Monday, February 20, 2017

From Me to You: A Little About Networking

Last week, as I prepared the exegesis post for "The Girl on the Bike", I wrote this:
I must disclose that I have a dear friend who's a semi-dormant editor at the Rumpus, and I ran "The Girl on the Bike" by her before I sent it in. I am certain that I got an acceptance because of the piece's quality, not because I got my friend to push something into publication as a favor. But the nature of the writing world, like most professional worlds, is that the more people you know, the more help you can get in order to succeed. I have a lot to say about this, as it pertains both to this piece in particular and to publishing in general, but I am lucky in who I know and I'm well aware of it and you can be mad at me if you want. I got lucky by paying for opportunities for myself, but I also got lucky by showing up, for free, for years, in all kinds of circumstances. I'm going on and on now but I will write a separate post about this someday.
I wrote this as a footnote, and then I took it out. I didn't want to distract from the issue at hand, which was talking about "Girl", and by the time I was typing the last sentence I realized that I had a lot more to say about the subject than I could put in a footnote.

Several years ago, just before attending my first writing conference, I wrote about how icky it felt that I was able to get opportunities to meet other writers as well as agents and publishers simply because I had the money to attend the conference.
I also found the concept of conferences essentially unfair, because if writing is really a matter of being afforded opportunities once you can...afford them, this is extremely wrong.
Everything I've learned about the writing world since then tells me that yeah, it's unfair, but it's also the most efficient way to get what you want out of your endeavors as a writer. You can still do it the free way, by making your writing better until you get pulled from the slush pile, but it is much slower. So that's what I mean when I say I got lucky by paying for opportunities for myself.

As with other installments of From Me to You, I'm using unrelated, funny-or-fun images. 

In 2013 I paid for the opportunity to take a class here in LA with a writer whose work was published in the New Yorker, and whose first book, a collection of short stories, was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster. He was also a Stegner fellow. (These are all meaningfully, unusually prestigious details.) The class was a lemon, though. The writer and I did not get along, his syllabus was full of drunk white men, and among the 18 or 20 people in the class, I walked away with one good contact, with whom I have since lost touch. But I did learn a useful writing tenet ("make a scene out of it"), and I learned that the program where that writer teaches is maybe not the best place to get writing instruction in Los Angeles.

In 2015 I paid for the opportunity to take a yoga/writing workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch and Jen Pastiloff. From this I attained contacts in Portland, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and many other places, some of whom are very big-deal writers and editors indeed, and some of whom are like me, emerging. It was where I met my friend who edited for the Rumpus.

I won't sugar up the truth: that workshop was a professional jackpot. It's not a coincidence that the past eighteen months, since I took that workshop, have offered me the first traction I've had in getting published in the ten years I've been trying to. Of course, it's the same timeline during which I've been getting my graduate degree - a collision of factors have led to my work doing better, but a big part of it is the friendships I formed during the workshop. These women offered me better critiques than I was getting before, and more opportunities to meet writers and talk about writing. But all of that matters a hell of a lot less to me than the friends I made and the words we shared, both there at the workshop and since then. This is important; I'll return to it.

Point is: these are opposing examples of opportunities I paid for - one a dud, one a bonanza. There have been lots more of them, including a workshop at a community college (basically worthless in terms of peers and instruction, but got an intermittent, paid slush-reader job out of it), an online workshop (TERRIBLE facilitators, but met a contact with whom I've been exchanging work for six years), and a workshop at Chautauqua (amazing instructor, got usefully cut off at the knees and humbled). The best way I've found to keep these opportunities coming is to keep signing up for workshops with writers I admire. In this way I've learned a lot even from the duds, because the instruction is valuable even if there's no one to connect with. And vice versa. If you pay attention, you'll nearly always walk away with something.

Which was the point I wanted to make about the Pastiloff/Yuknavitch workshop. Paying for these opportunities only to see them as a tit for tat, I put my money in the machine and pull the lever and out comes a chance to network and get ahead, is, in my opinion, unwise. Networking among writers is challenging as it is, because it's not a very extroverted career path. Writers are often weird and difficult even beyond their common introversion. Mercenary networking among writers is likely to fail.

Plus, good writers notice things and study people for a living. If you're in it for self-promotion, they're going to see through you.

So, my suggestion is to approach any writerly "networking opportunity" not at all as that, but instead as an opportunity to learn about others' work and your own. Walk into the workshop thinking of it as a workshop, a shop for working, instead of as the place where you're going to meet the editor who finally publishes you. Walk into the reading thinking you'll hear good work, instead of as the place where you'll pick up three new Facebook friends, one of whom will eventually link you to a residency that's right for you. The latter might happen, but it shouldn't be the point.

If you can't pay for networking opportunities, then you're down to showing up, which some say is 80% of success. I tend to agree. Show up on time with a smile, and you bump that to at least 88%. Go to readings at bookstores. Go to author visits at the library. Go to film screenings. Go to talks at museums. Keep going to events that are free and arty, and you will learn things; as a plus, if you're not too shy, you'll meet people who will help. I got my first job in the legal field, in which I've made a pretty nice career, because I went to a town council meeting and I noticed that a lawyer presenting there didn't have an assistant. All I did was show up and pay attention.

If you think there is nothing to show up to that isn't costly (i.e. that you have to go to expensive workshops or conferences to get ahead), start looking into organizations around which writers congregate, like PEN Center USA or AWP (the organization that runs the AWP conference). If you sign up for their newsletters, you'll learn about tons of free events you can attend to meet people and learn things. Plus, there are sometimes ways to lower the entry fees. With student discounts and local discounts, I went to AWP for $25 last year, when the normal cost was over $150. Investigate. Get on waiting lists. Keep showing up.

A professor I know who often gives professional advice to young writers says that the writing world is very small, and everyone knows each other. This seems on the surface to be false, because for every slot in a magazine there are hundreds of slush submissions vying to get in, and how can writing be a small world when there are so many writers that you can't get ahead? But he's right. The more you get into writing, the more you see the same names again and again, people who run small presses and small magazines and get their work in small presses and small magazines. Some people drop out after a single book or a year of running a magazine, and others come to take their places, but the people who hang on year after year are the same people.

So, it should go without saying, but be nice. Gossip wisely. You never know.

I won't discount the role of luck. It was sheer luck that my Rumpus-editing friend attended the same workshop I attended back in 2015. But before I'd met her, when she said she needed a ride to the workshop from the airport, I volunteered to drive her, and we bonded in the car. That's showing up. I took advantage of the luck I was granted. If my luck had been bad instead of good, she would have been someone I didn't care to know, and the ride from the airport would have been shitty; I've had a few car trips like that. But in all likelihood it wouldn't have hurt me to show up, and in this case it benefited me far and away beyond my investment. Because of the people she knows, sure, but more importantly, because of her invaluable, loving friendship.

It's both, y'see? I am lucky that I know a guy, my professor, who has contacts all over the small-press world, but I nurtured that luck by coming to his classes and participating and appearing as interesting and talented as I possibly could. I did that because I liked him, not because I wanted his contacts, which I didn't even know about before I walked into his classroom. Luck + showing up + not being a sucky person = eventual success. No prostitution required.

Networking doesn't have to be a crappy process. You just have to find a way to network that doesn't leave you feeling slimy. For me, that way is showing up at paid or unpaid events that connect me with people I'd be interested in talking to anyway. Sooner or later, I'll meet people who can help me, or whom I can help. That's how networking works, in its best possible iteration.

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