Networking vs Relationships

How to Make the Most of the World around You

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Photo by Helena Lopes

One of the things you hear a lot about when you’re first starting out as an aspiring author, attending conferences, talking to publishing folks, heading out on retreats, is the idea of networking. Long applauded as the way to meet the right people, networking is a term that’s used in all job sectors from finance to food and seems to strike fear into even the most stalwart of hearts.

Networking is especially the introvert-writer’s bane, and yet seen as something we must do as professional writers in order to get anywhere. It often feels intimidating. We’re writers. We thrive in our own heads, not socializing with everyone else’s thoughts, right? I’ve come to the conclusion that networking sounds impersonal, because it is impersonal. I challenge you to think about it very differently.

Rather than networking, you’re developing relationships. True, real relationships in which both parties’ benefit. And you can do this every day, wherever you are at. You just have to be open.

Here’s an example.

In 2014 I was working as a barista while finishing up my MFA and trying to find an agent. I met new people every single day, and interacted with many return customers with whom I carried ongoing conversations about their lives. Every day was a mutual checking in with each other. How was that movie last night? Did the art show go well? How’s your son feeling? And on and on. My customers were interesting people — artists, musicians, writers, financiers, doctors, moms, dads, and more. There was always something interesting to talk about for five minutes and I was always invested in our short time together.

One day a woman came in and somehow we got to talking about writing and she told me she ran a small press right in town. Immediately our connection changed. I wasn’t just a barista, I was a Master in writing with a ton of developmental editing experience and looking for more freelance opportunities. She was no longer a weekly cup of coffee. We exchanged cards. She didn’t have anything for me right then, but she was excited to know more about me. It was mutual. After that every now and then she’d come in for coffee and we’d pick up right where we left off, always enjoying the quick connection.

A year later, I left the coffee shop, and moved to a new state for a year. It was a brief departure, however, in that time I signed with an agent and my first book was out on submission. And I received emails from the woman a couple times, checking in with me, asking how we were doing, letting me know she still had me in mind for future work. I was genuinely grateful for the continued connection even though I had no idea where I would be in the next few years. It was nice to know she valued me and what I could potentially offer if the need arose. Within that year, my first book sold, and while I was still struggling financially, I was on cloud nine about finally breaking through.

And then I got an email from that woman, who I now considered my friend.

Would I be interested in helping with some structural issues with one of the books the small press was working on? And if so what was my rate?

Silly question. I was working in the Costco bakery at this point. Anything would be better. Especially an opportunity using my actual credentials (I knew nothing and enjoyed nothing about baking pies). I was on board. I began working with the small press, and they even put me on their editorial team.

We eventually decided to move back to the area we had been, and I even got my barista job back. It was a great way to return to the community I missed and make quick money. Plus, everyone there was a friend and I looked forward to working there again. I continued editing for the small press and the woman would come in for coffee and we’d remark what a funny circle we’d created. Now I attended editorial meetings with the other editors and authors since I was back in town, and was fully immersed in helping to create several books with them. It was a total joy. But I still needed to make more money so I began looking around for another job to take over my beloved barista position.

One day a man came in, someone who I recognized but wasn’t a daily customer. He smiled when he came up to the counter to order and asked me “Do you mind if I hang this ad in here? We’re looking for a part-time administrative assistant. Our office is across the hall.”

I didn’t hang the ad. I took the job.

I happily worked there for the next two years until I made a big enough book sale to quit the day job circuit. At least temporarily.

This is networking, my friends. Not socializing, not mingling at happy hour, not imposing your manuscript upon unsuspecting editors or authors. It’s making real and lasting connections with people.

This can happen at conferences and retreats too. I’ve met many close friends who were first colleagues at conferences. Mostly it’s keeping up relationships that are worthy of your time and truly benefit each other. It’s making and keeping friends within the world you want to live, not simply passing out business cards or following each other on Instagram.

If you put yourself in the middle of what you want as best you can, you begin developing relationships with people automatically. But you can also just stay open and receptive in the world you’re already in — such as a coffee shop — and allow the universe to gift you! Sometimes I think how lucky I was to be there at the right time/right place, but I just as easily could have ignored everyone, taken their change, and sent them on their caffeinated way. Instead I embraced the conversations and kept the connections alive. I truly enjoyed this. It wasn’t a chore, it wasn’t fake. And now even though I’ve moved on from all of these jobs, I have made long lasting friendships that I’ll carry with me wherever I go.

Jess Rinker is the author of Gloria Takes a Stand, a picture book biography of Gloria Steinem, and the forthcoming, Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story, due out in 2021, both published by Bloomsbury. Jessica’s middle grade novel debut duology, The Dare Sisters, will be published in Fall 2020 and 2021 by Imprint/Macmillan.

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