Schmoozing: The Writing Biz's Dirty Secret
by Ethan Gilsdorf
[Another entry in the new monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.]
I am, at my core, an introvert. Socializing is not in my DNA. I never been particularly good at talking to strangers. This whole cocktail party persona is something I've had to work on.
But if a shy, geeky, awkward guy like me can become a schmoozer, so can you.
Mingling. Working the room. Working the Internet. Hitting people up (but not being an idiot). Networking. Schmoozing: It's the dirty secret that makes the writing world go 'round.
This skill is especially key to freelance writing, but really it's what connects the movers and shakers and wannabes that make up writing's major genres --- fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting.
Why schmooze? Because talent will only get you so far. After a certain point, it's who you know, who you meet, and whoever can help you along the way.
Professional and personal networks are the sticky honey that binds the hive-like literary scene here in Boston. I've discovered this to be true in other places where I've lived: Northampton, Mass.; Brattleboro, Vermont; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Paris, France. All along my writerly trajectory, as I've kept writing and morphing my writerly identity, I have counted on people as much as myself to advance my career. I met one of the first editors I ever worked with at a cocktail party via mutual friends. I met my agent in a Grub Street classroom. I've connected with countless fellow colleagues who've been able to connect me to other people who have since become my colleagues. Even a former student of mine went on to become an editor at a fancy publication.
Knowing people --- preferably people on the inside --- will help. You need to know people who can open a door for you, just a crack, so you can jam in your steel-toed boot and, over time, pry it open all the way. (Again, by not being an idiot. By being persistent, polite, excited, confident, and not annoying.) That's why you need to balance your time at your desk up in your drafty garret with face time.
And the truth is, people --- writerly people --- like to work with 1) nice, 2) friendly, 3) generous, 4) outgoing, 5) genuine people. If you can come off at a wine and cheese reception as having at least 3 of these 5 qualities, you're on your way to being a good schmoozer.
It's not as intimidating as it sounds. You get involved. You go to events, you hang out, you volunteer, you meet people, you put on your own events. You make nice-nice. You make friends.
Nine years ago, I was a newbie in Boston. I was fresh from another city. Actually, from another planet: Paris. I spent my five years in Paris gradually infiltrating (in a good way) the expatriate writer community. I was at a place in my career when I wanted to finally take myself seriously as a writer, but I was terrified to take risks. I eventually got over myself, and my fears (which are myriad) about "putting myself out there." I went to events. I met people. And I probably made a fool of myself. In a good way.
After a couple years of networking, I found myself editing a nearly-defunct literary magazine. (Not an entirely positive experience, but a good experience.) I met reading series mavens, anthology editors and fellow expats like myself. I organized readings in bookstores. I read poems in subterranean Irish pubs on the Left and Right Banks. Then I met a writer who introduced me to her editor. That led to the next connection. I found myself freelancing as a journalist because of the many doors I knocked on, the many botched in-French conversations I blundered through, and the many amateur pitch letters and CVs I sent out by the butt-load.
When I moved to Boston, I told myself, "Ethan, you have to put yourself out there." I did it all over again.
That's why I encourage my students to attend as many literary events as they can. [Here's a great mailing list to get on.] I encourage them to take classes wherever and whenever they can. I tell them to go to writing conferences, writing retreats, and residency programs. I encourage them to form writing groups. I tell them, make up some business cards and hand them out relentlessly. Because you never know who you're going to meet in the classroom or bookstore, or share a laugh with, or make a personal connection with, who might be of help to you later down the line, and for whom you can hope to return the favor someday.
Yes, standing there with a gin and tonic in your hand at a Middlesex Lounge reading or a Muse and the Marketplace meet and greet, you might feel a little out of your league. You might feel like an imposter. You might not feel like a "real writer." It's OK to feel that way. I felt that way before, too. I still sometimes feel that way.
But it doesn't matter. Just stand there. Find a confident pose --- that's it, leaning against the bar. Take a sip. And schmooze.
Ask for a business card, an email address. Buy a round of drinks. Be nice. Be shameless. When enough time has passed, and you know your posse of fellow writers, it will feel OK to cash in some favor or connection that will help advance your career. That's how it's done, cowboy.
Welcome to the business of the writing business. In a good way.
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf