Attentive readers may recall that on July 10 I took a leave of absence from “Getting Old” to clean up the manuscript of a book I had abandoned unfinished ten years ago. I was returning to the book because a literary agent had asked to see it, and I needed to not embarrass myself by sending it off without fussing over it and thereby blowing what looked like a once-in-a-writer’s-lifetime event: an actual solicitation from an agent.

When I returned, I promised to let you know when I heard from the agent.  Friends, that time has come. You can guess the result from the title of this post.

Here’s his letter:

Dear Nina Mishkin,

I am old enough to remember dropping in on the only White Castle burger place in Greenwich Village for a bag of mini burgers after a late night on the town. They were greasy and unescapable.

I am sorry to have kept you waiting for this response, but I was away on holiday when your manuscript arrived.

I wish I had better news for you, but I do not see a viable market with publishers for “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” You write well and manage to create the times, 50 years ago when eating disorders were mostly unknown except to shrinks or dietitians. This may make an interesting article in one of the national magazines, but it’s more nostalgic than hopeful.

Since this is a subjective reading, another agency may have a different opinion. I’ve been wrong before.



P.S. I am returning your manuscript in the hopes that you can reuse it with other agents.

One should never burn one’s bridges.  [And I chose to believe the “regretfully.”]  So I e-mailed him back this morning:

Dear ____________,

You write a gracious rejection letter.

To be candid, I’m not surprised you don’t see a market for this kind of thing. You’re right that the part you read is not “hopeful,” in the sense that it appears to be a “misery” memoir without a clearly happy ending.  And hope or happiness, I suppose, is what the market demands.

On the other hand, I am not now — and have not been for quite some time — fat or even overweight. So I suppose there was, eventually, light at the end of the tunnel. But as you must realize if you’re old enough to remember White Castle burgers, getting to know, like and live with oneself is, for some of us, a long slow process, and another story entirely — one which isn’t really marketable either, even if I were inclined to write it.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about finishing “Eating” and pursuing publication with other agents. But I do very much appreciate your interest, the time you took to read however much you read of it, and your kind regrets.

All my best wishes,



Truthfully, and despite all your good wishes for a contrary result, I wasn’t surprised at this rejection.  As I reported when I finished my edit, I thought what I had done was uneven, not in its writing but in its interest level, and had mixed feelings about going on with it. So I really don’t need consoling.  What I need now is to sort out my thoughts about what to do next.  And you can all help with that.

If I don’t put it away again — always an option — and do pursue the agent’s implied suggestion that I try with other agents, I will need to finish the manuscript first.  (Only already published authors go to market with unfinished work.)  Although you can send an agent a synopsis and the first fifty pages, if there’s a nibble you’ve got to be able to send the whole thing.  I have the synopsis and 173 relatively polished pages, but not the rest of it. I’m not even entirely sure what “the rest of it” would contain.  [I rarely know what I think till I see what I write.]  However, finishing would mean quite a lot more work, on subject matter no longer dear to my heart, in quest of an uncertain future.

I could also finish it and try to publish it myself, as at least one of you has suggested.  Believe it or not, while I was drafting this post, the agent answered my thank-you email.  [It seems we’re now on a first-name basis.] His timing was impeccable:

Dear Nina,

In this new ebook world, many writers are finding an audience for their work by self-publishing through Amazon. Why don’t you explore this possibility, before abandoning the book. Yours is better written than most.

Good luck,


So now, dear readers, you can help me decide whether to grit my teeth, finish writing the manuscript and then try to find it an audience, either through an agent or by self-publishing. Is there in fact a paying audience for a book like this?  Here’s the two-page synopsis I sent along with the manuscript.  Would you be interested in buying such a book or ebook to read it in full?


Unfinished First Draft of “Eating Behind Closed Doors: A Memoir”

This book recounts the development of the author’s nearly life-long binge eating disorder, beginning during her four years as an almost full scholarship student at prestigious, expensive Sarah Lawrence College between 1948 and 1952.The tone is wry, dispassionate and occasionally tender.  Because much of it takes place so long ago, the book necessarily also describes by implication a world thankfully now gone where societal expectations for even educated girls were limited and confining, which should make it interesting to feminists and other young women as well as to readers more narrowly focused on its confessional aspects.


 Author’s Preface: A three-page explanation of what the book is, and is not about, and why the author has written it. (Perhaps dispensable.)

Section I: Six pages graphically plunging the reader into the author’s secret life of night binge eating in 1986, when she was 55 and beginning a mid-life career as a lawyer – taken in part from contemporaneous notes made to record her shame and disgust at what she was still doing to herself after so many years.

Section II : The author prepares for college by rigorous dieting to begin her new life looking like the slender models in Seventeen Magazine. The new life proves stressful. A scholarship student, she’s uncomfortable with wealthy classmates from private day schools, finds the unconventional educational methods at Sarah Lawrence unsettling, and can’t maintain 1000 calories a day on mid-twentieth century institutional meals. A blind date for a football weekend at Princeton proves disastrous, and a first binge ensues, memorable as a template for future escapes from pain. Although she has a boyfriend at the University of Chicago, twenty-five hours away by train, the author gradually slips into wildly aberrational eating habits that pile on the pounds during the long snowy winter. The slippage soon includes intensifying self-contempt as well as lies to mother and boyfriend. During the summer she first tries psychotherapy, unsuccessfully.

In her second year, she meets J.D. Salinger (age 33), Marguerite Yourcenar and, in Paris, a hungry not-yet-known Larry Rivers. The year features in-the-trenches sexual battle a la 1950 with the boyfriend, pouring peroxide over her brown hair to change herself, increasing tension with her mother, growing dependence on secret binging for a “fix,” and a student bicycle tour of Europe (temporarily abandoned for the dubious joys of Paris patisseries) during which she encounters the strong anti-American feeling still obtaining in Bavaria five years after the end of war, and perhaps lingering anti-semitism as well. During her last two college years, she steals (both food and money). She also experiences bitter resentment at the loss of a friend to an in-the-closet lesbian relationship, and the momentary but illusory hope of romance with a faculty member. She graduates in June 1952, having done commendable and serious academic work in which she had almost no interest, without boyfriend or job prospects and realizing that in all aspects important to her, she has failed.

Section III: Expecting unrealistically to leave binging behind, the author moves to Los Angeles with her parents. [To be continued: This section, not yet written, could contain – at a minimum — discussion of the author’s disorder at its later worst; its physical and emotional effect on her over the years; how at the age of 68 she eventually managed to reach a somewhat even keel; her experience with Overeaters Anonymous (and its offshoot, Grey Sheet); her views on psychotherapy (of which she’s had a lot) as both helpful and not helpful in resolution of her disorder; and some concluding thoughts.]


Now here I stand at the crossroads. Do I chalk the whole summer up to experience, or go on?  I’m quite serious in asking the level of your interest, and won’t be at all offended — possibly even relieved — if I learn from your comments that I should put what agent Nat called “nostalgic” behind me and forget it.  What do you think? Does “Eating” have any kind of a future? Don’t wait for someone else to say something. And don’t be nice.  Be honest.





For those of you somehow coming upon this post while looking for something else, perhaps I should summarize, if everyone else will just bear with me for a moment.  I took a vacation from blogging, tactfully called “Time Out” in the post just prior to this one, in order to follow through on an invitation from a literary agent, an event so rare and unexpected in the lives of aspiring writers (one of which I guess I must be) that to ignore it would have been gross stupidity.  

He wrote in response to having seen a memoir of my thirteenth summer (“Falling Off the Roof”) which was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review. (Note: That issue is still available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon for $4.99, in case anyone who hasn’t read the piece is interested.)  Here are the relevant parts of our e-mail exchange:

From him:

Dear Nina Mishkin:

I very much admired your story “Falling Off the Roof,” in The Iowa Review and thought that you might enjoy hearing from a fan of your work who is also an established literary agent. I don’t know if you are even at that point in your writing to start exploring representation, but this story made me feel that you have the talent to write a publishable book.

 If you’re at work on a novel, one of my colleagues in the agency or I would be pleased to read the opening chapters. We can tell, with a brief synopsis (1-2 pages) and around fifty pages, if we are engaged by the material. If so, we’ll encourage you to keep going. If not we’ll explain why. These days, many editors never read further than the opening chapter or two of most novels before rejecting them. That’s how overloaded we all are with reading material. You must grab our attention, early on, either with plot or characters.

 If you are assembling a short story collection, or undertaking a non-fiction book, visit our agency website ….for our submission guidelines and suggestions. In the current market, publishers are unlikely to take on a short story collection unless the author can provide a novel to follow. If you do not have at least 50 pages of a novel ready, it’s worth waiting to put both book projects together, believe me. You may find our submission guidelines helpful whether we ultimately represent you or not. Or you may write us an e-mail describing the book you are working on. We can then let you know, quickly, our response. Please indicate that I have read some of your work in that letter.

 If you already have an agent please excuse this approach, as our agency does not take on previously agented writers. If you are unagented and would like to discuss your writing before sending me anything, give us a call. The author/agent “chemistry” is vital in a long-term relationship. If you don’t have anything to send us at this time, hold onto this letter. My invitation to read more of your work is open-ended. Recently we sold a first novel to Knopf by a writer I originally contacted ten years ago after reading his story in The Georgia Review.

 Because we offer editorial work on all the projects we take on, at no additional fee to the writer, we do ask for one month exclusivity of your submission but generally respond sooner. We do not send out  form rejection letters on work submitted, but try to provide a fair evaluation of the work, including any editorial suggestions we may have.

 Looking forward to reading more of your work.

 Best wishes.

I suspected this was a form letter, with the first sentence tweaked to make it personal for me.  [Later, in an online chat room for writers I found corroboration for my hunch:  same letter from same agent sent to another writer, who was wondering how long he needed to wait for a response to his synopsis and fifty pages.]  Nonetheless, that was quite a letter — for which I was entirely unprepared.  So here was my reply [edited for brevity, never my strong point]:

Dear _______:

Your email was most welcome, especially its first paragraph. And no, I don’t already have an agent. On the other hand, I’m not sure how to respond. Am I ready to start exploring representation? Perhaps you can tell me.

 Although at seventeen I declared I was going to be a writer when I grew up, I am now nearly 83 and have spent all of my paid working life in other professions, of which the most recent was practicing law.  It may be that I haven’t grown up yet.  As a result, I have only dabbled.  Banged “things” out over four-day holiday weekends. And then fiddled with them whenever there was time.  It’s true that in the past couple of years, I have become more serious about it. But in any event, I note that your letter references novels, short story collections and the undertaking of a non-fiction book. How do I fit my “things” into those categories?

 I don’t think I could write a novel, or a shorter piece of real fiction, if I tried. The “story” you say you admired was memoir. Most of what I’ve written apart from that — which I am about briefly to describe — is in the first person. And even when it isn’t, it’s really about me and my life, thinly disguised. On the other hand, I have a “voice” that has been generally admired.  (Several “voices,” actually.)  And at my age, I’m very likely in a (marketable?) niche all by myself!

 So. There is an unfinished first draft of a possible book: 183 pages of typescript, in the first person, tentatively titled “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” If rewritten in the third person, which might be a good idea, it could present as a sort of “novel” about the development of a binge eating disorder (“BED”) in the days before there was a name for it. On the other hand, maybe it should remain a confessional reminiscence.  As I have no idea what to do with it other than burn it, a thought plainly indicating ambivalence, it has been sitting around for about ten years.  I have cannibalized bits of it from time to time for short pieces.

I then described three short stories, besides the published one, and the categories of short pieces — all taken from this blog — that together could constitute a collection of work.

…. Well, would it help to talk about all this? Would it help to talk in person? I am not so far away; New Jersey Transit can bring me into Penn Station from Princeton whenever there’s a reason to come in.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Nina Mishkin

His response came back within the hour and was not a form letter, as you can see from the typing:

Dear Ms. Mishkin,

I think y6ou write well. Let’s take a first step by sending me the pages of “Eating Behind Closed Doors”.  It’s never too late to start a new career, if you are talented.


To which I replied:

Dear Mr. ______,

I appreciate the immediate response. Give me four to six weeks to reread “Eating Behind Closed Doors” and clean it up a bit before sending it on to you. (I don’t want to embarrass myself unduly.) I’ll be getting back to you then.

Many thanks. And be well.


 What happened next?

1.  I read “Eating Behind Closed Doors” as far as it goes (for the first time in ten years), shuddered a bit, and then spent a few days reading some WordPress blogs from bloggers with eating disorders. (Yes, they’re out there if you look).

2.  I decided whatever I had already done should stay in the first person, for two reasons.  The first is that there’s an audience of people (at least in the United States) enduring much of what I went through and more, who would probably read a short book about a binge eating disorder if true but maybe not if it presents as “fiction.” The second reason is that what I’ve already written takes place so long ago, it has become social history of a world that doesn’t exist anymore — and that makes it interesting apart from its purported “subject matter.”

3. I also decided I shouldn’t try to finish writing it until I hear what the agent thinks about what I’ve already got.  For one thing, it would take too long. For another, his letter suggests it would be unnecessary at this point.  Moreover, whether or not he decides to work with me, his comments could be helpful in determining where and how far to take it. (I would prefer a quick, clean forty- or fifty-page conclusion — and done!  But we’ll see.) That meant my summer job was to focus on tightening where I was prolix, clarifying where I was unclear, eliminating fine thoughts, unnecessary verbiage, duplication of word usage and my own verbal tics.  And also changing the names!  In addition, I would have to write a one-or-two page synopsis — not so easy with a plotless narrative which still has no conclusion. And I also wanted to write a possibly dispensable short “Author’s Preface,” explaining (1) what the book is not about; (2) why it’s not about that; and (3) why I wrote it.  Which I have done.

4.  Then I posted “Time Out” on July 10, and went to work.  


The fourth go-round of the edited manuscript, plus synopsis, plus cover letter, plus a copy of all the prior e-mails went out by UPS Express on August 21.  I wish the contents of the box were something recently written that I really cared about. I have extremely mixed feelings about what’s actually in it, which is why I abandoned it ten years ago and why the summer spent reading and re-reading it was so not fun.Considered just as a piece of writing, I also feel that although it starts out strong, it does sag, structurally, somewhere around page 70 and despite some funny bits afterwards never quite recovers, even after all my tightening.  On the other hand, I may just be too close to judge objectively. If someone with knowledge of the book market thinks there are enough potential readers for something like this, then perhaps it’s a kite that will fly after all….and pull a collection of Getting Old Blog pieces after it!  I always was a dreamer.  Stay tuned….

I thank all of you who wrote such warm and encouraging comments to the “Time Out” post.  I really appreciated them, even though I took Diana’s advice not to answer while I was working on the book manuscript.  I was a real sourpuss for most of the summer anyway, and didn’t want to spoil the glorious send-off you gave me by bitching and moaning all over the comment section.

I also thank the twelve people who decided to follow this blog while I wasn’t writing it.  I won’t ask what you were thinking. Welcome, welcome anyway.  If you’re still patiently waiting for something to read, here it is:  a bit specialized for non-writers, but maybe a thought-provoking peek at how one part of the commercial world turns.

If you want a short post on how to tighten up your own prose writing, speak up. [Before I forget what I did.]  Otherwise, I guess the next one is up to me.  Cats, anyone?