where man’s glory most begins and ends
W.B. Yeats, “Municipal Gallery Revisted”
Edited and compiled by Robert Sward
Susan Hubbard on Literary Friendship
like melons, are hard to know.
Here are my Four Tenets of Friendship:
1. A friend is someone you don't steal from--excuse me, from whom one doesn't steal.
2. A friend is someone who listens even when you're boring.
3. A friend is someone who wouldn't lie to you unless the Dalai Lama said that lie was a "right decision".
4. A friend is someone you help out (and someone who helps you), even if the situation is unpleasant or the risks high.
These are dandy rules, suitable for any number of Hallmark cards. When I apply them, I realize that my best friends tend to be women I've known for a long time. My Syracuse homies--Sheila, Bennette, Sally, and others--go way back and will go way forward, if I have anything to say about it.
As for literary friends: precious few live up to all of those tenets. Writers tend to steal from each other. May I have that? a writer asks when an interesting phrase or idea crops up in conversation. Sometimes the writer doesn't bother to ask, but simply appropriates. Later you pick up a magazine or book--and lo! there is your own phrase or story idea or entire life embedded in someone else's work. How flattering! (Personally, I make it a point to get permission before I steal.)
Writers tend not to listen when someone else is boring. Their eyes frequently glaze even when someone else is interesting. Half their brains may be engaged in plotting or revising (the other half in composing fervent pleas to editors, agents, lovers, or creditors), and as a result you may have identical conversations on a regular basis with writers because they won't remember a word you said. I once had a "friendship" with a writer whom I saw only at an annual writers' conference, and for four years running we had essentially the same conversation. At the year-five conference we came to this realization simultaneously, exchanged looks of mutual alarm, and have not spoken since.
This incident recalls another, from my graduate school days. During a long-distance chat with someone I considered a writer/friend, I confided that an editor of a noted literary magazine had accepted, and two days later rejected, one of my stories--a nasty experience, especially for a young writer. My friend interrupted: "How do you spell his name?" She asked for his address, too. Miffed at her lack of sympathy and disinclined to serve as a dial-up reference hotline, I cut short the conversation--and, soon afterward, the "friendship" as well.
Writers tend to lie. They don't always mean to, but when your business is creating fiction, it's hard to stop. Often these are benign lies: "I never received your letter" or "I'm happy to blurb your book;" sometimes they are not: "Of course I recommended you for a Guggenheim" or "I didn't know he/she was your ex (or current) partner" (words spoken most often after a stay at Yaddo or MacDowell). Finally, if you are in a risky situation, the last person you want to depend upon is another writer. We tend to be unreliable--prone to depression, compulsive humming, and flu; forgetful of deadlines and ultimatums; low on cash when it's time to post bail. Every writer needs to make friends with a lawyer and a banker, or, if any be left, a wealthy patron of the arts. Writers can't afford to be friends with writers, by and large.
Having said all of that, I will confess to having some writer/friends. There are exceptions to every rule, especially mine. Two of my best writer/friends live on the West Coast, so I don't get to see them very often--but if I were in a serious crunch I'd call and I know they'd come running. Meanwhile, we communicate largely via e-mail and through our writing. Every time I read their work, I experience absolute pleasure--at the work itself, and at the knowledge that I'm lucky enough to ken the sensibility which created it. Biographic fallacies aside, few pleasures are so dear as hearing a friend's voice in the words you read. And here's a final admission: I live with another writer, and I consider him a friend. We manage to share a study as well as a bed, and we like each other quite a bit, most of the time. So there are several reasons to disregard any and all of the above. This, after all, was an exercise in creative nonfiction, no?
Hubbard's latest book is Blue Money, a short story collection.
Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Mississippi Review, The
Review, America West, Kalliope, and Ploughshares. She is an associate
professor of English at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.
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