November 21, 2010

Back To Square One and That Is Fine [Part One]

The room is crowded and noisy. I don't know a single person, and I'm having a hard time finding my "networking smile." "Put your shoulders down." The silent command surfaces involuntarily. I'm not gentle with myself and my nerves barking orders doesn't help, so I try a different method:
"You are fine."
"This is not a big deal."
"These people are not wearing black robes, ready to grill you with questions the minute you open your mouth."
"You can handle this."
"Take a deep breath."
I'm reciting these impatient mantras, until I finally lose my patience with them. "JUST DO IT." (Nike sponsors my most effective mantra.) I step into the crowded room, put my coat down, say hello to a friendly face I "recognize" via the internet, and quickly saddle up to the nearest single person. Deep sigh of relief. I am now guaranteed not to be standing alone for at least five minutes of this networking event. She's a comfortable conversationalist and gives me time to remember my social skills. They're rusty, but they still work. When our conversation turns towards a natural end, I find the next closest single person and begin again. I breath through awkward pauses and sentences that drift away in the noisy room.

I introduce myself in simplistic terms with open ends. I am not part of this industry; I do not know the language, the hierarchy, the goals. I ask question upon question, trying to convey my genuine interest, hoping my lack of knowledge does not come off as disrespectful. I easily say, "I don't know" when asked even a simple question. I follow it up with an explanation that I am just "developing an interest" and ask a reflective question. I try to pay close attention to the answer, but I'm also stifling awe. I cannot believe how comfortable the phrase, "I don't know" feels after years of professional training to produce an answer (the right answer, even if not correctly paired with the question asked) when asked a question.  I'll realize days later that "I don't know" is the right answer.

Some questions I do have answers to - the ones that don't have to do with the industry or why I am at this industry's networking event. I'm home, after so many years away. The city is large, but I know the streets, landmarks, neighborhoods. I can offer an opinion on this place and that place. I know (it's so recent that it's not even a memory, yet) what it feels like to be "from away" but call the place you're standing home. I ask for opinions on the local places and then all about their other home. I wonder if I'm making friends and if it's appropriate to tell stories of awkward dating experiences. I'm standing up taller, laughing at the appropriate times, and my shoulders are three inches lower than when I walked in. This confidence? It hasn't appeared since 2005.

The networking works its way into speed-networking, the intended structure of the evening. Experts on one side of the table and non-experts on the other - we have three minutes to lean waayy in and try to talk louder than the pair on either side. When the whistle blows (or more accurately, the person to your left gets up), you move into the next chair and start again. Deep breath.

I am clumsy. With my law degree. Try to avoid it. Unsuccessfully. Have to explain. My background. Law and Public Policy BUT. Your experiences? Advice to beginner? I'm not here. For the wrong reasons. I know. The saturated market. I know. No pay. I can't. Quit my day job. TWWEEEEETTH. And it repeats.

Until I sit down four chairs down the line. In front of someone who instantaneously makes me feel comfortable. I tell him that I am new to the publishing industry, and I am just at the beginning of figuring out if it is a place that I might like to build a career. I tell him that I'm just really interested in how he got started and what he likes and dislikes about the industry. He agrees to share, but asks me first about my background. I give him the five-second version that somehow encompasses everything and comes out as smooth as warm butter on hot toast. I'm not even surprised - this conversation feels "meant to be." He tells me about his unconventional background and how publishing went from an alternative career to his own business. I'm trying my best not to spew out all the matches my undergrad experiences have to his academic background, when he asks me about college. So, I spew, but it's organized and conversational. Again, I'm hardly surprised. He says to me, "I understand where you are coming from and why you think publishing might be a good professional fit." I nearly fall off my chair. I don't think I have had somebody in a more "advanced" professional position tell me that they "understand where I am coming from" in the past five years - the entirety of my law and public policy degrees. I'm pretty sure the only reason I don't fall off the chair is because I am actually floating above it.

The whistle blows. The person next to me doesn't move. I'm not surprised - I'm fairly certain I'm not supposed to move yet. He tells me that the best way to see if I am interested in this industry is to talk to people who are offering internships. People like him. My eyes light up. I can't help it. He says that he is looking for interns - unpaid ten hours a week - for the winter and spring. Would I be interested? Yes. He says that often what the industry looks like from the outside isn't really how it works on the inside. "Oh, I know," I tell him. I want to tell him that law isn't Flashdance - it's rough, raw, untanned work. I don't though, because I think I might want this internship. He asks for my email address - he'll email me from his blackberry immediately. I tell him that I actually have a business card. The person to my left gets up, and I fish one out of my purse, which holds my box of 99, now 98, cards (that I had printed the day before from Staples, after putting together an online professional writing portfolio, because, of course, I had to have something on the card other than my name and the titles I decided fit best but stressed about for far, far too long). I hand over my card, shake his hand, and slide into the next seat.

We talk. About MFA's. (More school?!) And appropriate email addresses. And he doesn't. Answer my questions. So I start asking. Follow-up questions. To his insistence. On correct email addresses. And the whistle blows. And I slide to the next chair. And she's talking a mile a minute only pausing to sip her red wine and tells me all about facebook and twitter and blogging and tells me that the only way to get a job in this industry is to promote your social media skills and get 5,000 followers on twitter and 5,000 fans on facebook and then you can have any job in the industry as long as it is related to social media but don'tquityourdayjob. TWEEEETH. I'm left in a chair facing an empty chair. As is the person next to me. So I turn, and say hello. She bombards me with questions. Do you have a book? Do you want a book? When are you going to write a book? No, No, No.  It's a never ending onslaught of questions until I start aiming some at her. Do you have a book? What's it about? What's the publishing process? She answers, but she's nervous, because we don't have an expert.

I'm tired. I'm certain that whatever I came looking for, I found. I politely excuse myself, find my coat, say goodbye to the one I laughed with, and exit the bar. I call my brother to let him know I left early, and he invites me over to watch a movie. I decline even though he's only a few blocks away. We already had dinner together, and my feet hurt from walking around in heels. I had forgotten that walking around a city in these shoes without spawning bloody toes and heels requires at least two weeks of practice. I didn't have band-aids tucked away in my pockets, so I hobble to Grand Central with oozy heels and bloody toes. Grab a coffee and a seat on the south side, facing east. My mind races the entire way home, and I check my email on my cellphone (old school style) at least three times. No new mail.

When I get home, I crawl into bed with my computer. I'm determined to put the finishing touches on my new, online writing portfolio before The-One-Who-Gets-Me finds it via my business card. I turn off the light at 2:30am, and think to myself: Nobody can ever say I didn't try.

[To Be Continued]

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