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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
How Not to Hate Your Friends
AWP can be decadent fun, but its sideshow of agenda-pushing and humblebragging can lead you to feel hungover in more ways than one. If you’re dreading seeing some of your online acquaintances in real life, Courtney Maum (once again) has some tips on how to go from feeling like a “have not” to a “have.”
When you’re a writer, there are friends and there are friends. You’ve got the people you’re still in touch with from high school, with whom—generation dependent— you shared your first Zima, swapped mix tapes, upchucked after too much Zima in your neighbors’ grass. You’ve got friends from college, and, if you’re lucky enough to be employed right now, you have friends from work. But at some point in your trajectory as a writer, you start to make writer friends. Curiously, this particular development can coincide with an upsurge in self-hatred, pettiness, jealousy, and years of shitty work.
Don’t get me wrong—when you’re a writer, it’s important to have writing friends. Whether you’re struggling through an MFA together or comparing how long you’ve been waiting to hear back from McSweeney’s, contrary to non-writers’ opinions, the writing life is rarely glamorous and almost always lonely. You need to suit up with friends.
But as Oscar Wilde so wisely stated, “Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.” The game changes when your friends start getting published in magazines, getting agents, and landing book deals while you’re gamely posting #amwriting updates to cloak the fact that you’ve just wasted an hour scrutinizing your successful friend’s Facebook walls.
In 2005, I moved to Brooklyn for the first time. Everything was looking bright for me: I had an agent for a novel I was proud of and an interested editor at Doubleday. I pictured myself skipping through the tree-lined streets in artfully disheveled clothing to grab a mid-morning cappuccino from a barista I’d know by name, to whom I’d exhale exaggeratingly when asked me how the writing was going, because in my imaginary second floor, high-ceilinged apartment, obviously, the writing would be going very well.
Fast forward three months later to me getting an email from the editor I’d spent all summer revising the book for saying she was sorry, but she was quitting her job, and three more submission rounds that resulted in no one else wanting my precious manuscript. Rotten with disappointment, I became viscerally envious of friends who were having professional triumphs that I felt should be mine.
I don’t write well when I’m angry, or feel slighted, or when I’m holding a grudge, and grudge-holding was pretty much my modus operandi for much of the mid-aughts. It took me three years and two bad novels to cleanse myself of the jealousy and resentment that turned my heart against my successful writing friends, but it eventually became clear that I wasn’t going to get good work done until I felt unadulterated goodwill towards my colleagues—especially the hot shots. It was a tough thing to accomplish, so I’ve compiled some tips about how I managed to do this in hopes that other struggling writers might find them helpful, too.
1) Only be friends with people you actually like. In our follow-back social media culture, this is harder than it sounds. Writer relationships involve politics, which is why we end up with so many expedient friends—people whose good grace might serve a purpose later on. Unfriend these scarecrows, now. You don’t have to say nasty things behind their backs at book parties, but if their status updates make you want to hurl your laptop into the drywall, purge them from your life. Why make every visit to the Internet feel like you’re poisoning yourself?
2) Only be friends with people whose writing you respect. There’s a big difference between “like” and “respect.” You don’t have to like Marlon’s MFA poetry thesis about medieval shipbuilding, but if you don’t respect it, you shouldn’t be in his life. Being friends with people whose work you think is less-than doesn’t make you charitable, it makes you a condescending jerk.
3) Don’t hate follow. I imagine it’s happened to all of us, the incessant need to stalk a rising star whose Twitter feed and Facebook walls are laden with starred reviews and news of movie options, all announced with a Taylor Swift-like, “whowhatme??!!” Get these folks out of your life, too. They’re toxic for your productivity. If you knew you lived in the same vicinity as the world’s slowest driver, would you purposely go out of your way every day to get behind her in your car? You wouldn’t, because you’re a sane person. So act sane online.
4) Get to the root of your jealousy. Figuring out why you’re jealous in the first place can help you identify what’s off in your own process. If Linda’s recent proliferation of op-ed pieces is making you want to poke your eyes out with an egg beater, you’re probably having issues with under-productivity, and might need to spend more time offline, try writing longhand, or just get outside. If Spencer’s book deal feels unwarranted because you think his writing’s shitty, please see tip number 2.
5) Admit you’re jealous. Having done this myself, I can assure you that coming clean about your feelings can do worlds for your emotional balance, and for the friendship, too. And don’t be glib about it with an immature, “I hate you!” Really put it out there that you are having a hard time being happy for your friend. She knows you’ve been faking it, anyway.
6) Picture them in their PJs. We know that most people only mount the Internet podium in times of plenty, and yet we can’t help feeling that the good news is landing everywhere but with us. When it feels like you’re the only one struggling with your work, picture the person posting that grating status update in last-week’s undergarments, with too long toenails and dried oatmeal on their face. Whatever their online persona leads you to believe, the reality is that they, too, are sitting in front of a whirring laptop with their ass in an old chair. Writing just doesn’t get written otherwise.
7) Now go be happy for them, damnit! It takes work to get there, but it’s liberating to feel genuine happiness for a friend’s success. And the great thing about bonhomie is that it tends to have a boomerang effect: People who have known you as an agenda-free cheerleader will be more likely to raise those pompoms when it’s your turn on the field.
Personally, purging toxic friendships has left me with less acquaintances but with more genuine friends, which consequently leaves me with more time to write because I’m no longer mired in the busy work it takes to keep insincere relationships afloat. It’s also seen me surrounded with superior role models whose writing I honestly admire, which makes me put my nose to the ground and work, not because I want to outshine them, but because I feel inspired. It’s a good place to be in, and if this equanimity doesn’t last, I’ll try very hard to take my own advice.
Courtney Maum is the author of the novel, “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” forthcoming in June 2014 from Touchstone Books. The humor columnist behind the “Celebrity Book Review” on Electric Literature, she splits her time between the Massachusetts Berkshires and New York City.