I spent the better part of last week in Saratoga Springs helping my friend Kate move. Unpacking boxes, hauling them down the basement stairs, breaking down packing material, moving furniture, hanging closet rods, window treatments and cabinet pulls, putting together headboards for beds… These are tasks that I must confess I haven’t done much for friends since I was in my 20s, and certainly haven’t taken a four-hour train ride to do. But even moving is an opportunity for inspiration and insight when you are doing it with a literary friend.
I first met Kate 20 years ago, around the time when my first novel was in the publishing pipeline, when she bought an essay of mine for an anthology called Mothers Who Think. Our most recent big adventure was a personal writing retreat we did with Susan, another of those “thinking mothers,” in Sicily a year ago. We wrote in the mornings and walked through the coastal nature reserve in the afternoon, and on Sundays when the small towns around us were not only closed for business but the windows were shuttered and the streets abandoned, we lived on platters of almond cookies. During our walks, our meals, our visits to castles and villas and churches, we talked about our books in progress and coming out into the world; we reflected on what we were trying to do artistically and what was proving impossible.
In the past year since Sicily, I’ve had quite a few literary meetups. I taught at a workshop hosted by former Goddard students in Croatia; I taught and then stayed for a week at Hedgebrook, an amazing retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island and community of writers that I dearly love. I’ve been to Riverside twice to visit Susan, and also to Oceanside, where I tried to create my own writing retreat and was saved from my unproductive solitude by Sherri who came down from L.A for a sleepover. At AWP, our Airbnb turned the conference into opportunities for conversations about writing around the livingroom fire. And there were many equally important, though more fleeting, moments with literary friends, such as wine and breakfast (not at the same time) with Beth, another thinking mother from Pennsylvania, whose many books are prominently displayed on Kate’s shelves in Saratoga Springs as well as mine. I’ve spent days in a house with two other literary friends with whom I launched a writing retreat in Hawaii. I have been unsuccessfully doodling with another group, one iteration of which pushed me off the cliff of writer’s block where I ended up with forty pages of a new project in a week, when I’d gone 12 months with nothing on it at all.
We are writers who are cranking out books, or coming out with something new and scary for us; we are being adapted for TV and movies, or working on the same unwieldy masterwork for decades. We have rewritten and reconceived, swapped essays for short stories, ping-ponged between age groups. We are trying to get our heads around a new story, trying to wrestle with our families’s truths; we have stopped writing. My writing friends are international bestsellers, Oprah picks, award winners and more, but no one of us is any better than the other. And paradoxically, it is only when we are together that we remember that success is a hat that may or may not get passed to you, that you can put on if you choose, but which will eventually get rained on, blown away, or traded in for something new. It’s not who we are. And it gets hung by the door when we get together.
And in the past year, as I am every year, I have also been to our Goddard residencies, both in Port Townsend, Washington and Plainfield, Vermont. When I arrive on the snowy Goddard campus in Vermont in a few weeks, I will be among old friends and new faces; colleagues with long lists of accomplishments and students in various stages of their writing journeys. I’ll tell them what I am working on, what isn’t working, what I am afraid of, what I am trying for. I may share work in very early stages of progress. What I won’t do is pretend. In literary friendships, and strong literary communities, sharing what you aren’t sure of is the key to finding strength, because someone else has been there too, or has the same question. Sometimes, on the water’s edge of Sicily or Split or Useless Bay or our own Fort Worden campus, they may have a great idea. Sometimes they call bullshit on your self-doubt; other times they empathize.
Empathy. It’s that thing that we are supposed to get from reading. That thing that is being worn out of us as a society. Which makes it even more important, and also ever more difficult, to find within ourselves. Writers, artists, are empaths, and we bring that deep connection not only to the page, but to each other in a literary friendship. This is where we remind each other that, even in the cacophony of disdain and indifference, and even faced with an explosion of other books being published and unpaid essays on the Internet, we each have our own urgency, and what we have to say actually has not yet been said. More than anything, the most valuable gift from my literary friendships is that telltale softness around the eyes of a deep listener, and the quiet but unshakable pronouncement that will carry me back into my own writing: “I’d read that.”