crowd of lifelong learners.
Alcohol and appetizers.
Hyson Lounge was full of round tables draped with sophisticated black tablecloths where potential participants gathered after juggling small plates and wine glasses along a lovely catered spread.
Each instructor was to give a pitch describing his class—this was necessary as some were obscure, others straightforward: “Pickleball.” “Native Plants for Landscape Spaces.” The most dynamic pitch was given by the former mayor of Chestertown. He commanded the podium with the ease of a politician, telling stories about first contact on the Chesapeake between Englishmen and Native Americans. He made intense, happy eye contact, enthusiastically warning us of a fast-disappearing number of seats.
There was, however, an extraordinarily tight time limit for these pitches. Each speaker had two minutes and not a breath more. There was an enforcer. She wielded a bell. It brought to mind the last time I was at Washington College for a pitch session. A memory I’ve tried to repress. On that occasion, I was the one at the microphone.
“Nothing that ends in “palooza” can be good,” Mr. Oliver said at the time. The English department was hosting a “Pitchapalooza.” Any student or graduate of the college could pitch a writing project to a panel consisting of a New York editor, a literary agent, a best-selling author, and a small press publisher. The pitch would then be publicly critiqued.
The notice had been vague about the pitch part, so I called. I was told there would be a microphone set up in the center of Hodson Hall from which each person with a book idea would address the panelists and other attendees simultaneously. I figured the pitch would need to be no more than 5 minutes. I rehearsed that 5-minute pitch to perfection. The experts would offer advice or, for the insanely lucky, a contract.
What I didn’t know until I squeezed into my seat among the other hopefuls was that I’d overestimated the time limit– you had exactly 60 seconds to make your case, pique the panel’s interest, explain your book’s purpose, and proposed reading audience.
The limitation was brilliant because it meant you only had the floor long enough to describe your book’s plot. What mystery or conflict does your story resolve? That’s all anyone really had time to explain because when the panel said 60 seconds, they didn’t mean 61. A guy was wielding a stopwatch without love or empathy.
Everyone was caught off guard. Those first up tried talking very fast, but no one could understand them, and they’d have to sit down, having squandered their opportunity. Other writers just trailed off when they realized their books had no plot. Some tried exuding charm in place of substance. Finally, people started getting up and just blurting out spin lines inspired by their desperation and the last movie they’d seen. “Hello! My book is “Eat Pray Love” meets, “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“No! Dude! Chill! (Aimed at the guy with the stopwatch.) “My book is more “Finding Nemo” meets “Titanic.”
“Time’s up!” the moderator would chortle, brandishing his timepiece. The kind and perplexed panel would look with dubious hope at the next candidate as the previous one stumbled back to his seat, where people who hadn’t had their turn yet would whisper, “That was really good.”
By the time it was my turn at the microphone, the room was sweltering. Too many bodies packed in a small space, and I was nearly last. It was like a grade school talent show when everyone else’s kid has already been onstage, and the performance is running long. Shuffling, whispering.
I had written a memoir about how I had transformed the worst year of my life into the best, one in which, against all odds, impossible dreams had been realized. I should have said that and sat down. Instead, I began by setting the stage– with one of my children’s incomprehensible, life-altering diagnosis, living 12,000 miles away with no health insurance, a forfeited dream job, canceled travel plans, abrupt empty nest, unexpected, scary surgery, a month convalescing. I was just getting ready to explain the creative experiment that changed everything when I heard, “Time’s up!”
I glanced at the panel and saw they were transfixed—only now that the spell was broken, they looked like witnesses to a mugging who don’t know if help arrived in time. The agent looked alarmed. Eyebrows raised. The editor was chewing a thumbnail.
I knew it was a complete fail, a hard pass, which was disappointing, and in addition, as a rule-abider with no second hand on her watch, I was embarrassed that I had to be cut off instead of stopping on my own. Mortified, I sat back down. That was really good, people whispered. The panel kept glancing over, then looking quickly away.
On the way home from Pitchapooloza, I spent a lot of time looking out the window as Mr. Oliver drove. Gazing at fields attended to only by my thoughts and a luminous autumn moon. I filled the chasm in my embarrassed heart with all the things in my life for which I am profoundly grateful. My children, my health. Ummmm, my children… my health…
That I would never see any of these people again and no one would remember my name.
Life is a story you can revise up to the end. What do you still want to feel, be, and do? It’s not your job to decide what’s possible, because you don’t actually know.
What makes your heart sing?
You have sixty seconds.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.