How have your friendships with other writers or being a part of a community of writers informed your work?
—Stuart Krahn, Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota
I realized in thinking about this question that I have to divide my writing life into stages to answer it with any accuracy. I will. Most of us make our first efforts at writing in the competitive world of elementary school. Our fellow writers (or printers) are the people we compete with on the playground and for our early crushes. Being singled out as a good writer at that stage of the game is often just part of being a good student and not something apt to gain applause from the other writers. My first writing failure dates from that period in my life. My father was hospitalized for minor surgery and my mother had both my brother and me write him letters. Mine was perfectly put together; my brother’s was interesting. I’m not sure which of my parents gave me this verdict or why, but it wounded me, stirred something deeply competitive in me, and gave me the first realization that vitality, more than any rule, is crucial to good writing.
As a high school student, I won the best English student, girl category, three out of four years and was told it was because of my writing. The year I didn’t win I wondered why I hadn’t, what there was about the other girl’s work that meant she’d earned the medal. At times, thinking about it, I assumed there must be something ineffable and wonderful in her writing; at others, I decided it was just that she had a lot to write about since she had so many siblings. But there was this, too: like my brother, she seemed to have a rebellious streak and it occurred to me it may have gotten into her writing.
I’ve just realized that I remember only one of the students from the two creative writing courses I took in college. John Hawkes, the teacher, gave us an assignment to write a scene that came to life with real immediacy. I have no idea what I wrote. I do remember the girl whose work he read aloud to the class. She had written something using a post card picture as her inspiration, and whatever she’d written about was suddenly incredibly vivid and real because of the words she’d put together. I was impressed. I was also shaken, wondering if I could ever write something that would sound that effortlessly good.
While it would be easy to put the focus elsewhere in talking about other writers—and I will—I wanted to start with these three moments that had to do with a writer’s jealousy because I think at some point and some level it’s a part of every writer’s experience. Virtually no writer with sound judgment writes from a position of complete confidence, particularly in the early years. Because writers are human, that wavering confidence often gets bolstered by secret thoughts that their writing is better than someone else’s—everyone else’s!—and shattered by the certainty that it’s not. Other writers become important reference points for writers trying to understand if they’re going to be good enough for their work to enter the arena of real writing. And the best work of other writers, neophytes and professionals, acts as an inspiration and a prod, a standard to try to meet.
The rule, in fact, is even broader than that. Writers are not only ambitious. They’re like Michael Jackson on the basketball court: they want to be so good they annihilate the opposition. Of course, blowing other writers out of the water is neither a realistic goal or a socially useful one. (And it would seriously diminish the number of good books to read and so be particularly self defeating in that way.) As a result writers put on their more generous and sane hats and find out how to learn from other writers and how to appreciate their shared experience in the writer’s particular odyssey.
In my earliest years of working alone and trying to write almost secretly, I didn’t understand much of any of this because I didn’t have a community of writers to be a part of. I did know a few people who wrote avocationally but it didn’t seem to be more than that. The one published fiction writer I knew was generous enough to send some of my work to his agent, who became my first agent, so I had an early glimmer of what the support of other writers could mean in practical terms.
It was really only when I went back to school to study writing that I began to meet a lot of writers in different contexts and the list only grew once I moved from rural Wisconsin to St. Paul. In fact, there was a period of time when a number of writers, most of them poets, met Friday afternoons in the bar where August Wilson had written some of his plays. I think I learned from those Fridays how connected poets tend to be, which is almost an occupational necessity since there are fewer avenues poetry can take to be published for an audience of any size. But I also heard their serious criticism of other poets probably more than I heard their praise. I came to see it as not jealousy or back stabbing but a way of identifying the work they felt an affinity for. It was part of their self-definition as poets.
When I was still taking classes, I found myself steering away from writing workshops and taking courses that exposed me to more literature as either a reader or writer. In the few workshops I did take, I had more confidence than a lot of the younger writers, and I often worried about them. I remembered how much I’d needed to write without someone questioning my work and feeding my doubts, how risky it felt when I was first putting myself out there, exposing my very rudimentary skills and the most basic parts of my imaginative life. Yet even a flawed workshop, like other kinds of writing classes, can forge friendships that become the start of a writer’s personal writing community. And just as athletes need coaches and musicians have years and years of instruction that never really ends, writers need trusted voices to help them improve their work and see it more clearly or just to help them believe in it.
Sometimes such voices come from agents and editors. Sometimes they come from the wonderfully validating strangers who choose writers as contest winners or literary fellows. Most often they belong to the writers whose own dedication to craft and habit of mind have made them feel like kindred spirits. They are the ones who truly share the knowledge of how fraught and worrying and maddening and silly a writer’s path can be. They become an indispensable network of support and the people who finally elevate a writer above a writer’s jealousy because of the marvels in what they write. Every writer should have such friends. They can and do inform work with their useful editorial suggestions. More importantly, they enrich a writer’s life with their unique presence.