Yes. But not necessarily in the way you think.
When I was an aspiring writer, I often heard other wannabes bitch about the unfairness of it all. You know the conversation – it’s not about the writing, it’s all about who you know. The only people who get ahead are those with trust funds, who went to Ivy League schools, the types who rub elbows with New York gatekeepers and can slip agents manuscripts over drinks…yadda yadda yadda. Stubborn idealist that I am, I refused to believe them. I’d been raised by movies that told me “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.”
Rosy platitudes in mind, I pressed on doing the best work I could until one day I sold an article, then one day I got an editing job, then one day I was making a decent living as a freelance writer, then one day I got a book deal. At that point, I gleefully declared that I’d been right all along. After all, I didn’t have money. I went to a public university. I didn’t know anyone. Not a soul. Before I started on this journey I hadn’t even met a working writer of any stripe – not even a classified ads copywriter, not even a coffee-toting assistant to a writing type. (I once met someone who typed out closed captioning text, and I thought she was way cool.) Anyway, middle finger to those excuse-spewing haters. I’d made it from nothing and so could anyone else.
Then it hit me. I kinda knew a lot of people. By that point, I had mentors and teachers, friends and colleagues, critique partners and cheerleaders. Some of them were famous and some were more obscure than I, but I absolutely could not have gotten where I did without a single one of them. Not for a second.
The funny thing is, I didn’t build this “network” intentionally. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than going to a networking event and trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Oh boy do I suck at that.
What I found is that a strong community is a sign of experience. When you’ve been a writer for awhile, you get to know other writers. You take a class and keep in touch with some of the students. You go to a reading and befriend that other person trying to hide in the corner. Eventually, you publish something teeny tiny, and they do too, and then someone takes the next step and the next. You continue working side-by-side and one day, holy shit - you’re all making it together. You look around and think, wow, we kinda know a lot of people.
How to Build a Network Without Networking
Befriend the people you like. Encourage the people whose work you respond to. Be polite and professional to everyone. That’s it.
That authentic approach can amass an invaluable group, much more so than any brown nosing. That literary legend you met at that one event that one time is not going to risk his reputation to help you. On the other hand, your comrades will stick their neck out time and time again. Although a long list of superficial connections is better than nothing at all, it’s far less powerful than the kind of friendships that grow in the trenches.
Have you ever seen Jerry Seinfeld’s new show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? The episodes are super short, and with a preschooler and a baby, my husband and I don’t have a lot of time for TV, so we’ve watched a lot of these comedians. The thing continually strikes me is that people like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld and George Wallace and David Letterman have known each other for decades, not because they’re part of a richy rich cabal but because they worked small comedy clubs together when they were all nobodies like us.
As soon as it’s feasible, go somewhere other writers hang out. If at all possible, make it a real life place. You might take a class or one-day workshop. Go to a reading or a book festival or a conference. Talk to at least one peer. PEER. No schmoozing with anyone who you suspect can help you. If you meet someone significantly more successful than you, obviously be polite and professional, but don’t try. Don’t want anything from them.
Most importantly, have fun. It is essential that we share experiences with fellow writers minus any careerism, or pretension or stress. In the end, this is about so much more than building a community of people who can help you. It’s about building a fulfilling writer’s life. And then, no matter what is happening on the publishing front, you’ll be successful. After all, isn’t happiness and fulfillment the definition of success?