Photo Source: Spencer Alexander
“A Confederacy of Dunces” is one of my favorite books. The main character is Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, eccentric 30-year-old who lives with his mother in New Orleans during the ’60s. As he sets out to seek his fortune, Ignatius becomes involved in various adventures with colorful French Quarter characters.
When he finished the manuscript, author John Kennedy Toole felt he had something special on his hands. But the book was turned down by every single publisher he approached. The man was devastated. He had put his heart into this creation and no one wanted it. So he killed himself.
After his death, Toole’s mother discovered the book and started advocating on its behalf. Eleven years later, “A Confederacy of Dunces” was finally published. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and more than 3.5 million copies have been sold around the world.
Now let’s take a closer look at this tragic story. Was there a major difference between those two submissions? The answer is no. It was the exact same book. “A Confederacy of Dunces” was a brilliant piece of art when no one wanted it and it was a brilliant piece of art when it was published.
An actor named Grace moved to Los Angeles from New York about three years ago. She was in her mid-20s with jet black hair and sky-blue eyes. Her résumé had one co-star on “Law & Order,” a few stage credits, and the kind of East Coast training you see on every New York actor’s résumé. In other words, Grace was just another attractive needle in a haystack of talent.
I met her because she was performing in a play with one of my clients. I liked her work, so I brought her in for a meeting. It went well, but we didn’t end up signing her.
About nine months later, the two of us crossed paths again at my local Starbucks. I didn’t even recognize her. Grace had to explain how we knew each other. Embarrassed, I invited her to come in for another meeting and this time, we ended up signing her. (That was a good day. We booked a network series right before she came in.)
Since then, Grace has built up an impressive body of work. She booked a few more co-stars, then we upgraded her to “guest star only” and she landed a few of those. It’s only a matter of time before she starts testing for series regular roles.
Now here’s the thing: In the nine months between our two encounters, absolutely nothing changed. Grace looked the same. Her résumé was the same. Everything was the same. But she caught a break by running into an agent she knew in public and then she caught another break by taking a meeting with my team on a day when everyone was in an especially good mood.
Actors always wish they could catch a break. I hear this all the time. But Toole’s sad story and Grace’s unexpected success clearly illustrate that breaks are arbitrary. You can’t “catch one”—they either happen or they don’t. That’s why you should never allow an external force, like a publisher or an agent, determine if you’re talented or not. That decision is solely up to you.
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