Laura Leavitt is a writer, editor, and teacher in Ohio; she has a pet gecko and likes a good game of Ultimate Frisbee on occasion.
Most of us are familiar with the stereotype of the "creative genius," alone in a room, dreaming up something new that never existed before. However, most of my favorite creative work has actually centered on group problem-solving: an organization has an image problem and wants to use new website copy to start fixing it, or no one in town knows that an amazing event is happening and they really need the publicity. For me, creativity is usually practiced in the context of a community.
I get a lot of joy out of the feeling that the many circles in which I participate are connected and have the chance to benefit each other. I once taught a student in Indiana, for example, and when I recently ran into her at her cool new job in Pennsylvania, I experienced an amazing rush of connectedness. It makes me feel like my work has value and impact, and it also makes me feel like I'm tied into a web of positive social exchange. Sometimes I need things from my network, like recommendations for locksmiths after I lock my keys in my car. Sometimes I give things to my network, like promoting other people’s events to my friends. Just watching the network breathe in and out, filling needs and wants throughout the community, brings me joy.
This kind of network is often described through the sociological concepts of weak ties and strong ties. Strong ties are, of course, our friends, close family, and anyone who would list us among their most important people. Most of us have a limit to how many strong ties we can have, but nearly everyone has one or two strong ties, at the least.
Weak ties are interesting in a different way: they aren’t strangers, but they aren't close friends either. This is anyone who would remember your name from high school or from your last job, anyone who is in the same social circle but hasn’t sat down and spoken with you. The people who read or view or listen to your creative work are another form of weak tie.
Both intentionally and unconsciously, I’ve been building up my weak-tie network as I expand my creative freelancing practice. Many of my best gigs derived in part from my network, and I know it. A friend or acquaintance of mine tells someone at their company that they know a writer, which helps my name stand out from what might otherwise be a big stack of applications. We work together to solve each other's problems: I benefit from the work, the company benefits from my writing, my friend benefits by being able to help their company find a good writer.
Here are some of the ways that I've specifically developed my weak tie network in order to get access to more of these creative problem-solving opportunities.
Step 1: Develop My Mental Rolodex
As a writer, I have begun to build a list of who needs stories on what kind of topics. When I read a publication I like, I try to summarize for myself what they are looking for. Many of my own assigned stories are location-driven, so I know which publication is best to pitch for any of the six different towns/cities in my beat. Others are topic-driven: for instance, I discovered a publication I really respected that does work at the intersection of sustainability and food production/agriculture. I filed it away as the kind of place I wanted to write for in the future, though I didn't have a story idea ready to pitch yet.
When I find a new publication I'd like to add to my rolodex, I write down a basic description of the publication, as well as any contact information I have for pitching, in a spreadsheet. My weak ties here are editors, usually. If I get an assignment or pitch successfully, I keep that editor even higher on my list, since I’ve gotten a chance to prove myself a known quantity with them.
Step 2: Follow My Curiosity
My weak ties here are the most abstract: if I’m interested in gardening this week, I’m going to read some articles about gardening. If a friend mentions that there are people who are practicing urban organic farming in my town, I’m going to ask them to tell me more. This stage isn’t about schmoozing or going to networking events; it’s just paying attention and combining anything I can learn from my existing network of people with information I can discover using the internet. I don’t assume a story will lie at the end of it, but sometimes it does.
One example: I love Atlas Obscura, so I looked up my town on that site. I discovered a super-weird, ultra-niche monument in my town, and instead of just saying, “how odd,” I went and visited the monument. I was right! It is super weird! I then did research into the individual commemorated by the monument and his bizarre theory of the Earth being ‘hollow and habitable within.’ It was just interesting to me. Years later, I wrote a long essay about this figure, connecting his trenchant beliefs about the Hollow Earth to our current cultural zeitgeist (or, you know, tried to). It wasn’t inevitable that I’d write about him, but it was always possible, if I kept reinforcing those connections to what interested me.
Step 3: Connect Freely and Honestly, With No Strings Attached
I’ve written for Nicole before about how volunteering is a creative practice for me, but volunteering is also an excellent way to connect with other people, no-strings-attached. Have I gotten ideas for articles out of the idle chatter at the food bank? Absolutely. Am I disappointed if I don’t get anything concrete out of a given volunteer day? Not at all. I enjoy connecting with others as an end, not as a means.
This is the same reason I joined our city’s Rotary Club. Joining wasn’t an instant ticket to high-dollar opportunities to write marketing and website copy. Instead, it's been a place where, once in a while, someone comes up and says, “You should really profile so-and-so. They have a great story.” I get to know the subject, I think about which venue or outlet might work for that profile, and I pitch it. Most weeks, though, I don't attend Rotary Club to get story ideas. I just enjoy the Rotary Club’s service culture and camaraderie.
I’ve also joined a women’s social enterprise in a nearby city, where I write for free but love the community feel. I’ve continued taking yoga classes despite knowing enough moves to do them at home, and I’ve tried one-off activities like cooking classes, all in an attempt to connect. I don’t assume any one event will be the one that connects me to work, but overall, being connected does help me get to take a stab at solving new creative problems.
What’s nice about this strategy is that I don’t burden any of the individuals in my social network with a request for work. If I was really hard up, I think I’d probably do this at some point, and it would prove that the social network I’ve created can help me when I need it. However, most of the time, I get to breezily tell people what I do, and then say that if their company ever needs written work, they can call me. I don’t bring up my work again, except to occasionally gush about the coolest person I interviewed lately.
People do eventually reach out to me about writing gigs; I don’t know how many, but it’s probably a reliable one in twenty people I make solid connections with. However, I want to be a warm and pleasant acquaintance to twenty out of twenty of them, so the interaction is virtually never “networky” in a stereotypical way. Maybe, at its heart, good networking never feels like networking.
That said, I'm still very glad when someone in my community tells me that their non-profit needs a letter written for their donors, or that their company wants help writing profiles of satisfied clients for their website. I'm also glad when I can use my creative problem-solving skills to bring other people together: Jill knows how to fix a radiator, for example, and Joe has a broken one. That moment of helping people help each other, of being an active member of a community, makes me feel alive and valuable in a way that transcends whatever monetary value I could possibly receive from it.
Plus, being part of a community means that some of my weak ties eventually develop into true friendships—and friends are, by far, better than getting new clients.