On the Nature of Literary Friendship

“How about a short piece–an essay, a story, a couple anecdotes–on writers’ friendships? ” I asked a friend. “Your honest thoughts–no bullshit! We’re looking for writers’ experiences… what it’s like for one writer to keep up a friendship with another.”

A respected poet and critic, D. was the first person I asked to submit work for this Web Del Sol/Perihelion feature.

Shaking her head, she laughed. You can be friends with someone, but you can also be competitive with them. That can work as a spur. And our local writers’ group–friends critiquing one another’s work–has been a real boon. On the other hand, we both know people for whom the phrase writers’ friendship would seem an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, like resident alien or small crowd. It’s true writers hangout, make love, compete with and steal from other writers, but is that friendship? We’ve been around long enough to know the upshot of such friendships is not always pretty. All I’m saying is that there are friendships and there are friendships.”

“Ted Solotaroff claims aggression is a writer’s main source of energy, ” I say, “ the fuel for all those stories and poems about betrayal and bad luck relationships, for example, plus anything else a person wants to write about. John Berryman said something similar: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” Keeping up a friendship with aggressive people–or people who’ve been through hell–can be a challenge, particularly if you and your friend (a) find you disagree about something or (b) end up competing for some grant or other slice of the writer’s pie.

“By the way, I’m not a cynic,” I go on, “but if you’re looking for the source of a writer’s aggression, just probe a little, ask about that person’sexperience with friendship, literary friendship.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily chose Aggression as a muse for writing, ” says D., but I confess I’ve sometimes been inspired to write, and publish, poems that had an impure origin, poems that came about, in part, because I happened to envy or felt competitive with a fellow writer. And I’m speaking here about writers I feel close to, people I admire, writers I regarded then, and still regard, as friends,” she says.

“That’sit, ” I say, “ that’s what we’re looking for.”

“But hell, one has to start somewhere, ” she continues. “One may begin with impure motives, but that doesn’t mean the finished work is going to be a disaster. It’s possible to begin a poem wanting to tear someone’s head off and end an hour or two later phoning to thank them–particularly if the poem or story plays out the way you hope it will.”

“Whatever works,” I say.

“Friendship is all well and good, but I’m especially interested in friendship’s yeasty underside, ” she says. “I long for writing buddies as much as anyone else, but I have difficulty trusting and supporting and remaining loyal to people who, after all, are no less obsessed, neurotic and self-involved than I am. So, Robert, I’ll contribute to and read your feature because I want to see how other people are faring. All I know is I write one flawed poem and imperfect story after another, and I write them in some strange half-light, knowing that, even as I set words on the page, the odds are against me and time is running out.”

Thanks to Poet Michael Neff & Web Del Sol where the Writers’ Friendship essays first appeared and for which RS served as editor.