Don't Be Afraid to Embarrass Yourself

Photo by Jane Almon on Unsplash

We always read and hear about the benefits of networking. I know I've recommended it as it's how my husband has found new jobs and I've secured freelance gigs. 

But, if I'm being honest, reaching out to someone you barely know can feel pretty awkward. Even if you're not looking for an immediate or large-scale favor, there's still—at least for me—an inherent sense of dread as I wonder, "Is the person receiving my email rolling their eyes and muttering, 'Who the f— is this and what do they want?'" 

Everyone's time is valuable. Even if you choose to spend half a day scrolling through Twitter, it's still your time, and while it's nice to help others, no one's obliged to do so. 

Once you get past the initial embarrassment associated with sending that text or email, you’re forced to wait and wonder if the response will be a cold, “Nope, can't do it!" (most likely stated in today's corporate jargon, i.e. "Sorry, I don't have the bandwidth ...") Sometimes you don't hear back at all. Either way, it can make you want to crawl beneath your couch, wishing you'd never put yourself out there.

But take heart, there are occasions when it can turn out better than you'd ever expect. 

Here's a story in which I reached out—despite running the risk of looking like a giant weirdo—and it had a great outcome. 

Here we go:

A few years ago, as I was revising The Perfect Neighborhood, I hired Amy Tipton, former literary agent and founder of Feral Girl Books, to give the manuscript a good edit. I wanted feedback from someone with publishing experience—someone who wasn't a friend or family member who'd feel obliged to say nice things lest our relationship implode.

Amy was incredibly helpful and I can't recommend her highly enough. Over time, she's become so much more than an editor. I now think of her as a friend and my West Coast-based cheerleader. She sends emails recommending books, TV shows, and writing opportunities. One morning about a year ago, I awoke to a message she'd forwarded. An editor with Blackstone Publishing was seeking short stories for an anthology. 

"I don't know if you have anything, but I thought of you," she wrote. 

As always, I appreciated it, but I didn't have a short story that fit the bill. Just as I was about to reply thanking her, I did a double-take. The editor’s name on the forwarded email looked familiar. But because it was early and I was only a few sips of coffee into the morning, I couldn't place it. I googled his name and within moments realized we'd gone to the same college. Then I saw a photo of him and a memory came rushing back. I could picture this guy at the front of a classroom (maybe wearing a tan raincoat-maybe not?) delivering a well-written speech with the passion of a young Al Pacino.

We'd been in the same public speaking course—a prerequisite to graduate. While most of us were phoning it in, mumbling our way through a dull three to five minutes about how we missed our pets back home or the horror of cafeteria food with as much enthusiasm as hungover nineteen-year-olds can muster, this guy consistently gave stellar talks. Performances, really. 

In the one that stayed with me over the past thirty years, he included lyrics from Sting's "All This Time” — that whole "Men go crazy in congregations/They only get better one by one," business. (Sting, please don't sue me for copyright infringement.)

I looked at my classmates, slumped in their seats waiting for that fifty-minute period to wrap up, and wondered: Were they not seeing what I was: a one-man theatrical production? I remember thinking, "Damn, this guy is talented. I bet he'll go somewhere."

Reader, he did. He's written novels, worked for some of the largest publishing houses in the world, and agented deals that saw bestselling novels turned into films. 

And there he was—in my inbox. 

Would he remember me? Of course not! Unless my sad demo about how to make brownies (from a boxed mix no less!) left an impression, the answer was definitely no.

But that morning as I stared at his name and credentials, I knew this was an opportunity that seemed too good to pass up. I mean, what were the odds? 

I didn't need a favor, but I did want to say, "What a small world!" and "What a cool career you've had!"

"Do I tell him I remember his speech after 'all this time?'" I asked my husband, "Or does that make me seem like a crazy lady?" 

"If you want to make an impression, include it," he said. (Note he didn't say "good" or "bad" impression...)

I mulled it and then I thought if I'd written anything that someone remembered thirty years later, I'd want to know. So I sent the email. Much to my surprise, he wrote back that day, and if he was thinking, "Good God, what a freak!" he never mentioned it. We set up a call for later that week. 

"Tell me what you've been up to," he said. When I finished babbling, he generously asked, "How can I help you?"

Wow. Who doesn't love to hear those words? 

He told me his company was always on the lookout for new material for audiobooks, so I sent him my young adult novel He'll Be Waiting. Long story short, Blackstone bought the audio rights, which I'd retained, and that audiobook will be released today. (If you'd consider asking your library to offer it, I'd be incredibly grateful!)

We’ve partnered on another project and, fingers crossed, I'll have some good news to share one of these days.

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a writer who has incredible connections but is reluctant to use them. I shared the story above as I hoped it might encourage her to reach out. I hope it encourages you too.

It's not always easy and there's no guarantee it'll pay off, but at the end of the day, I'd rather try than wonder, wouldn't you? 


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