CAN WRITERS HAVE FRIENDS?” Jane Smiley asks in this anthology’s most provocative piece. Twenty women writers, some famous, many not, give their own answers. For Japanese American Sylvia Watanabe, the friend is her grandmother; for Meg Pei, it’s her father; for Terry Tempest Williams, an unusual uncle. Joyce Carol Oates speculates about a dead friend, while Phyllis Rose ruminates on her tie to a gay man. In her introduction, editor Mickey Pearlman cites Julia Child’s credo: “Life itself is the proper binge.” We’re offered essays on family, place, loss and consolation–a tasty smorgasbord so varied that Pearlman herself expresses surprise at the responses she received. But though I love indulgent dining in good company, I hunger for more on the particular issues friendship raises for writers.
Jane Smiley cuts to the core of the writer’s dilemma in a unique piece which required her to “dig new wells.” When her best friend’s brother was told that he resembled one of her characters, Smiley agonized over a response. Writing him an apology was out; the rules of etiquette didn’t seem to apply. Smiley notes that most people who recognize themselves in a writer’s work don’t feel complimented or flattered, even if the writer thinks they should. And there’s the rub: if writers inevitably end up writing about their friends, “is it actually possible for them to have friends?” In fact, when Smiley decided to stick to her principles and ignore his complaints, she felt relieved.
This episode led Smiley to compare fiction writing with gossip. She argues that gossip allows us a way of “understanding and assimilating daily events,” thus helping us to live a moral life. She identifies five stages in these verbal exchanges: “wait-till-you-hear-this (information), are-you-kidding? (amazement), I-can’t-stop-thinking-about-it (fascination), you-know-why-she-did-it (speculation), and actually-I’m-not-surprised (understanding).” Like gossip, fiction sets up a joint act of contemplation between reader and writer that can help readers refine their moral decisions in a participatory way.
Though Smiley believes the mature writer draws not from one but many human models, a person who recognizes herself in a supposedly fictional piece is usually distressed by familiar physical details. Having fat thighs or a disagreeable odor is more troubling than “having been portrayed as a serial killer,” she notes. Indeed, ironic distance, the writer’s most important tool, can be very hard on friendship. Smiley knows that writers reveal far more about themselves than about their real-life models, but this fails to comfort friends who appear in one’s work.
I know purists who claim they never base characters on friends for fear of invading someone’s privacy. Once I confronted this quandary by asking a friend’s permission to tell her story. Fearing the worst, I sent her the result, and was enormously relieved when she responded positively. But what if an experience is shared among friends who are also writers? When I based a story on a writer friend who decided to have a child alone, she was furious–and not because I’d used the “material.” Since we’d been close during the final months of her pregnancy, she couldn’t deny my role in the experience, but she found the character modeled on her to be too disagreeable. Our friendship never recovered.
Smiley’s essay raises many prickly but important issues. If women writers reject drawing material from our friends’ lives, don’t we risk being too well-behaved and timid? Shouldn’t we cultivate the distance necessary to write what we need to say? Some writers might choose repression instead. Scottish-born Margot Livesey is amazed by the self-disclosure of many North American writers. “There are things that cannot and should not be told,” she writes. But I prefer Smiley’s view that introducing friends into one’s work is to bring them “into the ongoing cultural investigation of what it means to be human.” If and when I see myself depicted ironically in a friend’s work, I hope I’ll remember Smiley’s words.
Women writers are often credited with being more cooperative and nurturing than our male counterparts, but what happens when one friend becomes a star, while hardworking peers remain unrecognized? Playwright Wendy Wasserstein thinks women are forced to compete because “there is only room for so many of us at the table of satisfaction.” In “The Ties that Wound,” she attributes the painful loss of a best friend to her own ambition, which didn’t mesh with her friend’s more domestic life.
My own women’s writing group dissolved after twelve years on the heels of one member’s withdrawal. Our response to her literary success disappointed her; in her eyes we could no longer be counted on as friends. Indeed, support and competition are hard to reconcile. We may criticize the exploitative literary or academic star system, yet we genuinely wish for success. It’s no surprise, then, that we react ambivalently to friends who make it…
The answer to Jane Smiley’s question is: yes, of course, women writers can have friends–they may live in memory or in daily life; they may even be relatives or men. As Mickey Pearlman notes, friends are necessary for creating the food of literature, and she presents many satisfying tastes in Between Friends. Still, I look forward to a companion volume that would focus more precisely on the role writing plays in friendships–one that includes mothers, lovers, teachers, students, writing buddies, and all the other missing ingredients.