Monday, June 21, 2010

Networking for Introverts

I once worked at an Industrial Psychology firm, where I administered hundreds of Myers-Briggs tests.  My own test results showed the most extreme case of introversion that I encountered in my albeit brief career.  I am an INFJ, a rare type.  How many of you can say the same?  I'd actually venture to bet plenty. 

At writing conferences, I note that there seem to be more of "my people" than not; whereas in the world at large, not so much.  And yet, there we are, a room full of introverts trying painfully to network. 

I will be bold and say right now -- I HATE WRITING CONFERENCES!  I like the results of having attended (sometimes), but the actual process is awkward and, frankly, often excruciating.

My first writing conference was the big one -- the annual SCBWI conference in L.A., 1992.  (Were you there, April?) I was 21 years old, was completing an unpaid internship at DAYS OF OUR LIVES, and had no car to get me from Burbank to Marina del Rey.  (If anyone here has ever contemplated living in L.A. without a car, you get how badly I wanted to attend this conference.)  I believe I took three buses, and I know it took me four hours to get home.  But wow, was it worth the effort.  At the Golden Kite reception, one of the keynote speakers, Mary Downing Hahn, was seated at my table.  She is from my hometown, and I am a big fan.  (My husband teaches at least one of her books to his students, as well.)  She also happens to be VERY funny. Mary Downing Hahn is the person who taught me that it is indeed possible for an introvert to make a room full of people burst into gales of laughter.

My manuscript consultation that year was with the late Craig Virden, who was then the head honcho at Bantam-Doubleday-Dell.  He was extremely kind and enthusiastic enough about my manuscript to tell me to send it to his Executive Editor with his blessing.   Can you imagine?  Excitement!  Then deflation, months later, when she rejected it outright.  (As an aside, the same manuscript subsequently got buried on Stephanie Owens Lurie's desk.  Over a year later, I received a rejection note: "I'm sure you've sold this by now..."  Nope.  Not yet! )

The following year, my manuscript consultation was with a writer whose work I did not know.  She hated my manuscript -- she hated everything about it.  She did not have one positive thing to say.  I accept constructive criticism well.  I am enthusiastic about rewriting when feedback resonates, makes sense, makes the work better.  This was an unnecessarily miserable experience.  Even my college students know that the first thing you do when giving feedback is find SOMETHING nice to say.  What I took away from this experience (and I say this as the veteran of a workshop-based MFA program) is the understanding that when you enter into a critique with a stranger (or even a non-stranger with whom you are just not simpatico), you must guard your ego carefully.  A mantra I always share with my students: Everything is subjective! 
After being a shy attendee at several conferences and hearing dozens upon dozens of lectures at Vermont College, I finally promised myself a respite from writing conferences for awhile.  But as my time and focus have waned with the births of my darling children, I realized last year that it was time to get reinspired by communing with like-minded folk.

Last summer I attended the alumni mini-residency at Vermont College, which included small workshop groups with well-known editors.  For serious writers, mid-residency events for alums at Vermont College (and, I believe, Hamline) are open to the general public and are a terrific opportunity worth considering.

In short, this business is tough.  If a little handshaking and smiling is what it takes to get your manuscript out of the slush pile -- by all means, do it!  I have twice paid money and then backed out of attending our local SCBWI event because I know no one, and a weekend is a long commitment when one has small children.  However, I am once again again aiming for my July debut.  As JoAnn would say, wish me luck!  And if you have any tips, please share.  As the tightknit Chicago groups have shown me -- starting local seems a good way to go. --Jeanne Marie


Michelle Sussman said...

I am also an INFJ! :-)

I am so afraid of talking to strangers. I went to my first SCBWI conference last November and almost didn't go because I was so worried about talking to people. Luckily some fellow extroverted writers took me under their wing and I had a great time. I am looking forward to the next conference and while I'm sure I'll still be nervous, I know I can go and have a great time.

Great topic & post JM!!!

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing an important point about conferences, JM! We introverts need to remember that even though these events can be uncomfortable, we can not only survive them, but learn and grow. At least for me, attending conferences has gotten a bit easier over the years.
And Michelle, your blog and Facebook posts are so enthusiastic, I wouldn't have guessed you had trouble talking to strangers. Glad you swallowed your fear and attended the conference anyway!

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing your experiences with writing conferences. I keep signing up for them, but they are not getting easier for me. Glad to hear I'm not alone.

Michelle Sussman said...

Thanks, Marti! :-)

I have problems with people in person and on the phone. When I was freelancing for magazines and had to call someone for an expert interview, my heart would pound so hard!!!

In fact, the morning of Prairie Writer's Day I refused to go and my husband talked me into going anyway. The deciding factor was knowing that you and Kim Winters would be there. Then Hilary Wagner, who must test out as an extrovert, let me follow her around.

The web is perfect for an introvert like me. :-)

Sarah Dooley said...

Thanks for posting this! I'm glad I'm not the only one. I recently skipped a state writing conference that I used to attend as a child, because this time my mother would not be attending. Twenty-nine years old and I didn't want to go without my mother! Simply because I knew I would have to, you know, actually talk to strangers. I think it's time I started overcoming this!

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Michelle, I'm with Carmela -- I never would have taken you for an introvert. I love the Interet for the same reason. Also, if you attend a conference with people you "know" from the Internet, then everyone won't be a total stranger. Sarah, where do you live?

And Doraine, thanks for the practical tips. I'd be the person sitting in the corner, and I'd love you forever.

Karen, they don't get any easier for me, either. :(

mag said...

yes! yes! yes!
I won't admit how many times I've slipped away and slid under the table! You'd think with the social responsibilities of an administrator I'd love networking....but I rate it somewhat above a trip to the dentist! and yet you all seem like such lovely folks to meet. I guess we just pull up our bootstraps...(what are they actually?) take a deep breath and venture forth.

Amanda said...

Isn't this online pow-wow fantastic? None of us are introverts here. You bring up a great point of the importance of these types of events. My advice is to "fake it." Pretend you're an actress playing the part of the extrovert, and keep in mind the very comforting fact that most around you are putting on a brave face, too.

Anonymous said...

It's so good to know others feel the way I do when going to a conference - especially when you don't know anyone. I keep telling myself I have to step out of my comfort zone, but it isn't easy.

BJ Schneider said...

I've been introverted most of my life, but in 1999 and 2000, I was co-chair of the Atlanta Jewish Book Festival. I was so determined to do that job, that, with a terrific co-chair, I found my voice. I told myself that the committee people were people and friends, and I could talk to them. 700 people on opening night, with my co-chair out of town, I gave the opening...which had come to me in the middle of the night, word for word! I've discovred that some of the best and best-known writers are introverted and appreciate people who understand and put them at ease. We converse best with words on paper where we can revise (!) what we want to say and have someone read it.

Never, ever skip a conference because you don't know the people or what to say. You go to meet people, form friendships and connections with like-minded people so you won't be, or feel, alone. (I want to go to South America. My husband says, "Why? We don't know what's there." That's why we should go. And so should you. Then you'll know!

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Amanda, I knew there was a reason I took an acting class way back when.

BJ, thanks for the most encouraging post ever.