Networking: Anti-Soul?

When I meet new people just to get to know them, often they turn out to be fascinating, fabulous souls. A new conversation strikes up in a café, on a bus, on social media, wherever… just for the sake of it, because others’ thoughts and experiences are great fun to explore. But it only works for me if it’s pure, for its own sake, with no end goal other than a chance to learn about another mind and life.

More often than I’d ever hope, I’m encouraged to meet new souls in order to “network.” In other words, to put it bluntly, they might do something for me—offer help beyond the simple fact of friendship or connection. They’re the sort of people who just might boost my writing success, or find a way for me to afford a nice Manhattan condo, or help me spread my ideas more widely, or smuggle my non-elite self into some kind of impressive gathering that… who knows… might lead to better things for me in this life.

And that’s when things fall apart. I’m awkward; I say the wrong thing; I say nothing when I should be saying something; I’m never in the right place or around the right people; I laugh at the wrong times; I seem pushy because I don’t know how to be one of those smooth operators who quietly explore a party, chat, and wind up with a book deal or an “in” for some kind of opportunity. I guess that sums it up. If I’m looking for an “in,” I wind up unequivocally “out.” If I’m simply looking to explore the nuances of another soul, I am often approachable and even, in my own clumsy way, kind of charming.

Before anyone jumps in to tell me I’m being silly, I’ll get specific. Sadly, I have specifics to share. They’re funny—even I think so—but they do prove my point. Either I need to get better at networking, or I need to forget the whole thing and just be happy as a soul who floats around and seeks higher wisdom, oblivious to goals that are external to my inner heart and mind.

So there’s this place for writers in Boston: many people love it, but it always makes me feel queasy, uncomfortable, and like I’ve squandered hundreds of dollars and a precious day of my life. I don’t want to name the place, because I’ve met people who adore it—who, I’m serious, say they would never move out of Boston because they couldn’t bear not to have it close by—and it deserves no criticism. You could call it a writing center: a center for writers. There’s a powerful quotation, which gets attributed to various sources, from the writer Anaïs Nin to the Talmud: “We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are.” I see this writing center place as I am when I go there: awkward and uncomfortable, though well-meaning. In my experience, the instructors always try hard and have interesting input. The problem, for me, is on the level of gestalt: the overall atmosphere as I perceive and feel it.

Last year, I took a few classes there. I was interested in the classes, but, beyond that, I thought I might just network. Whatever that might mean; I wasn’t even sure. I only knew that people talked about “the Boston writing community.” I wasn’t sure who or what that community encompassed, and I figured maybe I should learn. Maybe these “Boston writers” could somehow help me. People talk about hanging out at this center and loving everyone and wow: the course they took there gave them all the tools and connections to land a great book deal and meet fascinating literary types who take a personal interest in them. “People,” meaning people I see on Facebook and once in a while at a party that makes me feel unhappy, not people I actually know.

The instructor made a comment along the lines of: “This is your community. Get to know people at this center and in this class. It’s very important for your career.” That seems to be a mantra at the writing center place. “Invest in your writing community, and they’ll invest in you and your writing.” I looked around the class and felt a kind of horror. Nothing against anyone. They all seemed just fine. Their expressions were perfectly pleasant; they weren’t overly chic or intimidating. But it didn’t seem likely that they could be “my community”: I just didn’t feel any connection to them.

My mind is always wide open, and this was no exception. Maybe something glorious would happen here. Someone could smile at me kindly and mention that their best friend is a hot-shot editor who has been looking for spiritually oriented writers just like me, and that their other best friend is giving out five million dollar grants for impressive but floundering characters who would just love to live in Manhattan. An interesting fact about me: I kind of believe in magical thinking—at least as a possibility.

So when lunch came up after the first class, I decided I’d try to network. I didn’t love the idea, but today wasn’t a day to love. Today was a day when, maybe, I would give up pleasure in the moment to achieve more lasting and profound happiness in the future. Present pain for future gain.

People were heading outside, and I figured I’d join them, get to know them, and… who knows? They said they’d be waiting right near the front of the building, in case anyone needed to use the bathroom. I did indeed need to use it, and then I got a little lost, of course, but I didn’t think that much time had gone by when I reached the front of the building and realized these potential friends of editors and grant-givers were gone. I walked a bit in both directions and found no one from the class.

Everyone else was networking, and I was standing alone like a goon, trying to untangle the cord on my sunglasses from my jacket’s zipper. Typical! If I had come here wanting to meet souls just because, I’d be schmoozing and having great fun. Of course, I did want to meet souls just because; I always do. That is a basic tenet of my life.  But I also wanted to network, since networking is supposedly so necessary to thrive in this world, and I wasn’t yet thriving in the ways I’d always dreamed about. That simple desire probably sullied the entire experience and the energy around me, and, through some complex amalgam of mysterious mechanisms, foiled my plans. It rarely fails. It’s manifest destiny. I couldn’t even manage to join this writing center’s Facebook community—my request has been “pending” for months, lost in the maelstrom of my bad networking karma.

Every once in a while, I succeed somewhat in the networking realm, but even then, something very unsettling is bound to happen. Case in point: a book launch party I attended this past summer. A member of my book club had just published her own book. When events like this come up, I try to go—not only to support the writers and artists being celebrated, but because… networking. Maybe my time is yet to come.

This event involved a talk at a bookstore here in Cambridge, and, afterwards, a party at a nearby restaurant. When I arrived, a group of friends from my book club were sitting together, and they called me over to join them. They were saving me a seat next to them, and on my other side was a writer who had been chatting with some people from my group. It turned out that this writer would soon publish a novel with an excellent publisher, about a Jewish family. I thought to myself: “Aha! A networking opportunity has appeared!” Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think anything much would come of it, but you never know. She lived in the Boston area and surely had some good connections… and she was interested in my book about Hasidic teenage girls.

We exchanged business cards; she noted my book’s title and said: “Wow, Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers sounds so interesting. I’ll have to look it up.” She excitedly told me about some of her experiences, and I told her about my published book and the manuscripts I’m currently perfecting for (hopefully!) future publication. Nothing earth-shattering, but, you know, something. 

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Someone asked her how she knew the writer who had invited us, and she said, with a bit of a chuckle, “The local writing community.” The local writing community! Well, how about that? I was networking, and it was happening naturally, as if I were a smooth enough person to get to know people at a gathering and use those connections to move forward in the world.

At the party after the talk, I wound up sitting with this woman and a few other women who knew each other from writing-related ventures. I had fun. With writers. I left that event feeling pretty good. Maybe I should attend more public book events even when I don’t receive a formal invitation. You never know who I might meet. Right?

Well, maybe. But. There’s this networking site called Goodreads, which I should probably pay more attention to. It allows members to rate and review books, and meet readers with similar tastes. I have an account and, it seems, “Goodreads friends,” but I haven’t spent any real time on the site. One evening, months after this party, I Googled myself. I do this sometimes, and so should you. You might discover a gem—or an anti-gem.

On this particular night, the Goodreads site on my book came up, and I scrolled through the readers’ reviews. I saw a name and photo that felt familiar, next to a two-star review of my book. I did a little digging and quickly realized: the novelist from the “writing community”—the one who had acted happily surprised when I gave her my card and described my book—had given it a two-star review. Two stars out of five. That’s, you know, a D. She rated and reviewed my book back in 2009.

She didn’t leave it at two stars: she explained herself. For her, Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers was “too much of what I think it was supposed to be”: a book with some academic underpinnings and sociological implications. As she eloquently put it, “I didn’t care so much of [sic] the sociological implications in a greater community, I just wanted more of the girls.” She said the book was insightful and helpful, but it wasn’t what she was looking for. So… two stars. A grade of D.

Now, I am not unreasonable. She writes fiction and probably doesn’t enjoy nonfiction books that have even a slight academic bent. If she didn’t like my book for that reason, I completely understand and would never hold it against her. She is very entitled to her personal taste. But to give something a public D because it doesn’t mesh with her personal preferences seems ridiculous. It would be like me slamming a book because it’s too much about engineering, and I don’t care about engineering.

Thankfully, I am not one of those people who feel devastated over every negative review. I exult in the great ones (how amazing that someone took the time to read my book and loved it) and take the others in my stride. I think I had seen that review in the past and not thought all that much about it. But this woman was so friendly at the party. She gave me the idea that networking could be a thing for me. And she turned out to be Two-Star Tillie.

My one attempt at true networking triumph that evening failed, and now I know why. Two-Star Tillie had mentioned her literary agent—how fabulous she was, how grateful she was to have her. Feeling emboldened, I piped up: “That’s great. What’s her name? I’m looking for an agent myself.”

Two-Star Tillie got a funny look on her face and said something like: “Well, she is very, very selective. She’s, like, tops.”  I was slightly put out, because, for all she knew, I was tops, too. I wasn’t insulted, though; I just figured she didn’t want to get started with some stranger in a professional capacity. But I wasn’t a stranger to her. Like most of my networking attempts, this was sad and weird.

Still, I won’t give up. Every once in a while, I am just being myself, thinking in a soul kind of way—not one ulterior motive in my head—and something good happens on a network-y level. I wouldn’t be writing for this site if I hadn’t connected personally with Elad through spiritually oriented Facebook posts and conversation—with no thought that it would lead anywhere further, higher, or greater. OK, this gig won’t buy me a Manhattan condo. But wow: I am having fun.