Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Groups
(Networking Part Three)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
After last week’s brief digression on risk–which is a topic I will return to, I promise–I’m back to networking. And this week’s topic? Groups.
Ah, groups. This is the topic that I was surprised I missed, and yet when Carolyn Nicita proposed it, I realized the topic itself was a large one. I put it under the heading “Networking,” but groups themselves will probably have a few posts of their own.
In her e-mail, Carolyn combined online groups with in-person groups. Under the group topic, however, I’m only going to deal with in-person groups, saving online discussions for the social media and internet sections of networking. (If anyone has suggestions or insights about that, be sure to e-mail me.)
As for groups themselves, let me share Carolyn’s list with you just because it’s so nice to have insights other than my own. Then I’ll discuss group dynamics, behavior, and the pros and cons of groups.
“I wonder if the pros and cons of organizations and other support systems would be helpful. These would include the workshop groups, of course.” Then she lists some other possibilities, including:
•Mentors, unions, medieval craft guilds, farmers co-ops, dental offices that share resources among doctors
•Professional think tanks
•Professional organizations (such as Science Fiction Writers of America)
•babysitting coops for working mothers
•NHEA for tutors/homeschoolers/educational materials authors
•Clubhouses “What I mean by that,” she writes, (is) “in Provo (UT)’s comic store, Dragon’s Keep, Howard Tayler inks his webcomic Schlock Mercenary for four hours a day while talking to fans. Other authors have meetings, RPG groups in the basement, using their tables and comfy couches for hanging out purposes. Dragon’s Keep hosts book and comic signings, and charity events. Utah NaNoWriMo holds events there in November, and people can post messages on the Keep’s large bulletin board.”
Fascinating stuff. For those of you who don’t know some of the lingo in that last paragraph, RPG is short for role-playing games. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, in which writers spend the month of November challenging themselves to write at least 50,000 words of a novel. Last year, for example, many of my friends, including one of my editors, participated in NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo functions as both an online group—the contest is international and people post their results, sometimes daily—and an in-person group, as participants assemble daily or weekly at local coffee shops (and, apparently, comic book stores) to encourage each other.
In-person groups can be extremely encouraging. They can also be highly toxic. Sometimes they’re both, depending on who you are and how you react to the various personalities involved. Often they start as encouragement and become quite toxic over time.
First, let’s discuss whether or not you need a group. Freelancers, who often work alone, generally benefit from membership in at least one group. It gets the freelancer out of the house and out in public. Often, the best group when you’re using it as a tool to leave the house is a group that has nothing to do with your work.
My husband, Dean Wesley Smith, is a professional poker player, although he hasn’t played seriously for some time now since he’s concentrating on his writing at the moment. He belongs to a local group of poker players who get together once a week and pass around the same $400. (One week, one player wins; the next week, another player does. They have financial limits, and no one ever wins more than $200. The net effect is that they’re just passing the same amount of cash back and forth.)
The group knows that Dean plays professionally, and invited him anyway. But they don’t play Texas Hold ‘Em. They play weird table games which sometimes flummox Dean. For his part, he never puts on his full shark when he’s there—it’s a for-fun game, not a for-profit game.
What does he get out of the evening besides a needed escape from the place where he lives and works? A lot of contacts. The other players are a hotelier (who also owns an international computer business), a retired military man who also worked in Hollywood among other things, a local contractor, and a utility worker. The amount of local gossip that Dean brings home is astounding. Plus the insights from people outside our usual social circle—writers, writers, editors, and more writers—is crucial.
The guys aren’t really there to exchange information; they get together to relax. But in their relaxation, they discuss work, they discuss our little town, they discuss politics, and they discuss anything else that crosses their mind. It has turned into a valuable evening in more ways than one.
Dean could easily have ruined it, however. He could’ve played in those early games as if he were in Vegas. He could’ve turned on the skill and played cutthroat poker, making it unpleasant to be in the same room. This game has gone on, in various incarnations, for nearly 30 years, and the other players have kicked out previous players. Dean could’ve been evicted if he hadn’t meshed with the group.
He understood the value of that group, and didn’t do anything to jeopardize his position there. He’s been part of it now for years—sometimes while he plays professionally, and sometimes when he’s not. He’s not in the group for poker. There are local groups that would probably be better for him as a professional player—groups of other professionals who meet in the various casinos and card rooms in the area. This group is for relaxation, and that’s how all of the men (yes, men only) in the group use it.
That group started informally and has no real rules—although it has a few unwritten ones. Since I’m not part of it, I’m not privy to those, but I do know one—if you’re unpleasant week after week someone will let you know that you really don’t belong.
Sounds fair to me.
So many groups start informally. Sometimes they become bigger and then have to build a real structure around the informal one (which can lead to turmoil). Sometimes they stay small and intimate and continue to function just fine that way. Other groups begin big and get bigger, and some struggle to survive.
When you decide you want to be part of a group, figure out what you’ll get from that group. I believe a night of relaxation among friends, in which no real work is discussed, is highly valuable—particularly for freelancers who often do not take a day off (see the post on vacations). For a while, I was part of a local singing group—until it took too much of my time (I’ll discuss this later). I was also part of a Masters swim group, until one of our members got elected mayor and kept wanting to co-opt me to join various local committees or run for city council. I knew that would take too much time, and it grew harder and harder to say no to her. So when she’s no longer mayor, I’ll probably rejoin the swim group. I don’t want to worry about turning down volunteer political assignments each and every week.
The group worked, and then it didn’t, and it might work again. If I didn’t have trouble staying out of public affairs, I’d still be in the swim group.
What groups do I currently belong to? Informally, a group of writers who meet at a local restaurant every Sunday. I am part of the science fiction community as well—which mostly entails going to the occasional convention. I am peripherally involved in the mystery and romance communities. I also have a toe in several writers groups, although I don’t really belong to any of them.
Formally, I belong to one writer’s organization (down from my high of two). I’m not much of a joiner—partly because I’m such a trouble-maker. I either get angry at the organization or I become its president, neither of which serves me or the group very well in the end.
I’m much more active in the online communities, because they suit me more. I can visit them—or not—at any hour of the day or night. I can lurk (for those of you not on lists, it means read but not participate), which is not an option for me in person. No matter how many groups I join, I always get noticed and almost always become one of the group’s leaders, whether I want to or not. (This even happened to me on jury duty. They voted me foreperson—this group of 11 people I didn’t know. My only act as foreperson of that jury was to appoint someone else [“You all agree she’d be better, right?”] and then step down.)
I also do very well at conventions because I have no desire to run them, and they only last for a weekend or so. I can be social that long, and charming, and quiet (if need be), and I learn a lot in those circumstances.
Every time I join a local group, however, I end up leaving within the year—for the reasons I cited above.
I have learned how I am as a group member and what I need, as a freelance writer. My needs would differ if I ran a local business. If I still had a storefront, I’d be a member of the local chamber of commerce. If I were a psychologist, I’d go to the meetings of the local psychological association. I can get a lot of what I need as a writer at conventions and online, and I can’t get much locally unless I run it myself, (which is one of the reasons Dean and I put on workshops—so that we have new writerly blood come in and out of town on a regular basis). I have no need, as a freelance writer, to do a lot of group work locally.
However the conventions and seminars are a real godsend for me.
I have learned who I am as a group member. I’m loud and opinionated; people tend to defer to me (probably because it’s easier than arguing with me), which often puts me in leadership positions I do not want. I cannot relax in a formal group, and function best in an informal one, like our Sunday meeting.
I have also learned, however, that I don’t need a lot of out-the-house group time, provided I get my occasional convention or workshop. I’m a more effective writer if I stay home and stay in my routine.
Dean, on the other hand, needs to leave the house every day. He needs the contact more than I do, and he belongs to more groups—more informal groups—than I do. It works for him. We have another friend who also likes the group contact, but so much that we’ve actually had to have interventions to stop her from volunteering one more time.
You need to figure out what kind of group you need (if any). Do you need one affiliated with your work? Do you need one that takes your mind off work? Do you need a hobby? (I almost joined the local softball team until I realized that it met nearly every day in the summer, and I didn’t have the time for that. Dammit.)
Then you need to figure out how many groups you can be in and still get your work done. Because we live in a tourist town, a lot of writers and publishing professionals show up while on vacation. For a while, we took every visitor to dinner. I finally put an end to my involvement in that. I lost about six days per month to socializing, days I needed in my writing. Often, I’d see those vacationing writers on Sunday anyway. So I have (mostly) limited my involvement in the informal writerly gatherings to one day per week.
Recognize the difference between formal and informal groups. In informal groups, you can get away with showing up every once in a while. In a formal group, attendance at each meeting might be mandatory. (Like it would have been on that softball team.) If you miss, you jeopardize your standing with the group. Go back to the posts on time. Time is your most valuable commodity. You can’t let outside organizations eat up too much of your time. You need to balance the time with the things you get from the group itself.
You also need to recognize if you’re part of an informal group that doesn’t call itself a group. Some families, for example, operate as an informal group. They have weekly gatherings, and attendance might (or might not) be mandatory.
Figure out how many groups—formal and informal—you belong to, and make sure they are all valuable to you. By valuable, I don’t just mean in a crass commercial way. The group may be valuable because it helps you relax or take your mind off your work. It might be valuable because you have fun while you’re part of it. (In the U.S., I think, we don’t always put enough value on fun.) In fact, you might opt to keep one of your fun groups and get rid of one of the professional organizations you belong to. I’ve known people who have felt guilty about those choices because (theoretically) the professional organization will help their business.
Sometimes the structured night off will help more.
In fact, a structured night off is very valuable to the freelancer. It helps you keep track of the days (which is a problem for those of us who have no other real structure in our lives), and it also ensures that you will take a night off weekly. So many freelancers would work seven days a week without a break without some kind of reminder to take a few hours to yourself. And everyone needs that break.
Besides, you don’t know how valuable a non-related (or relaxation) group can be. Dean has made contacts through his poker group that have come in handy as we’re planning an upcoming remodel. He also knows (too much) gossip about our little town. We do our workshops at the hotel owned by his poker buddy. We both have benefited a great deal from his structured night off, in ways we never would have predicted otherwise.
So, as you can tell from this post, I am pro-group, with reservations. I think we, as freelancers, need the contact. I think we, as human beings, are better off when we remember that we are social creatures.
But I think we have to choose our groups carefully. We have to learn what’s best for us, and I have a hunch that what’s best will change as our circumstances change.
Also, what’s best for us will change as the groups themselves change. Next week, I’ll get more specific about group dynamics. I’ll explore topics like infighting and sabotage, emotional investment, and the importance of support.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Groups (Networking Part Three)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.