“All who joy would win, must share it-- Happiness was born a twain.”
--Lord Byron

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

"Competition: A Tale of Two Friendships"

by Rochelle Ratner

Let me begin with two anecdotes. Both took place in the early 1970s:

1) A poet-friend calls me to read me his new poem, a ritual we must have gone through two or three times a week (often with my calling him, new poem in hand). This time, however, I don't like the poem. He goes into an unbelievable tirade about how stupid I am. I try to defend my views. We hang up. I feel defeated, depressed, worthless. An hour later he calls again, wanting to read me the revision of the poem. It's much, much better, mostly because he's taken much of my criticism to heart. I bemoan (or maybe whine about) his having attacked me. His response is that my criticism wasn't specific, and if he hadn't pushed me I'd never have gotten to the roots of the problem.

2) I write to a poet-friend who recently left the city to tell him that my first book has been accepted for publication. Now, this is going to be a tense situation – I know that before I write him. He's the one who suggested I try my manuscript at this press, for one thing. And he did so with a sort of backhanded compliment – “these all seem like formula poems, why don't you send it to New Rivers, he likes this sort of writing…” So in my letter I try to play down my excitement. After telling him about the book, I go on to talk about looking for a larger apartment, and mention I'd briefly considered sharing an apartment with this mutual friend of ours. The letter he sends back begins as a dream might: “When you're thirty years old, it won't make any difference if your first book was published when you were twenty-three or twenty-eight, but I know it makes a lot of difference now. Congratulations.” But from that point on he launches into attack mode, telling me I'm “selfish, selfish, selfish” for not wanting to share an apartment with a perfectly nice woman. “You're so selfish I don't even want to know you. I'm going to write the rest of this letter to somebody else.” Luckily, I was meeting another mutual friend for lunch that same day. She took one look at the letter and summed it up with a clarity that was eluding me: “He's just jealous.”

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

I do. I did then, and I do now. Only by challenging each other, pressing each other to write nothing if not our best (however painful this might be), do we continue to grow as friends, and as writers. Though I'm not sure which comes first.

The first of those two friendships gradually dissolved. I don't think it was his fault, or my fault. I don't think either of us was aware of it while it was happening. But my own poetry started to change, I was beginning to explore longer forms and eventually fiction, while his writing ventured off in the opposite direction, forever exploring new ways to tighten his words. I found myself “cheating,” as it were, praising poems I wasn't exactly wild about, claiming to be excited by some of the same writers he was learning from. Though we'd been through many arguments over the course of nearly 20 years, there was no final argument. We just more or less seemed to stop calling each other. I'd entered into an exciting new love affair, and it was probably months before I realized the lapse.

The letter-writer, on the other hand, remains one of my closest friends. We have very different, busy schedules, and don't see each other that often anymore, but when we do it's like we were never apart. He doesn't pretend to like everything I've written, but he's supportive, even if a playful cruelty becomes part of the banter (I once mailed him a later-aborted manuscript; he called the next day to ask if I was okay; the poems were so bad that he feared for my health). That sort of banter. When he read my early poems about mermaids, he commented that they never had any fun, and showed up a few days later with a drawing he'd done of mermaids exuberantly riding the crests of waves or doubled over in graceful dives. That sort of friend. Even though he'd originally “attacked” the manuscript of that first book, when the book was published and a well-known writer was checking to see if I'd be a threat to him, my friend drilled me on how I should have responded, pointing out all the unique aspects of poems that had been added since he'd first seen that manuscript.

I am, by nature, a very competitive person, probably more competitive than most of my friends. I'm not going to try to cover over that fact. But I at least had the sense to never apply for a writers colony – I can just picture myself caught up in the fact that others were producing more than I was, or gloating over how much I'd accomplished that day. And it was for similar reasons that I remained living alone, without any serious “relationships” until I was well into my thirties. Before that time, I couldn't picture myself living with someone who wasn't heavily involved in the arts. When I finally met my future husband, I felt as if I was on safe ground. Here was someone from the business world, my parents' world, who could also strangely appreciate me and my writing. Yet even now, his excitement about his work gets under my skin sometimes. Especially when I've had a bad day, or week, or whatever.

Over time I've learned to cherish my competitive nature. There are moments when it can be extremely useful, and healthy. Years ago, I recall living in an apartment where, through my back window, I could see into an apartment behind mine. I never met the woman who lived there, never learned anything about her, but late at night, often at two or three in the morning, she would be sitting by the window, typing. For all I knew, she could be addressing envelopes for a penny apiece (as I did during high school). But that didn't matter. What mattered was she was sitting there, working, typing, and as long as she was there I found it very hard to just go to bed myself.

I can't now recall what I wrote during those endless hours, but I do know that I wrote some of my best work after midnight during that period, after the events of the day had died down and I had nothing that required my immediate attention. No more distractions. No more interruptions. No more calls from friends. But I knew the friends were there.


Rochelle Ratner's latest poetry collection, House and Home, was published in 2003 by Marsh Hawk Press. Two poetry e-chapbooks, Tellings (2002) and Lady Pinball (2003), were published by Tamafyhr Mountain Press. Also online, Sugar Mule Magazine devoted a special issue to her writing, including poetry, fiction, memoir, translations, and articles on her writing. Coffee House Press has published two novels: Bobby's Girl (1986) and The Lion's Share (1991). An anthology she edited, Bearing Life: Women's Writings on Childlessness, was published in January 2000 by The Feminist Press. She lives in New York City, where she is Executive Editor of American Book Review. She also reviews regularly for Library Journal. Additional information and links to her online work can be found on her website.

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