This article originally appeared in the National Post’s section, The Afterward, back in December.
Rebecca Rosenblum: Oh my God, my friend is a writer! What do I do?
Rebecca Rosenblum’s fiction has been short-listed for the Journey Prize, the National Magazine Award and the Danuta Gleed Award. Her first collection of stories Once (2008) was one of Quill & Quire’s 15 Books that Mattered. Her latest collection is titled The Big Dream (2011). Rosenblum lives, works and writes in Toronto. She will be guest editing The Afterword all this week.
Don’t panic—this is something most adults will eventually have to deal with, if only until they can find a way to leave the bar. Maybe it’s a new friend, that great guy or gal from work or the gym, who suddenly blurts it out as if you should have somehow known from his or her lack of dress sense and unfocused stare. Or maybe it’s a friend you’ve known for years, a trusted confidante who you’d never have suspected harboured such a secret. But now here you are, where you never expected to be—a person with a writer in your life.
Ok, so calm down, take a deep breath and think. Is this a friend you want to keep? Because if you’ve been dreaming of ditching him/her, now is your chance; writers are used to rejection.
But say you like your friend enough to overcome this objectionable habit. How then to keep on spending time together, sanely, safely, without undo melodrama or romantic-poetry intake (which can be one and the same)? Here is my handy FAQ below—how to be friends with a writer.
Will my writing friend drink during the day/be surely at dinner parties/refuse to hold down a job?
Actually, that’s not a writer you’re describing; that’s a midlife crisis. Most writers support themselves and their families adequately, try to be kind to their friends and their partners, and many have jobs or at least some unliterary human interaction in their lives in addition to their writing. Sure, there might be a modest amount of nihilism, but this more usually takes the form of a third beer on a Tuesday rather than a 2-week bender. The Hunter S. Thompson-style shenanigans are largely the stuff of fantasy…or two-week vacations.
Do we have to talk about writing all the time? Because I don’t know whether truth is beauty or beauty, truth—and I don’t care, either. Is my friend going to be boring from now on?
Maybe; many people are boring. But writers don’t seem to turn up in this category any more or less than any other group of folks. We definitely like talking about books—if you happen to be into it, bring on the literary discussion. But depending on the writer, he or she may enjoy discussion of television, war, ethics, celebrity sex scandals, low-fat recipes, this weather we’ve been having, all of the above or countless other things. And writers who wish only to speak of their own work are as cloddish as lawyers, doctors, and anyone else who wishes to speak only of themselves. Disown immediately.
Should I read my friend’s writing? What if it’s bad? What if it’s really good, but I don’t understand it? What if I just don’t bloody want to?
I’ve found that the only folks in a writer’s life who need feel any pressure to read their work are fellow writers; the rest of you lucky ducks are off the hook. Writers like to give each other their manuscripts for shoptalk and advice; laypeople should only ask, offer, or agree to read manuscripts if they think they can contribute a serious opinion that would help improve the text, or else a cheerful one that might improve the writer’s mood. I never offer to read other writers’ unpublished work unless I’m clear on what sort of feedback they are looking for, and we set a timeline. The same is true for when kind friends offer to read mine. I have found that generally otherwise such impulses go into an abyss where, except for bimonthly protestations of guilt and insane busyness on the part of the (non) reader, it is never discussed again.
All that applies to unpublished work, of course. If a writer publishes something in a journal or a book, all friends except those who have recently declared bankruptcy are expected to purchase one copy each (multiple copies for gifting optional). This wanes with subsequent publications, but at the beginning, the support is so terribly valued and appreciated. When my first book came out, everyone I knew bought one, including those whom I knew to dislike reading short stories, reading fiction, or reading period. It was so terribly kind of them, and a pleasant surprise for us all when a few informed me that they’d read and liked some of my stories. I was truly touched. However, many of these friends have never mentioned their experience of the book, except to proudly point it out on the shelf when I visit. Did they read it and hate it? Never touch it at all? I don’t ask and they don’t tell; that’s what friends are for.