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.