I was filling out a Fellowship application this morning and was required to answer the question "is there anything you would have done differently in your writing career?"
Well, who wouldn't?
My answer came easily. I should have listened to Helen Shulman when she led my workshop at Columbia. “Take a look to your left and right,” she said, “These are the people who will help you in your writing career.”
I misunderstood. I thought she meant to make supportive friends of my classmates, to help me when things were rough. What she was actually hinting at was that everyone you meet along the way to publication is a potential reference, a source of knowledge, a connection to someone ‘important’ that you will need to get your foot in the door--or your manuscript on their desk. I was a self-effacing newbie writer when I was in the MFA program. I never talked about my career to anyone.
I socialized, I made friends, I did talk at great length about how to be a better writer and about things I was reading and I was delighted to discuss -- on an esoteric level -- writing as an art, but I never once talked to anyone about writing as a business. It never occurred to me to I connect to my classmates, teachers, or the guest-speakers on Linked In. I never took down my professor’s email addresses and I felt it would be presumptuous to keep in touch with them after the class was over.
Therefore, when it came time to apply to my first residency, and I needed letters of recommendation, I felt stymied.
“My professors don't say hi to me outside of class,” I thought. “How can they possibly recommend me to Yaddo?”
I had completely misunderstood the purpose of networking. Were I to do it again, I would connect to everyone, take them all out for coffee, and drill them on everything I have had to learn by trial and error. One of them might even have taken pity on me and made some introductions.
I do it for my students all the time.
It was foolish of me to trust that talent alone would get me a book deal—and I am still learning to get over that strange optimism, and to connect with acquaintances on Facebook, develop Twitter relationships, and to be more open about my needs. A strange optimism indeed. Where does that hope come from? In school, I carried with me an odd certainty that--for me at least--connections are not as important as hard work.
Funny that I have spent most of my adult life connecting others and being the catalyst for their literary relationships.