Our Fellow Writers: Friends or foes?

by Mary W. Walters

Those individuals to whom, as writers, we feel most kinship are also our competitors: only so many books get published every year. Over the course of our careers, our fellow writers are also likely to become our judges: the reviewers of our books, the evaluators of our funding applications, the assessors of our anthology submissions and the decision-makers in our nominations for awards.

Many writers are fair and highly principled. Some are not—and a few may be accurately described as ethical degenerates. Even the most conscientious writers, finding themselves on adjudication panels where their motives are never likely to be suspect, may occasionally be tempted to seek revenge on those they think have insulted or offended them—or caused damage to the reputations of their friends. And if they have received some kindness or support from one of the candidates under consideration, they may suddenly discover ways in which they can repay those favours by giving their mentors (or students) a word of praise or a tie-breaking vote.

If we want to be judged on the merits of our work alone, maybe we are better off to stay away from other writers—to keep our noses down and focus only on the writing. On the other hand, the writing community wields more power than most of us realize, and by isolating ourselves we can condemn our creative enterprise to permanent obscurity. Avoiding fellow writers can also deprive us of some of the most meaningful relationships of our lives.

So how do we negotiate the narrow paths of literary friendship without stepping on landmines, being run through with swords, or simply falling in the gutter?

In the beginning

Most writers did not grow up with writer friends. In fact, if an unscientific survey of my own childhood and those of most of my writing colleagues is any indication, many of us were fairly solitary—if not downright ostracized. When we started writing, we were likely to be looked upon askance by our friends and relatives—most of whom may in fact still look at us that way.

As adults, the primary characteristic that sets us apart from the majority of the human population is our obsession with our writing. For us this “pastime” is not hobby, but an integral part of our being, and the foundation of our world view. We do not understand how people who are not occupied by this  majestic compulsion for most of their waking hours ever manage to get through any of the mundanities of life. How does anyone survive the seemingly endless years of wrangling with teenagers, or the monotony of shepherding aging parents all over town, without  the plot of a story to work out or the tantalizing fantasy of an impending publication?

Conversely, most of our friends and acquaintances will never understand how we can be so devastated when an agent reads our query and tells us, “No!” – or our jubilation when a literary journal with a readership of 500 offers us $50 for a story.

With most of our friends and family failing to appreciate or even comprehend us, is it any wonder that we are disproportionately elated when we finally do find people like ourselves? Not only do our fellow writers  “get” the emotional upheavals we experience as our hopes for literary fame and fortune are alternately fuelled and dashed by individuals and circumstances over whom and which we have absolutely no control,  they also understand us when we say we are going underground to write and won’t be having lunch with anyone or even emailing until we have recovered from our latest writing fit.

We do go overboard—of course we do. We embrace these people with open arms. We open our hearts to them as well. We both literally and figuratively fall hopelessly in love with them. How can we help it? We are falling in love with ourselves.

The worm turns

But becoming enamoured with other writers is like befriending porcupines. Our tendency to become overly ecstatic when we think we’ve found our soul mates in on-line writing forums, at writers’ conferences or in creative-writing workshops means that we are equally disposed to over-react when those relationships break down. As they too often do.

Such breakdowns often start quite innocently—an argument over the merits of a newly published book leading to the discovery of fundamental differences in earth-shatteringly divisive issues that range from politics to the use of the first person. Before we know it our parentage, sanity and literary tastes are being questioned on public forums, in quiet corners at literary gatherings, and privately via emails – and we are questioning right back. We suddenly discover that among writers (like every other community of humans in existence) there is backstabbing, malice, and downright pigheadedness everywhere we look. Friendships dissolve in bitterness. Relationships break down. Writer A and several of his friends no longer speak to Writer B. Writer C, oblivious, composes a letter to the editor in support of Writer B on an unrelated subject, and inadvertently alienates himself from the entire camp of A.

Writer D discovers that of the three committee members who decided the outcome of her most recent funding application, one was the close friend of her vindictive ex-lover, and another was a writer from the far end of the country whose first novel she reviewed several years ago with something less than enthusiasm. And she wonders if the make-up of that panel had anything to do with the fact that a writer who is clearly her inferior (she knows he is inferior because of things he once said about sound poetry while drunk at a copyright conference in Toronto) received a grant and she did not.

Such personal animosities often pale in comparison to the kind of nastiness that erupts if any among our number has the misfortune to actually be successful. The malicious whispers of friends denouncing alleged mutual friends who’ve just won prizes are barely drowned out by their more public declarations of congratulation. On-line forums start to smoke with accusations about the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of those moving closer to some coveted reward.

Can’t live with ‘em? Can’t live without ‘em, either.

After a few brushes with writers’ politics, any sane person would find it wise to back away from writers in general and writers in particular, and to return to the solitude from whence we came—which we need to write in anyway. We start to see the appeal in the lives of friends and family who are not quite so persecuted as we are by a sense of their own creative genius. We do our best (not always successfully, because we also tend to be attracted to anything that will distract us from our writing, and we also tend also to love altercations involving intelligent people who are good with words. Scrabble will do for some, but for others a really good argument is the only valid entertainment) to swear off writers’ forums, and resign from writers’ organizations.

But this is a foolish tactic, too—and not only because it deprives us of the fellowship we really do need with others of our ilk.

The value of networking

My recent conversations with and about agents (see The Talent Killers and associated fallout) have revealed  to me a very important piece of information that I did not previously have. Here it is:

Agents often find new clients not from queries but through referrals from existing clients.

Tah dah!

Since the hardest part of getting publishers to look at our work is getting an agent to present it to them, any clue as to how to find an agent is somewhat akin to locating the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And where is that pot of gold? Apparently we need look no farther than across the table during lunches with our writing pals, or down the row to our colleagues at a writers’ conference, or at our fellow forum contributors on Authonomy or AbsoluteWrite. Forget trying to cozy up to the agents and editors who are the speakers at these conferences – the people whose egos we should be stroking if we want to move our careers ahead are none other than our fellow writers!

It is not only agents that writers can help us with. Knowing writers can give us inside leads on new literary journals that are starting up (I just heard of one of those today), part-time jobs that are opening in the industry that might be perfectly suited to our skills, names of editors at literary magazines, apartments that will become available when other writers are away on residencies—the possibilities are endless.

This hitherto less-than-widely-broadcast reality immediately restores the writer’s primacy in the publishing hierarchy. And the implications are inescapable: since there is no merit or advantage to simply asking strangers if they will present our work to their agents, which is more than likely to ensure they never will, the only solution is to be nice to all the other writers we run into ever. Or at least to those who have agents. And to those who might have agents some day.

Making ourselves visible—also known as networking—is increasingly important in this brave new cyber world. The era of the writer isolated in her garret is long over. We need to be shouting our talents from the rooftops rather than hiding them beneath the eaves.

What to do? What to do?

So on the one hand we have the risks involved with knowing writers too intimately (or of their knowing us too intimately, to be more precise) lest a fallout lead to custom-tailored repercussions. On the other hand, there are undeniable advantages to knowing other writers, not only in terms of the information we may gain from them, but from the access they may offer us to agents, publishers, and other writers who have Clout… not to mention the good words they may put in on our behalf on the aforementioned juries, committees and panels.

There is only one solution. In matters relating to other writers, we must go against our own natures and proceed with caution. We must commit to heart the wise words of the frequently disparaged poet Rudyard Kipling, whom T.S. Eliot once described as being “able to write poetry, if only by accident” (see what happens to successful writers?).

Kipling wrote a poem, “If,” that is no longer as well known as it should be. It begins:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…

And so on. (Simply exchange the word “men” for “writers” throughout, and you’ll be set. It won’t scan so well, but you can’t have everything.)

In affairs of a literary nature, we need to move cautiously. Before throwing ourselves on the necks of other writers willy-nilly, we need to stand back and take a look at them. We need to watch them at work on the forums and on committees, listen to what they have to say about writing and about life, make sure that they are solid and that we can believe in them before we start leaping into unholy alliances of one kind or another—and we need ensure that they are being equally cautious with us.

But when we do find other writers we can really love (as I have been fortunate to do many times since I started writing)–writers  who we do trust, whose writing we do admire, and who respect and like us back, then we need to release ourselves into these relationships with complete abandon.

Some writers are ethical to a fault. They will never throw us under a bus no matter what we say or do. Maybe not all of them will give our books a positive review after we have broken off love affairs with them, but a surprising number of them will.

In my experience, some of the finest, most open-minded, tolerant, loving, loyal, dedicated and supportive people in the world are writers. And finding those ones and making them our friends is worth all the bickering and flames and suspicions of malfeasance that comprise the potential downsides of leaving the safety of our garrets for the open, if narrow, road.