I’m a huge fan of making a living off of doing what I love. If this sounds obvious, or cliché, consider that so many writers don’t believe they can earn enough to have a career in writing: It’s a “hobby,” or a “passion” rather than a job. This makes me crazy.
I’m not the only one: writer and editor Jane Friedman also believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain.
I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.
…”When you see a successful writer and try to trace their path to success, keep in mind that what you see are only the visible aspects of what they have done. Behind the scenes are mentors, other relationships, and communities that contributed to their success.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 17)
I went to a college that worked really hard to help you to understand the value of networking, but I don’t think, when I graduated, that I understood exactly what that meant.
In the summer of 1996, this was underscored to great effect when I got accepted to the prestigious Radcliffe Publishing Course, now moved to Columbia University. At Radcliffe, it was easy to be dazzled: Morgan Entrekin. Steve Florio. The editor who had acquired Ethan Hawke’s first foray into fiction–these were just a few people who came to speak to us about their work. Mornings and afternoons were lectures and exercises. And every afternoon, there was sherry hour, where the guest faculty would be on hand to talk in a casual setting to us about–well, I don’t know what. I never actually spoke with any of them outside of class. But I do know that when I graduated from RPC, after six weeks of classes and getting lost on the Harvard campus, I was pretty sure that I would land a job, no problem. I had three job offers, one of which came from someone who was an RPC graduate herself, and took that one.
Later, when I was looking for another job, I turned to RPC. And nothing came of it. Years later, when I was launching my book, I turned to RPC again. And nothing came of that, either.
Wanna know why? Because I didn’t invest in any of those relationships. I learned a lot about publishing, some of which I still use today, and I met a lot of really great people, and I utterly failed to leverage any relationships with people who were in decision-making positions.
I really only made a few close friends while I was at Radcliffe. One of those girls became my first New York roommate; the other was a pretty steady friend throughout my life in New York.
Later, when I had a bona fide freelance career of my own and a lot more experience with, uh, basic people skills, I applied to be a member of a critique group. One of them I stuck with for a couple of months, the other I was part of for a whole few years, I think. And then at some point I decided to go for my master of fine arts, because, despite my relative success with marketing copy and personal essays and short stories, the big Kahuna of my writing career was still escaping me: I had drafted several novels, had them critiqued, sent them to agents, with no success: I had a plot problem. An MFA would fix it.
At the MFA, I made a lot of friends. I met a ton of guest faculty members, and I worked really hard to keep in touch with the ones whose work really resonated with me. I revised my novel (the third of three manuscripts I had knocking around in my drawer) during the MFA, drew up synopses and query letters, and finally sold the damn thing a year and a half after graduation. (I fixed my plot problem.)
But I did not do this in a vacuum, like I went through the Radcliffe course. (I have just remembered I had a boyfriend that summer, too, which is…like, dumb. I was not on campus a lot. I missed out on a lot!) Because our MFA had residencies, we were all basically breathing each other’s work and stories and stuff for ten days, twice a year. So when I went to revise the book, I leaned on members of my co-hort. When I agonized over plot issues, I turned to my co-hort. When I could not see the way out of a synopsis, I turned to my co-hort.
When I pitched the thing, I leaned on faculty members I had met, both to introduce me to their agents and to take a first look at the thing as agents. And I also kept in touch with faculty members I just liked, as people, even if their work wasn’t remotely related to the work I was pitching.
Fast forward, okay? The book sold, everyone who had had a hand in it championed it, it went into its fourth printing four months after its release date. Some college professors (one of whom I met via my MFA) taught it in classes.
At my first bookstore event, at Women and Children First, in Chicago, lots of people showed up, including some members of that long-ago critique group. And some new friends I’d met recently on the Internet. And the girl who used to live upstairs from us, ten long years before my book ever was a possibility.
While I was in Chicago, I also did a library event. It had been set up by a woman I met at my brother’s wedding. And later that month, I did a few more events in Michigan, which had been set up by a woman I met on Twitter, when we were both working on marketing projects that involved running.
I also want to point out, briefly, that I got into literary magazine editing because of an alumna of my MFA program. And I run a writer’s retreat with some members of my MFA co-hort. And that members of the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for support my writing and my on-the-side watercolor work. And that I’m part of a really supportive online group of marketing and copy experts who help each other through everything, including harrowing book launches and the day my dog was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and then cancer. That group not only supports my creative work, they also hire me.
I’m only a part of that group because one of the women in it read an essay of mine that she liked, and reached out.
Someone I published a few years ago at Tahoma Literary Review invited me to be on a panel last year, and on this panel with me was a woman who now runs a writing center. Our literary magazine will now partake in the writing conference the center sponsors. And earlier this year, when I was doing some research on a topic I was fairly new to, I reached out to a writer I had published and spoken to extensively in the editing process. And a guy I met at a conference four years ago had me on a panel two years ago with a woman I just had teach at the writer’s retreat I mentioned earlier.
I think I have finally learned what it means to network. What it really means is contributing to a community (Friedman addresses the concept of “literary citizenship” on pages 19-21).
Listen. You never know where you’ll find the supporters of your success. I like to think of them as my people, because it’s not just that they’re supporting me, is it? We all support each other’s work, eventually. So keep your eyes open, sure, but also be cognizant that not everyone you meet will be a connection, or should be leveraged. It all works best when it happens naturally.
Lessons learned, and tips:
- Meeting someone really high up is great, but you might get more mileage out of someone you meet who’s at your same “level.” If you’re working on a novel, you’ll have more to talk about with someone who’s also working on a novel, for instance. There’s also more give-and-take in this relationship; you are more likely to be able to return the favor to someone who’s working at your level. (Steve Florio was never going to read my short fiction and pass it on to The New Yorker‘s Fiction Editor, amirite?)
- Get to know the people who are “outside your genre.” This is in quotes, because I think maybe some folks think that only writers want to hear about writing. Or that you should only be spending time with editors and writers and agents, if you’re going to take your craft seriously. Well, that might be true for some, but it wasn’t for me. People who want to hear from you are out there, and the ripple effect is powerful. Our world is highly connected now, so don’t think you should just be talking to people who are “literary.”
- Don’t be afraid to reach out for a deeper relationship. Some of my closest acquaintances—and friends–are people I met via Twitter first, and then in real life. (My mother still cannot get over this.) It is a remarkable time to be a writer—and a person in general. My life is richer for the people I have met via the Internet.
- Confidence in your own work and status can help in networking. When I went to Radcliffe, I think I probably wasn’t as confident as I would have liked to be. When you’re presented with a golden networking opportunity like the six weeks of that course, you want to be ready to take advantage of it, feel like you have something to contribute to the conversation. But don’t worry—opportunities do present themselves when you’re ready to take them on.
Next time around we’ll tackle something little lighter: how much “luck” plays into publishing.
Who do you see as being supporters of your success? Tell me in the comments below.