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When I first starting writing fiction seriously I knew a lot of healthcare professionals but no other writers. In fact, I had no connections in the world of the arts as a whole let alone in publishing or media. Still, I reasoned, networking was something that didn’t hold any especial relevance for me. After all, most writers spend long periods of time flying under the radar, working away diligently in isolation. And when they finally finish their masterwork, it becomes someone else’s job to take care of its journey through the world allowing the writer to submerge again into their next book, right? Right?
Divested of such naivety I’ve come to understand why building a writing career requires, no less than in any other field, the ability to network. Moreover, I’ve had to build my writing network entirely from scratch.
Now, I’m not one of the lucky few to whom networking comes naturally. When I researched to see what was out there on the subject of networking for writers, I expected to find a plethora of articles that would render it all less daunting. I found surprisingly few and, of those I came across, none felt like they quite nailed it for my particular situation.
The thing is, conscious organised networking feels like such a corporate concept. Its innate pragmatism implies that the entire point of it is to result in a quantifiable outcome, such as a new commission or contact. Articles about networking generally offer useful if somewhat prosaic advice along the lines of ‘research the person you want to approach and think about what you might have to offer them’ and so on. Which of course is perfectly sound advice. But I can’t help feeling that there is something about networking for writers that doesn’t quite fit the corporate model. An artistic career has facets to it that a business career doesn’t. For me, the process of networking needs to feel a little more organic.
To understand why the standard way of looking at networking doesn’t quite work for me, I had to go back and think about why artists create in the first place. Edgar Allan Poe defined poetry as ‘the rhythmical creation of Beauty’. The creation of beauty as a primary motive is an unusual choice given the materialist world we inhabit. But then to persist in doing so in return for uncertain, small, or sometimes non-existent reward is an even more unusual choice. As Robert Graves said, ‘There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.’ One could replace the word poetry with any art-form and the underlying premise would still hold. So it seems to me that a network for artists needs to accomplish more than just providing opportunities. There has to be something in the pot about artistic support and validation too.
For me, networking only feels right if it follows the same internal drive as my writing. In other words, the act of networking also has to feel authentic. On my part, I respect anyone who can stick to the page for long enough to turn out a novel but I’m not going to go the extra mile for everyone who does so. There just isn’t enough time in my day. That said, if someone’s work cuts down to the bone in some way, if there is truthfulness in it, if they or it have artistic integrity, if the work speaks to me, I’ll make time.
Another thing I’ve realised over the years is that it’s not always apparent who might prove to be a fruitful contact and who might not. A commission might come from one person but artistic respect, stimulus and succour, which are equally as vital, might come from another. I have friends who are journalists who haven’t proffered any help whatsoever with contacts, reviews and so on. I also have friends who have no connections in media or publishing but who have taken it upon themselves to approach local book stores and libraries on my behalf without me even having to ask. The common characteristic that unites the people who have made such efforts for me is a genuine, deeply embedded, love of literature. An internal drive that we share.
Another thing I’ve found is that networking often happens as a by-product. Let me explain. By nature, I’m a lousy ‘conscious’ networker because walking up to someone I barely know is awkward at the best of times. However, like most writers, I naturally generate an abundance of ideas. I also possess a fair amount of energy and, as a result of a day job in healthcare, I am seriously organised and time-efficient. These attributes, combined with my internal literature-loving drive, have led me to start organising spoken word events in the town where I live. The intention behind these events has never been for me to read or promote my own work. Rather the underlying vision has been to bring what is challenging, exquisite, truthful, raw and deeply human to our artistically rather mainstream, not very bookish, little town. The readers are chosen by a small group of people because of our genuine, deeply embedded, love of literature. An unexpected outcome of doing this is that it has been incredibly fruitful for networking, though this was never the intended purpose.
I confess it feels somewhat fraudulent not to provide a succinct list of pointers in an article about networking. Despite myself, I’m twitchy at the thought of ending without at least a few bullet points. Plus, I may never get another opportunity to include the word ‘arse’ in a blog post.
So, in summary:
- Networking comes very naturally to some lucky, lucky people. The rest of us have to manage it regardless.
- Networking is not short-term. Unless you want to be a one hit wonder. It’s about building enduring and mutually respectful connections that bear fruit for both parties over time.
- Honesty is by far the best policy. Be your true self. If you’re faking it, time will out you.
- Networking is actually quite fun.
- Yes, it takes time and energy to fully engage in it. But it will eat up more energy than it gives back if you approach it simply as a chore to be accomplished. A better way to see it is as an exploration of the field in which you want to operate, with the aim of encountering like-minded people.
- People won’t automatically offer help, even if it seems obvious that they can. You have to ask. Even then they may not follow through but it’s always worth asking.
- It doesn’t always bear fruit but then it doesn’t always have to.
- Talk is cheap. Action is what really counts. Plenty of people are charismatic and network effortlessly but getting stuff done has nothing to do with charisma. That person who says of course they’ll put you in touch with so-and-so, or send you that biblio for your research, or proof-read that piece for you, or come to your reading but then never does? They’re never going to.
- Don’t be that person who says, sure, I’ll put you in touch with so-and-so, or send you that biblio for your research, or proof-read that piece for you, or come to your reading and then not do it. If you say you’re going to do it, do it. Or just don’t offer in the first place.
- You won’t get on famously with everyone. Humans are complex and diverse. Just because someone is an artist doesn’t mean they can’t also be an arse.