The Big Schmooze
I’d rather pull my toenails out with my own teeth than chat up someone because they could be useful my career.
I like whom I like, for who they are, not for what they can do for me, and I find it impossible to schmooze someone I dislike because my feelings are as transparent as a wet, white swimming costume.
But social networking … what about that? It used to be called making friends with people who shared your interests, and having friends you enjoy is one of the great pleasures of life. Building personal relationships in almost all most spheres of human life is important. But in the arts and writing world it’s essential. And we are the ones most likely to have poor people skills, extreme shyness, or a strong aversion to networking and schmoozing principle. This can wreck arts careers before they even start. Many talented and disciplined artists have fallen during the race because they just can’t schmooze. And they look up from their bitter tear stained pillow to see a sizeable number of those who can do these things getting the shows and getting the grants.
Consider this scenario…
Augustine Personage walks in and a tiny ripple, almost imperceptible, runs through the room. You don’t know Ms Personage personally, maybe you don’t even like their work, but you know that she can help you make the connections you need to get to where you want to go. Every body in the room knows it. And there Ms Personage stands, over by the table laden with wine glasses and bottles, deep in conversation with another. And you? You are by nature solitary, intense and impatient and sometimes ill at ease with social intercourse.
Do you pick up the nearest bottle of red, gulp half of it, and saunter over to Ms Personage and blather on until incoherence or nausea compel you to retreat?
Do you slither out the door and into the cold night air bitching to yourself about the way the world works and how those who probably shagged their way to the top and possess the coarsest of sensibilities always shun your beautiful, soulful, unique and superior vision?
Or do you say to yourself, ‘this is a business and to move ahead I have to talk to that person.’
You pick number three, of course. But as you gird your psychic loins the thought occurs to you … what if Augustine (you’ve mentally debated with her for so long you feel entitled to first name familiarity) snubs you? Ridicules you? Patronises you? Is it worth the risk?
Or what if some other lean and hungry writer/artist, who just happened to be less
given to rumination, nipped in before you and is now smarming and schmoozing in an undignified display that you would never, ever consider – even in your rehearsals under the shower.
I’m familiar with all the scenarios above to varying degrees and I still don’t know the answer. But I do know it gets a hell of a lot easier to attend these functions if you don’t want anything from anyone. That is anything beyond a drink and a laugh and to swap experiences. If you want to press your beloved manuscript on them, or lure them to your studio or latest show, that’s when it becomes tricky.
And yet…how are they going to know about your fabulous books or paintings if you don’t do this? Do you do the usual – write query letters that are never answered? Lob your precious manuscript into a slushpile that is not touched for months? Mount exhibitions that are never reviewed? What other choices are there? Social networking is an accepted part of creative industries where there is no obvious vocational ladder. It’s just another hurdle you have to clamber over.
It’s a pity, really. It should just be about the work. Or should it?
Maybe the bottom line is that, yes, the work is primary, but in order to get your book published you have to be able to work and mix with others. You have to respect their deadlines, appreciate their input and be able to resolve conflict in a peaceful and consultative manner. The same with artists – you have to work with gallery owners and dealers, reviewers, museums, printers, caterers and more.
In neither area can you afford to be demanding, self absorbed and difficult. Maybe schmoozing and social networking is the industry way of filtering out those who simply can’t work with others – because your work has to bloody exceptional to get away with bad behaviour or a refusal to mix.
Of course there are exceptions, we could probably all name at least one. But nowhere is it written that creative endeavour alone should be rewarded with success. You need a vast range of skills to succeed, as well as a good dose of luck; it’s not an egalitarian world where participation alone gets a gold star. Mediocrity is tolerated in many professions, but the arts world is not one of them.
The combination of talent, imagination, sensitivity, persistence, discipline and drive also requires the topping of people skills – particularly in the modern world where self promotion is considered essential for writers/artists.
It’s exhausting to think about, perhaps a bit of a bore, or perhaps an interesting challenge - depending on what mood you wake up in – but there is no doubting that developing people skills as part of a professional approach is essential. I draw the line at schmoozing, but I like to meet those who share my interests in writing and visual art, in thinking and storytelling or in sharing a bottle, a laugh and a few tears over how we got here and where to next.
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