Sunday, September 19, 2010

Working the Room

In its way, working the room becomes a personification of a business card.  It is the combined process of socializing and the subtle presentation of your professional self, at the same time a way of pulling in raw data from a landscape, as though you were a Mars Explorer on a mission.

Working a room begins when you enter a large gathering of people, much the same as the way you begin a story--looking for some portal of entry.  A familiar face or some revelatory display or activity will do the trick, draw you forth, away  from the edge, into the interior.

Just as the act of breathing has two aspects, the inhale and the expelling, working the room means taking in and emitting some aspect of you such as curiosity or energy; perhaps even conviviality.  If you look as though you're going to a party, other revelers will want to follow.  If you emit approachability, someone is likely to wish to approach you, even in the mistaken impression that you are someone else.  Surely the least thing you'd wish to be exuding is that Don't-tread-on-me aspect of your personality or anything vaguely suggesting defensiveness.

At one point in your life, from early teens until late twenties, you believed yourself to be a seriously dedicated introvert.  Although you admired large gatherings, you felt they were best experienced from a relative position of invisibility or costumed in some gear that gained unearned attention.  The attention was the be-all and end-all.  No conversation allowed.  Your career soon led you to the yearly room of what was for you the room of all rooms, the then-named American Bookseller's Association Convention, held annually at Memorial Day in and about the exhibition room of the Shoreham Hotel near Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.  All those publishers you'd heard of, whose books you'd read, whose authors you variously admired or scorned.  They were all there in the large halls, packed to overflow with bookstore principals from as far away as Alaska, as near as Bethesda and Arlington, certainly represented by the major book stores in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

You worked that room the way, as a teen-ager, you worked a soda or milkshake, drawing in every drop.  The thing that was not borne upon you until later was that you were making acquaintances to last you a lifetime.  Names were real persons rather than fuzzy pictures in Publishers' Weekly or The New York Times.


From time to time the convention was held away from Washington, in the far reaches of Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, even your then home town of Los Angeles.  Once, to your barbecue satisfaction, in Dallas.  Your working the room was now even slower, more deliberate; you had a better sense of who and what you were looking for.

Working the room was a part of learning publishing, but even more to the point, it was the beginning of a technique that has finally come to you as learning yourself.  You have subsequently worked rooms of writing organizations and conferences, academic gatherings, and purely social gatherings.  Your absolute favorite room to work is any room where you are free with your computer and your dog to transform yourself into the project at hand.

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