How to Make a Writer Friend
Greetings from Montreal where I am doing a reading tomorrow, August 2, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly with Ladee Hubbard and Megan Giddings. 7 pm. We do not speak French, but we promise to be fun.
I am happy to be in Montreal with these two wonderful people. Almost all of my friends are writers, I realized recently, which brings me to the subject of this letter today.
I get all kinds of questions in my inbox and my general rule is if I can answer it in a minute or less I’ll do it right away, but anything longer than that might not get answered. I try not to feel bad about not answering all of them, because we do what we can, when we can. And every so often, I don’t answer a question but it sticks with me anyway. This is one of those questions.
A few weeks ago a woman wrote me that she had read the piece I wrote last year about #1000wordsofsummer in Poets & Writers. She said what stayed with her from it is that I had actual writer friends. She had been trying to make some and it hadn’t happened yet. She was even in a writer’s group and it just wasn’t clicking.
My initial thought was that this wasn’t really a question about writing, it was more about socializing, having social skills. Out of my wheelhouse. Sometimes I have them and sometimes I don’t. Most of the time I’m a good friend but sometimes I fuck up. How to be? I don’t know. Don’t ask me.
But like I said: it stuck with me. And then I spent the last few weeks traveling in the Pacific Northwest and everywhere I went I saw writer friends. And it was wonderful. Old ones and new ones. I had so many good conversations about bodies and brains and aging and living and writing and moving forward in your life. It was helpful. It gave me strength.
And by the time I landed in Toronto at Claire’s house I realized I had been thinking about the question the entire time. Maybe I would answer it after all. But first I needed to spend time with my friend.
Claire, who I met in Nashville six years ago, at the Southern Festival of Books. We liked each other right away. We had the same sense of humor. Slightly cynical, a little gossipy. The same pacing in our conversation. Both totally obsessed with our work.
Then we met again in New York and Toronto and New Orleans, and all we did was laugh and talk about writing and our lives. And we became readers and supporters and advisers for each other. She’s someone I talk on the phone with. Claire, my very centered and pragmatic and charming friend who just really loves to fucking read and write.
Now here I was in her home meeting her beautiful family for the first time. How do you make writer friends? What does it mean to be a writer friend? I asked her.
Writer friends are different than other kinds of friends, we both agreed. “There’s a shorthand of the shared experience,” said Claire. “We’re being vulnerable when we’re writing. And we have to think about being disciplined, and making time for when we’re going to sit down to write.” The concerns of writers. “We’re always grappling with making something,” she said. “When you wake up thinking about that every day you instantly have something in common.”
But how do you meet them?
“When I first started writing I was basically housebound,” she said, because she had young children. Much of the meeting she did of people was online. She first connected with other writers through Zoetrope, which then had a particularly robust online community where people shared and critiqued each other’s work. She traded manuscripts with people online and enjoyed practicing getting and giving critiques. Even when things whiffed, she appreciated it because she learned something. And she made some friends.
Then she started writing for different publications, including The Millions. And again, it was about developing her writing, and also building a community of friends from it. Practice, practice. The way we write, the way we communicate.
In Canada, she started going to literary events. A whole new hurdle, to meet people in person. “Writers by nature feel like they’re on the outside,” she told me. “When you’re not in a group, it can feel like there’s a center. But actually, there is no center.” Everyone is on the outside looking in. Once she realized that, it felt easier to introduce herself to people—to anyone at all.
She remembered an early writer friend in particular: Paul Quarrington. She randomly introduced herself to him at an event, just a person standing next to her. He told her how about how awkward he was feeling. They became friends. He was a successful literary writer and musician. When her first book came out, he offered to take her along on a tour he was having. On her publication day, they arrived at the venue with great enthusiasm. Only his name was on the marquee. Her heart sank.
After the event they sat in a small cafe eating poutine. He told her, “It’s always this way — it can feel like a big humiliation the day your book comes out. The trick is to ride out the small humiliations that come after that.” They both started laughing hard. Enjoy this, he said. This is as good as it gets.
“I’ve always taken that joy with me,” she told me in her sunny, book-lined living room in Toronto, with the dog and the cats and all the love in her house. Paul passed away in 2010.
Writer friends are different than other kinds of friends. That truth I treasure. How do you meet them? I can’t tell you how to, I can only tell you that they’re there. You just have to keep trying. And if you’re lucky, you get to meet someone like Claire.
Hope everyone is holding steady,