Networking. It’s the buzz word of the underemployed, and lately, a giant source of anxiety for me. Writers have long enjoyed a reputation of reclusiveness, of putting distance between themselves and the world they write about, but those days of romantic isolation, it seems, have come to an end. This year’s AWP conference topped 8,000 attendees in Washington, D.C., and included a book fair the size of the Superdome, packed with writers peddling manuscripts, searching both implicitly and explicitly for publishers, and, ultimately, jobs. For literary academics, the two have become indistinguishable: publish a book, land a teaching position. And in this economic climate (disastrous, disenfranchising, depressing), the path to both is clogged with the hungry masses, many trying to forge a heavyweight network that will whisk them out of obscurity and into a private office at a small liberal arts college. While most of us probably still hunger privately for literary acclaim, we’ll take stability in the meantime.
My Facebook newsfeed reinforces the importance of networking. I’ve noticed many of the writers I’m friends with clumping together on Facebook, promoting the hell out of one another’s work. If one member of a cluster has an article up on, say, HTMLGIANT, inevitably my newsfeed will let me know about it eight or ten more times. Nearly every status update of these clusters includes the names of other cluster members, who all seem to publish in the same journals, attend the same events, and post interviews on the same blogs. It even looks like a network–statuses are linked to events linked to literary journals linked to universities. To me, this chain is a work of art running down my computer screen; I’m intimidated and awed.
Those who know me would probably question this intimidation. After all, I’m considered a social butterfly, even, dare I say, a semi-reformed wild child. I’m the girl who threw a huge party at the beginning of graduate school so that first-year students could get to know one another (and laud me as the new social orchestrator of the program). I spent an outlandish amount of money on wine and cheese–money in plastic form, that is, making that wine and cheese worth about a grand of my debt now–almost none of which I consumed because I was too worried about everyone having a good time. I met my husband at that party. He assumed I was both crazy and independently wealthy.
But what is often perceived as my social ease is really the byproduct of professional insecurity. At the grad school party, my apartment decked out in tall white candles and borrowed silver serving platters, I hung back from talking about myself (a first), instead refilling glasses and asking what other people wrote about. I heard phrases like “narrative intentionality” and “omniscient linked stories,” and I felt queasy, wishing I could run back to my comfy undergrad, where we had slam-poets (or, like me, wannabes–that shit is hard) who wrote about their vaginas like they had fought hand-to-hand combat with misogyny and won. I was a poser even then. I wasn’t a poet, and I hadn’t scored much for the feminist cause either, what with my Victorian prose about unrequited love. My husband, a journalist from rural Alabama, caught hold of me towards the end of the party, when I had run out of people to introduce to each other. We sat on my royal purple couch and he asked me about my writing. Wringing my sweaty hands (he was really fucking cute), I said, “Uh, mostly personal stuff, I guess. Memoir.” Which was my way of explaining the real meat of my prose: parents and old beaus.
Jason rubbed his ample beard, considering. “Huh,” he said. “Well, what makes your life is so interesting?”
A valid question.
Because job anxiety is my favorite scab–something to pick and pick at until it bleeds and infects–I recently read an article sent by my LinkedIn account, which I have so far used only to spy on former classmates. So-and-so, who used to skip psych and blow coke off his student ID card, is now an associate at a law firm in Montana (this is a composite character, of course). That kind of thing. Anyway, I read the LinkedIn recommended articles on higher education with my morning coffee, including this by Dan Shawbel of Forbes: “You need to be creative in your job search by developing your own product, eBook, viral video, or personal advertisement. Finally, you need to treat your life as one giant networking event, and meet as many people in your field as you can.”
Shawbel hit a nerve with me. I have a teensy online presence thanks to the handful of web journals that have published my work over the past five years or so. But my own product? I have no clue how to create an eBook, especially with my real book still under construction. And any viral video I’d shoot would probably end up being about my dog. I decided to make the safest and cheapest personal advertisement: another blog added to the Net’s congestion. If nothing else, I can advertise my friends’ work here.
Jason and I moved back to my comfy college town last August to take part-time teaching positions at my comfy alma mater and finish our books. The jobs are good. We make a far cry more than the majority of adjuncts I know, and get to share an office with a view of the quad and a slice of Cayuga Lake. My former professors are just as supportive and brilliant as I remember them, and the new colleagues in my department suggest that our once small writing program is becoming more innovative, ambitious, and, well, hip. I’m not complaining. But part-time teaching means finding as-of-yet-unknown summer jobs so that Jason and I can keep our one-bedroom downtown apartment and occasionally make student loan payments. I know it’s only February, but I’ve been worrying about this since the dregs of last summer began to freeze in October.
So, last night we did something decidedly proactive, something we could congratulate ourselves over: we went to a networking event.
Here’s another reason Ithaca, New York is a pretty great place to live. The United Way of Tompkins County Young Professionals Initiative, despite being a mouthful, combines networking with fundraising, a combination I can get behind. We paid a $5 United Way donation at the door of Kilpatrick’s pub, and enjoyed cocktail specials in a room full of people ages 20-50 (young-at-hearts welcome–another plus), all wearing name tags that sported their professional affiliation. Admittedly, I hemmed and hawed about going. A friend is one of the organizers, and when he first told us about the event, I was all over it, planning to magically accrue confidence and maybe even arrogance about my awesomeness by Wednesday night. I had some killer boots and an artisan headband made by a local merchant. I had a quasi-decent attitude. But as the day wore on and I contemplated introducing myself to complete strangers, again armed with little more than a part-time paycheck and an unfinished manuscript about–gag me–love, I almost bailed. Even Jason thought about leaving me at home.
“Look at you,” he said, taking stock of my teary eyes and nervous frown. “You’re too anxious. Stay home.” Perhaps this was code for, “Please don’t come and embarrass me.”
But I blew my nose, fluffed my hair, and went anyway, determined not to call my mother for the fourth time that day to worry into her ear. At the very least, I had to do something before I called again, something that told her (and Jason and myself) that I could overcome my networking paralysis and act like a fucking grown-up.
The temperate February weather brought a bigger crowd than I expected, lured outside by the unexpected dose of vitamin D. At first, Kilpatrick’s looked like a singles night. About fifteen people milled around the bar, cradling their $2 pints of Yuengling, staring at their feet, or glancing surreptitiously at name tags, trying not to call attention to their search for a viable conversationalist. Because what does a part-time writing teacher have to say to a software dude from Lockheed Martin? I’m sure plenty, but I’m just not that inventive under pressure. I looked instead for other Ithaca College and Cornell University tags, certainly defeating the purpose of such an event by refusing to branch out. Maybe next time.
Our friend the organizer fared better. Downright impressive, actually. He had been to these events before, and has the added advantage of being a reporter at one of the local newspapers. Even if he didn’t know someone personally, he often recognized their names from a story or meeting, providing him a consistent “in” with folks of all professions. Watching him move effortlessly from conversation to conversation, I envied my friend’s public professional life. A writer too–and one worthy of the 2009 Jeffrey Smith Editor’s Prize from the Missouri Review–he has chosen a different path to payday, one that does not isolate him from the world that inspires his work. I felt ashamed to remember that I moved straight from undergrad to graduate school, and from there, straight into teaching. I’ve literally spent the last ten years of my life on a college campus. Of course I have nothing to say to a software engineer.
The event lasted two hours. For the first forty-five minutes, Jason and I huddled like mallards along the wall, clutching our pints. The place filled up, and people were talking, but the comfortable way they joked, punched each other’s shoulders, and whispered in each other’s ears suggested most were talking to people they already knew. That’s understandable. If I had known anyone else besides my husband, I’m sure I would have clung to familiarity, too.
But you know, that’s probably part of my problem. Because maybe what I observed weren’t actually the cliques I thought they were. Maybe I should dump my bad attitude and quit assuming my friend the newspaper reporter was having effortless conversations with his constituents, or that the cluster of writers who network so visibly on Facebook are just predisposed to digital marketing. Maybe, like writing, they have a little bit of social grace that they’ve honed deliberately, even painfully, pushing through their own writerly awkwardness and self-doubt and into conversations with local entrepreneurs or publishers at the massive AWP book fair. Maybe I just need to fucking practice.
In fact, Jason and I did have a couple of lovely conversations at the UNYPTCI event (yes, they officially use that acronym). We met a consultant at an energy company and discussed the hydrofracking controversy here in Ithaca and the surrounding area. The consultant and I both come from rural upstate NY towns, and share a somewhat cautious resistance to the, uh, total resistance to hydrofracking in Ithaca. We don’t know enough about the process to wholeheartedly condemn it, we agreed, and we know that our industry-starved hometowns would benefit financially from the land leases. It’s a complicated issue, we said. We don’t like to talk about it for fear of inflammatory dialogue, we said. It was a relief to be honest with someone, we said. Her name is Elizabeth. I’ll remember that. I tend to like Elizabeths.
We also met two screen printers from PSP Unlimited, who might not have summer work for writers unless they need to spellcheck their jerseys and monogrammed leather bombers, but who were enthusiastic about meeting us, anyone, why the hell not, cheers. And we met the Assistant Athletic Director of Ithaca College, hanging out with an Admissions administrator. Yes, we were drawn by their name tags, by familiarity. But we ended up talking about the disparity between faculty and administrators on campus, how we want to build a better partnership by knowing more about what the other does, by recognizing that most academic and administrative efforts are curricular in nature. And hey, now I have a contact for when one of those student-athletes starts slipping in my class.
Man, I do love this city. It’s probably the friendliest place to work on networking skills because it absolutely believes it’s special, and those who also think it’s special should feel at home here, be able to work here. I walk my dog around these neighborhoods and see this affirming perspective everywhere–in the Buy Local initiative, in the co-ops and CSAs, shit, even in the graffiti. Along the wall of the old library, this message has been spray painted by some local heathen: “Respect.” I won’t dwell on the irony of tagging such a word on a public building.
Then there’s my favorite local bumper sticker: “Ithaca: Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality.” Pitch perfect, I-town. Maybe networking is much more than a promotional necessity in a cutthroat job market. Maybe it’s a way to create another reality. A reality in which you are supported as an artist (a dying phenomenon), in which a group of people stand at the ready for you, in which the lonely world of the page comes with post-pub love.
In other words, maybe the clusters of writers I see on Facebook aren’t clubs, but something closer to therapy groups. Professional, literary therapy groups. Such a thing should exist, I say.
For the record, Jason and I did attend AWP this year. We went to panels (one), readings (two, off-site), and lit mag parties (one). We hung out at the book fair for a total of two hours and thanked the small journals who were kind enough to publish our work over the past year. We collected a king’s lot in publishing swag–buttons, stickers, magnets, and even a t-shirt from Sweet. But the best part of the conference, as it always is, was running into old friends and hiding out from the chaos in clusters of familiarity. We ended our weekend in D.C. by having dinner with our friend and wedding photographer, Thao Thai, who is hard at work on her mixed-media thesis project, a gutsy collection of essays that illuminate our relationship to objects, and which capitalize on Thao’s talents spanning writing, photography, letterpressing, and beyond. At the incredibly posh and enlightened Policy restaurant, Thao, Jason and I ate seared pork belly with house-made kim chi, sipped cocktails, and talked intimately about our work. We spoke in sometimes hushed and self-effacing tones at the very mention of publication, of what we truly desired for our art. I realized, sitting in the dim, elegant light of the city street outside, that we were partaking in the quiet business of dreaming together, of reinforcing with our company our belief in one another.
Thao, for you, I’ll keep working on this network thing. I want to promote the hell out of that essay collection.