Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Friendships Among Women Writers. Why are they so hard?

One of the things I rarely talk about with writer friends is ... writing. We'll veer close to it sometimes. One will congratulate the other if something big happened recently -- a nomination, a prize. If a tour just wound down, we'll ask about survival. A two-three word answer will suffice here. We might -- occasionally -- mention an editor or agent issue.

But we almost never (ever) talk about our relationship with the page -- in good times or in bad, that intensely personal, life-long, often consuming relationship with language, story, our obsessions... and our disappointments, failures, longings, ambitions. (Our ambitions? Never our ambitions.)

Of course, these are only my impressions, but, to be honest, I've talked to a lot of other writers about the difficulties of having writer friends. In particular, I've found one of the main things that comes up is the ADDED strain on friendships between women writers.

This might sound contradictory. I must have women writer friends if I'm talking to them about the difficulty of having women writer friends. Well, I do have some women-writer friends.

First of all, some of my old friendships with women writers -- those relationships that wind back to grad school or the early years -- are solid. We loved each other before we'd accomplished anything and that love was pure. You lose some of the candor in those relationships sometimes -- as years roll on and careers take their turns. But, overall, there's a deep down commitment there, a sisterhood forged in youth. (Hold onto these with all your might!)

And then, second of all, I've found some women writer friends along the way. Generous souls. We've met at a conference here or there. We've asked for a blurb here or there. We've circled back -- because of some feeling of trust that's developed -- and asked for advice. There are some really honest and wonderful, smart and funny, self-deprecating, open-hearted women writers out there. We go all-out for each other. (Fight to keep these friendships thriving.)

Now, wait a minute, you might be saying ... are the men writer friends really that much better?

No. This is all a gross over-arching generalization!

Here's the thing. I've found that it's easier to be professional writerly friends with people as different from me as possible. The more I think a potential writer friend and I seem to have in common -- same gender, same genre, same age... -- the harder it might be to forge that friendship. But if it's a male writer, from a different genre, who's a different age ... the easier things are. There's less outright competition. (One of my most lasting writerly friendships is with a male poet -- forged in early career days and then kept going by strange coincidence... )

So it might be equally hard for male writers to maintain friendships with male writer friends. I can't speak to that.

I can say that the most unprofessional and deeply personal attacks I've had to rebound from were from women -- not men. Now, I'm not letting men off the hook. They still hold most of the reigns, world-wide, and, well, let's not start to tally crimes against humanity.... All the more reason that it seems logical that women would stand together.

But I do know that I've discussed the issues of things like women mentoring other women with those in other fields. And those women have noticed a similar lack of support among women. Some women are taking the lead, getting women together and talking about the issues -- in some cases, calling attention to the problem alone is a great start. This is one reason that I was so thrilled that VIDA -- a group for women writers, poets ... -- came into existence. There is real potential there. Another great resource to help women essayists and op-ed writers: http://www.theopedproject.org/.

So, back to writers. Maybe we're just difficult to be friends with in general. Or maybe this is a Baggott thing -- an old friend recently described me as being "edgy," but she clarified, "as in having edges." I actually liked this description because it felt honest and I'm aware of my edges...

Writers are pains in the ass. We're quick with our tongues, sharply observant critics of the human condition, and yet usually also deeply sensitive.

I write about the irony of the writer's nature here. Things like:

"To show the real world – in its honest beautiful grotesquerie — you’ve got to be vulnerable, sensitive. To take the criticism and rejection that you need to endure to get better, you have to be tough, hardened."

and

"It helps if you wallow and brood – the more you can wring out of an experience the better – but professionally, it’s better to be resilient, to bounce."

and

"It helps if you’re fascinated by your fellow human beings and equally helpful if you crave solitude."


Is it a delight to be friends with someone who's vulnerable and toughened, who wallows and broods, who craves solitude? Maybe not.

Put two of them together and, well, that friendship might be a genuine rarity. What I've found is that when these friendships appear and go deep, there is something truly worth cherishing.