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Showing Up and Making Space: On Friendships Between Writers

Showing Up and Making Space: On Friendships Between Writers

  • Rachel León on finding a connection with other writers

I never had the kind of quintessential Best Friend™ like you see in movies. One that surprised me with a latte after a breakup and knew me so well they could finish my sentences. My friendships tended to be less consistent and more complicated. And so when Lane Moore, author of How to Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t, released a book earlier this year called You Will Find Your People: How to Make Meaningful Friendships as an Adult, I decided to check it out. 

The book is half memoir, half self-help—the latter genre often gets a bad rap, but I’m not embarrassed to say I needed this book. I might’ve been before reading it, but Lane is open and honest about her own struggles with friendships. She explains how unrealistic media portrayals of friendships are and how if, like me, you don’t have a core friend group you’ve known since kindergarten and do everything with, you’re not somehow defective. The book got me thinking about writerly friendships, which I’ve often thought are somehow stronger, more special, than ordinary friendships. 

My first ones happened online. What began as casually following one another on social media led to swapping drafts and messaging every day. I became especially close to a writer—let’s call her Jane—and one day, following her psychiatric hospitalization, I woke to learn she blocked me. I knew I hadn’t done enough to support her as she grappled with a new schizophrenia diagnosis, but how do you show up for someone you know online? I would’ve done much more than drop heartfelt DMs if I could’ve—cards, meals, visits—but we were only connected virtually. It was the shortcoming of digital friendship, but also I realize now Jane might’ve needed space from my words of encouragement, which probably came across as toxically positive. Still, it was hurtful to get cut off so abruptly by someone I’d been close to. 

I was coming off that heartbreak when I enrolled in StoryStudio Chicago’s Novel in a Year program. It was an amazing experience, not only because the instructor (Rebecca Makkai) was brilliant, the studio space inviting, and the course content exactly what I needed, but also because of the intimacy and camaraderie that develops when you’re in a group, reading one another’s work, all striving to make your own the best it can be. The most lasting impact of the class, though, was the friendships I formed with other writers. Somehow I hit the writing friend jackpot: one talented classmate asked me to be part of a writing group. 

I wish I could say after getting ghosted by Jane, I knew better than to take these connections for granted. Because we met monthly—or, more accurately, they did. I live 90 to 150 minutes from Chicago, depending on traffic, and the drive often kept me from attending. Our typical format was eating and catching up, then spending time writing together. So it was a big time commitment for me. Sometimes I could’ve made the drive, but when I did the math I realized the three-plus hours I’d spend driving was extra time I could spend on my novel. When COVID hit, we met via Zoom, so the distance was no longer an issue. And yet sometimes I’d still skip meetings. I blamed it on Zoom-burnout. But one day I realized it wasn’t—the problem was when the focus shifted from writing to talking about life, I didn’t feel as much a part of the group. I’d been so inconsistent through the years there was a gap between what they knew about each other’s lives and what they knew about mine, what I knew about theirs. I wonder: if I’d been more consistent, sucked it up, and made the drive, would things have felt more cohesive? Because didn’t I break the cardinal rule of friendship, which is to simply show up? 

Lane was kind enough to let me pick her brain about writer friendships. I asked if they were indeed somehow different. She said, “I wish I could say ‘friendships with other writers are always impeccable because they consistently understand you on a deeper level and every friendship with two writers is effortless and they talk every day’ because I wish it were true, and so many movies promised us it was true. And I will say, my best writer friendships absolutely are like this (with the exception of the talking every day part, but when we do talk? The best). Is there anything better than having a shared list of complaints, making each other laugh about things only you both would understand, and mutually being obsessed with language? It’s the dream. But a friendship with a fellow writer is still a friendship with a person, who might be very incompatible with your values, your communication, your needs and wants in a friendship, or vice versa. But damn, if it’s that first example? Nothing is better.” 

Lane’s description fit this group I found through StoryStudio Chicago. Over plates of cheese and brownies we’d gripe about our processes, the struggle to find time to finish our novels; we’d laugh about our obsession with making up fake people and putting them in terrible predicaments. Compatibility was no issue. But what we need and want in a writing friendship can change over time as we move through our careers as writers. When we met we were all trying to write our first novels. Now, one of us has published two, and the rest of us are in varying stages of revising or drafting, pushing our work into the world, or taking a break from writing. I have regular phone calls with one, whom I’m lucky to occasionally swap drafts with as I find her endlessly inspiring. 

While I’m a big proponent of quality over quantity, I also think that because being a writer is such a lonely and difficult path, community is important. And the way we form community is by connecting with as many other writers as we can. Lane has a chapter on where to find friends, but luckily finding writer friends isn’t so hard. I’ve met many awesome ones through classes, workshops, and writing conferences such as AWP or StoryStudio Chicago’s upcoming Writers Festival

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I don’t want to take any of these friendships for granted, can’t bear the thought of losing them like Jane. So I asked Lane for advice on how to support our writer friends. She said, “I find that my writer friends tend to be hermits who won’t tell you they’re struggling, to allow you to show up for them, until months or years into a problem (I struggle with this too), so what I like to do is to check in with people when I’m able. Sometimes I’ll share something that’s coming up for me with my writing, not only to keep each other close, but to also give them permission that if they’re silently struggling with that exact thing too (and often they are!), it gives them an opportunity to share that in our friendship, which always feels great. Plus, when you’re looking at your friend’s career and thinking they’re exactly where you wish you were, or they’re looking at you with envy that you’re doing it perfectly, finding mutual struggles releases this idea that one of you is ‘winning’ and one is ‘losing.’ In a good friendship, a win for one of you is a win for both of you; lift each other up as much as possible.”

Navigating jealousy is tricky, as is knowing how to support someone who is struggling when you can’t be that friend that surprises them with a latte. Lane’s book helped me adjust my expectations for friendships—writerly and otherwise. No, they won’t look like what I’ve seen in movies. But true friendships give grace for mistakes. I’ve beaten myself up for not putting more of an effort into my Novel in a Year friendships, but they’ve never judged me for it. We’ve made space for one another’s shortcomings, our growth. We’re all just doing the best we can with where we are. But being friends with people who love spending time making up characters and sculpting sentences, who understand the weird blend of terror and hope that comes with submitting our work, who know the particular sting of rejection and are as obsessed with language and stories as you are? Lane’s right—nothing is better. 

That’s why next month I’ll bake pumpkin bread and make the drive to nosh, gripe about process, and write with my writer friends. I won’t worry about how much time I’ll spend in the car. I’ll show up. 

You can follow Lane Moore on social media @hellolanemoore and you can register for StoryStudio Chicago’s Writers Festival here.

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