When All Your Friends Are Writers

I read a post on Trick With a Knife (it has since been removed by the author) awhile back that, among other things, made a disparaging comment about another writer’s remark about the number of writers she considers to be friends. The comment was something to the affect of, “I feel sorry for you because all your friends are writers,” as if it was a bad thing. This was the primary thing that stuck with me from the piece.

Mostly, it stuck with me because all* of my friends are writers and this has never seemed like a bad thing.

I spent a lot of time in Pilot Books in the summer of 2010 and befriended a couple writers that have since banded into a writers’ group that meets weekly (most of the time) to work and sometimes more often for social purposes. Earlier that summer, I had been spending most of my time with other students from my university in another writing group that has since disbanded but remain friends and see each other regularly. Some of my most meaningful relationships have been created through writing. I met my boyfriend after I started reading his blog in 2008. Many of my closest friends, even outside of my writing group, are writers in a variety of genres. This seems unavoidable in part because we are at a point in history when there is more writing available and being produced than ever.

The last time I rode the train from Seattle to Portland (to visit my cousin, who is also a writer, and to perform at a Smalldoggies Reading and hang out with other writers), the man in the seat next to me bought me coffee and told me about his failed attempts at writing. Though he did not consider himself to be working writer, he was indeed writing. In a sense, we are all writers. Consider how many emails you write each day. The diction and syntax of emailing is often different than speaking, and then emails can be divided by a sort of genre system (Ex: Work related, to friends, to family, business inquiry. Internet comments are in a genre totally their own). In some informal way, everyone is a kind of writer. It is more necessary than ever that a person can express herself clearly through writing.

In the past couple decades or so, the idea of being an “American writer” has lost a significant amount of its mystique and glamor. The reasons for this remain kind of vague to me but it makes sense considering the writer’s lifestyle is, in many ways, more accessible now than ever. Even before self publishing began, possibilities for working writers expanded with the invention of the mass-market paperback in the first half of the 20th century and the popularization of genre-fiction in the latter half. Not only was it cheaper to print books, but there was also consumer demand for a wider variety of them.

Nelson Algren said in a 1955 interview with the Paris Review that he had, “the feeling that other writers can’t help you with writing. I’ve gone to writers’ conferences and writers’ sessions and writers’ clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I’m sure it’s the wrong direction. It isn’t the place where you learn to write. I’ve always felt strongly that a writer shouldn’t be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes.”

I think this is absolutely incorrect. Or at least not correct for what I see in this emerging generation of writers. Previously, artists were the only cataloguers and creators of content. But with the advent of Facebook and digital cameras, most people are now observers or producers of content as well as consumers of other user-generated content. We all live at a certain distance from the world; this comes naturally from cataloguing experience as it is happening. Detachment is no longer exclusive to the experience of artists. It could be suggested that artists do “better” cataloguing, but this seems elitist. Artists perhaps are just more organized in their cataloguing.

The crux of the modern writer is to both live and catalogue, and, it seems, to offer commentary on the way “non-professional” writers catalogue.

But this doesn’t exactly address why I think it is acceptable for writers to be friends with each other, even to the point of being friends with each other almost exclusively. In saying, “I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes,” Algren is admitting to a kind of thievery of experience most writers seem privy to. By “closer to your sources,” this means closer to non-writers whose lives are interesting enough to put down on paper, people who will not be offended by any creative-borrowing. But the benefit of being friends with writers is that, if you’re polite, you won’t take their experience. Writers recognize what is “story worthy.” This means that, when I am sitting with a writer friend at dinner and he tells a story about running a porno magazine rental service as a child, I acknowledge that he might use this for a story at a later date and thus, I should not take it for my own work. I could view it as fair game and try to get to it first, but that would just be kind of a dick move. With this in mind, the writer is forced to either be more self-reflective or imaginative.

This also removes the gate-keeping element of story-telling. In this writing/publishing environment where writers respect the sanctity of the personal history of others, minority groups have more ability to tell their own stories instead of having them told by (mostly) well-educated white men.

*Well, not all. I would estimate 80 percent. But that is a significant majority.

4 thoughts on “When All Your Friends Are Writers

  1. Hello,

    I just discovered your blog, and love this post. I did a creative writing (poetry) Masters degree and am now doing a CW PhD. People like to be disparaging and disbelieving about this. They say things like “how can you get a Masters for sitting in a roomful of other writers and bitching about your stuff together?”, or “how does it help you to be a writer, being in a classroom with a ton of other writers?” or even “aren’t writers supposed to be peniless and alone and live in garrets?”

    It takes a lot of patience — and it’s usually a wasted attempt anyway — to explain to these people that CW qualifications are different to more ‘academic’ studies precisely because of the community aspect. Writers need groups, they need wing(wo)men. Generally, writers gravitate towards one another — even loners like Bukowski, who claimed to hate things like writing groups, longed for approval from poets whose work he dug and editors whose magazines he fancied appearing in. There’s this weird stereotype of the writer as this lone flaneur/flaneuse, wandering through the world making notes and smoking, never talking to anyone. I can’t help but feel like that might make you a bit of a sucky writer — a bit removed from things.

    Writing’s a weird artform because we never see people interact with our stuff, not properly. If you read at an event you feel a reaction, but it’s from the crowd. Unless you stand looking over the shoulder of a lone reader (and we all know that the act of being observed changes that which is being observed), or better, somehow manage to climb into their head, you never really know what’s happening between your work and its audience. Painters can launch and exhibition and watch the faces of the people looking around; musicians get fan mail from people who pour out their feelings about That Song That Changed Their Life. Writers might, if they’re lucky, spot someone reading their novel on the bus and feel gratified… but they’ll never know whether or not that person liked or hated it, probably (’cause critics don’t count, they’re not proper people. I can say this, I am one, part-time). I think that’s why we need other writers, to say “I get this,” or “this doesn’t work,” or even just “dude I can’t write anything either, it’s crap, right?” Writers who don’t have other writers must be very confident in themselves, I guess.

    Sorry for the endless comment. Loads of food for thought here. Thanks.

    C

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