The etiquette of connection
Yesterday I promised to post a few thoughts about connection etiquette, and I was initially envisioning a few simple rules of engagement, but I think I can best illustrate the big picture by offering an example of the best and worst ways to get the most from networking opportunities. Long story short:
A while back I found myself at a party with someone I'm absolutely gaga over -- I try not to drop names but -- oh, hell, it was Nathan Lane. (I was a theatre major, people. Nathan Lane is every theatre major's demigod.) After agonizing over my cocktail for forty minutes, I decided that it was very important for Nathan Lane to know that I am the only person on this earth who could, who should -- who must -- ghost his memoir. How many times in this incarnation was I going to be in the same room with Nathan Lane? What kind of limp biznaz woman am I if I can't go in for the networking op? Okay. On three. I'm goin' in.
A bevy of admirers hovered around him like a crown of Santa Lucia flowers. He looked up at me and smiled. "Do I know you?"
"I'm Joni Rodgers. I just think you're wonderful and -- and I would love to do you. I'm very good. Loving but firm. I think you'd be really satisfied with the experience."
The bevy of flower boys giggled knowingly. Nathan nervously fingered his ascot. (Shut up! Nathan Lane can wear an ascot if he bloody well wants to.)
"Oh...oh, no," I stammered like a big hot trannie mess. "I mean -- I -- see, I'm a ghost writer..."
"Ah. Well, you certainly have a way with words."
He slid a wise side-glance back to his bevy, leaving me deservedly burned. But, hey, hon -- burned by Nathan Lane. It hurt so good.
Later on that same evening, I sought out a quiet space where I could kick off my shoes and sit for a moment. I didn't notice the little girl in the corner until she piped up, "What are you writing?"
"Oh, I just had some thoughts about a story I'm working on." I nodded to the book in her hand. "What are you reading?"
"Island of Blue Dolphins," she said, "but I just finished."
"And you're not weeping? That book always left me utterly destroyed."
We fell into an impassioned conversation about this book and several other favorites we had in common. She was quite the precocious reader for her age -- which was eleven, and we had quite the conversation about that, too. A girl entering her double digit years in Hollywood. Scary. But she had her head on remarkably straight.
"Oh! There's my dad," she said after we'd been talking for over an hour. I looked up and immediately recognized her extremely recognizable father. She introduced us, and he acted duly impressed when she said, "Joni is a writer and she's read all the Lucy Maud Montgomery books."
"You're raising an excellent young woman here," I told him, and he asked me about my kids, and we kibitzed about that and then segued into a project he was working on, and then he asked me about my books. When I mentioned the memoir I wrote about chemo, he said that someone close to him had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, and we talked about that for a while. It's my least favorite area of expertise, but I'm happy to help newbie lymphomaniacs and their families whenever I can. Noticing his little girl nodding off in her chair, he got up to go and asked for my card.
The major player. Asked for my card. Ah, I thought, that's how it's done.
It's not about following rules of engagement or sporting the brassiest balls. It's about genuinely caring about other people, listening with sincere interest in what they have to say. I got in Nathan Lane's face with no thought other than what I wanted from him. The other contact grew out of an organically friendly connection and left a far, far better impression.
Monday in her excellent post on the "To Be Read" blog, Colleen asked about readers' first encounter with a published author. Mine was memorable: Pulitzer Prize winner A. B. Guthrie was doing a tour for what would be his last book, and I took my husband's first edition copy of The Big Sky to the Little Professor bookstore in Helena, Montana for him to sign. Friends, I was the only one there. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, and he was sitting there in a rocking chair by himself. Sensing that he was a little bummed, I sat there and chatted for about two hours. Because this was years before I had any notion of being a writer myself, I had zero agenda; I was just keeping this nice old guy company because he was stuck sitting there and he'd written this book my husband loved.
I've looked back on that wide-ranging conversation as I've found my creative path, and so many things we talked about have taken on new meaning. I can't describe how grateful I am to have had that opportunity. Mr. Guthrie could have easily been parumphed about the poor showing for his signing -- or about the fact that I was such a gork I didn't buy a book! -- but he was gracious and funny. The conversation was organic; even the small talk felt from the heart.
This is what established authors have to offer newbies: the benefit of experience. We can't offer an "in". We cannot, for legal reasons, read an unpublished manuscript. We cannot, for reasons too numerous to mention, introduce you to our agents or editors. It's not appropriate to ask. Too often, newbies focus on these things and completely miss out on the encouragement, compassion, and school-of-hard-knocks education that established authors are more than willing to share. And in the big picture, therein lies the true value of the connection.