“Do they really need to call it networking lunch? Can’t they just call it lunch, and take some of the pressure off?”
This was me, whining. I was going to a writers conference, which in itself was very exciting. I’d heard about it from my fabulous writing teacher, Kathryn Johnson (see this blog post for details of my writing journey, and my class with her). But the networking element in reference to the lunch session had me in a tizzy. A true fact about me is that I was not born with the gift of schmooze. And the notion of professional networking strikes me, in my weak moments, as nothing more than a popularity contest for grown-ups.
I don’t even have business cards to my name since my last teaching job ended. Which leaves me with the question, what do I include on a business card? “Sandra Falcón, Stay-at-home mother and writer?” “Pretty decent cook and baker?” “Once and future professor and linguist?” Do I include PhD even though my current writing has virtually nothing to do with my academic background? My mother’s response to this last one is an unequivocal YES. Why? “Sweetheart, because you can.” Hard to argue with that. Still, I was worried. What if I came on too strong? (People sometimes do.) What if I felt invisible? (I suppose people do this, too, sometimes.)
The morning portion of the conference did not disappoint. I met a lot of friendly people, the setting was excellent, the conference was running like a well-oiled machine, and the incidences of “networking” conversations that typically make me want to plug my fingers into my ears and go, “Laaaa la la la laaaaa,” were minimal. The day was off to a very good start.
Lunchtime came, and I quickly noticed in the buffet line that I was the only person who had put two wrap/sandwich halves on my plate. Then the woman behind me did the same, and I almost felt relieved, until she said, “I’m taking two, but that’s okay, because I’m not having any potato chips.” Precisely as I was piling the potato chips on my plate. Sh!t. What was I supposed to do, put something back? My seconds’ worth of hesitation was already holding up the line, and I was certain that others had noticed. Finally, I said an internal “Screw it,” and moved on, head held high … and resolved to eating very fast in order to cover up my blunder.
I entered the dining area, my loaded plate of food weighing me down a little–for what it’s worth, I had not taken any cookies or brownies for dessert, and I did eat all of my food. Looking at the tables filling up before me, I had brief visions of every teen angst movie that features a lunchroom scene involving some form (or various) of rejection.
Then I spotted a table that was half-empty except for a young African-American man … with his very appropriate single wrap half, and few potato chips. I made timid eye contact, took a deep breath, and made a beeline for a seat directly across from him. We first talked about the sessions that we had each attended in the morning. I’d been to the one on self-publishing a book; it was excellent, and my head was still spinning. He had been to a session on poetry.
He told me he’s a college student at a nearby University of Maryland campus. I went to ask him whether he raps, then quickly chided myself for stereotyping. Black college student who writes poetry, must be a rapper? So what if I was nervous–I knew I could do better. So instead, I asked him, “Have you always been a poet?” I could tell he liked the question. We each admired what the other was doing. I find poetry daunting, he said that writing a whole book sounded scary. He told me some of the things he knows about poetry. I shared how it had always been my dream to write stories. I was having a great time with my new poet friend.
Halfway into the lunch hour, we were joined by one of his professors. She had two long braids, and wore a large feather on one side of her head–she later confirmed her Native-American heritage. Had it not been for the Bluetooth device on the other side of her head, I could have sworn I had traveled back in time and was in the presence of a beautiful, regal tribe elder. The beautiful and regal part were nevertheless very real. To give you a bit more sense of her, she also told me that she has African, as well as four different European countries (“not by choice,” her words) in her ethnic background. And she has two children who are around my age. Before long, the professor and I were bonding. We covered the joys and exhaustions of raising a four-year-old, being home full-time in the early years of motherhood, teaching and experiences with students, writing practices that work for us given the various obligations of our respective schedules, and writing because it nourishes our souls and we can’t imagine not doing it.
Here are some highlights of the things she said. I am paraphrasing, but not a lot:
“I’ve trained myself to work on my writing at the end of the day, until I simply fall asleep. I’ve trained myself to do a lot of different things to accommodate my writing over the years.”
“My parents were undertakers. I saw a lot of carnage. So many Trayvon Martin’s before anyone ever cared about Trayvon Martin. My parents understood when my brother and I decided we didn’t want to go into the family business.”
“My first book was published in 2001.”
“I’ve decided to focus on the writing part for now, and not worry so constantly about getting it published. It’s too distracting right now.”
“This young man here is one of the best students in our Honors Program. He is an excellent poet. And a gifted rapper.”
“You have an author’s name! I can see it on the covers of books already.”
“You seem like a very devoted mother. Enjoying these early years at home with a child is a great privilege. I can tell you know.”
Eventually, we were of course joined on our side of the table by other conference attendees, and in hindsight I hope they didn’t feel ignored … Can you imagine the irony? And before we knew it, the hour was over, and it was time to move on to our afternoon sessions. Lest you conclude that our networking lunch was just a touchy-feely exercise in mutual flattery with very little potential for business advancement (and if you do, hey that’s fine), I will tell you that our entire discussion did basically revolve around writing. I just really liked that it was also deeply grounded in kindness, and life. Stephen King says, “Life isn’t a support system for art; it’s the other way around.” By staying grounded in our lives, we had the kind of talk that transcended the perfunctory business/art stuff that can seem so tedious to me some folks. This was my kind of networking lunch!
I even learned, in a later conversation with a much larger group, that one of the characters in the professor’s new book is a Puerto Rican who is “really messed up.” What?! I know a lot about that! I could be her expert consultant on the subject of a Puerto Rican who’s ” really messed up!” Wait, could I put that on a business card … ?
The most basic definitions of network in the Oxford Online Dictionary are perfectly appropriate.
1 An arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines
2 A group or system of interconnected people or things
2 (no object) Interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts
It’s when I think of it as a scenario where I am essentially competing to “sell a product” that the term becomes intimidating. Instead, I think that from now on I’m going to define networking as the simple quote below.
I mean, right? For all my whining, I think this was ultimately the approach I took going into this event. It did not lead me astray. Among the many, many highpoints throughout the conference, the networking lunch I had so dreaded turned out to be one of the great highlights. On my way out, I stopped by the buffet table and treated myself to a brownie. And when I’m done posting this, I will get to work on those business cards!Share this: