‘What Are Friendships to a Writer’s Life?’

Few and far between. But that's not a bad thing.

‘What Are Friendships to a Writer’s Life?’
[Photo by Yanyi: The first pink plum blossoms open on branches of early-spring buds over a blue sky.]

Hi there,

It’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, starting today. And happily, there’s a lot to announce in celebration—

New course offering

On top of teaching a poetry manuscript class for Asian American poets with One World this month, I’m very excited to kickstart course offerings at The Reading, rigorous writing and writing-adjacent courses from me and friends of mine. The first class, which will start in July, is Foundations of Asian American Studies with Ida Yalzadeh. The course is limited to 15 Asian diaspora students. Scholarships are available.

Revamped community offerings

The Reading community for paid subscribers has also gotten a chat revamp—there are now channels for craft, learning, and even weekly accountability bots. To celebrate, Writing Space will be every Tuesday this month on 5/3, 5/10, 5/17, 5/24, and 5/31!

Upcoming events

If you’re in NYC this week, I’ll be in-person with Ocean Vuong and Solmaz Sharif at Lincoln Center on 5/4. If not, come by my virtual reading and conversation with Victoria Chang at Cambridge Public Library on 5/26.

Write to me!

Finally, The Reading letterbox is getting low! Share the The Reading with a friend in need or if you have a dilemma that you feel I could help with, I hope to hear from you.

Now, on with the work.

Dear Yanyi,

I feel quite embarrassed writing this letter. My query makes me feel like a teenager again: desperate, awkward, self-conscious. But the openness and honesty that you’ve so generously granted us through this column help me to feel able to tug at this question that has bothered and terrified me for years now: how do I make more writer friends?

These days, people are always talking about how important ~community~ is to the practice of writing. I wholeheartedly agree! Especially as I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with the literary industry and the prestige economy, I’ve become convinced that the primary factors that give writing purpose are the relationships of care that it makes possible.

That said, almost none of my close friends are writers. I used to have a poetry community through the structure of college, but most of those relationships haven’t survived past graduation. The few close friends that I still have from those circles no longer write much or at all. As a result, I’ve been feeling deeply lonely in my writing practice. Without community and friendship to ground myself in, I feel my writing is adrift and purposeless, and like I might as well not write at all.

I’ve tried workshops, events, social media, but I’ve yet to find much success through those routes. They often feel steeped in a dynamic of “networking” that I don’t know how to navigate. Even spaces that claim a commitment to community can feel exclusive, like I’m in high school again. For me, thinking about writing & friendship is directly tied to my desire to build spaces for writing that exist outside of the capitalist logics and machinery that produce what we call “literature”—to instead connect with others not just as writers sharing/discussing our work, but as people navigating this brutal world together. I just don’t know how/where to find this. And yet, it feels like other writers I meet have already found close-knit writing communities for themselves—which then leads me to wonder if perhaps I just lack the social skills necessary to build the friendships I seek…

Am I wayyy overthinking this? What do you see as the place of friendships in the life of a writer? Is it really as crucial to being a “good” writer as I feel it is?

Thank you so much for spending time with these questions.

With gratitude,
Socially Anxious Poet

Dear SAP,

The word “community” is a bit jumbled in such a tight-knit profession. Is it drinks with a friend or your next editor? Someone you happened to take a workshop with or the next New York Times bestselling author? One never knows. But you do know already—you know that you don’t care much for the nepotism or networking. I think you’re right about that. That leaves us, though, with artistic friendships, and whether there’s any point in get twisted up over them.

What I hear most from you, SAP, is that you’re artistically lonely. Let me be more specific here. I’m going to assume that you wouldn’t take any person who puts words on the page as a writing friend. What I hear most from your letter is that you want to be understood—and understood artistically. As in, this is neither the best friend who knows the ins-and-outs of your romantic life but has no idea about your writing, nor is it simply anyone who knows what “allusion” or “sibilance” mean—you want to be friends with other writers who are good readers for you. They’ve got an inkling of what you’re up to or they’re open, able, and willing to try.

The problem-solver in you might be saying Okay, you’re lonely? Time to get some friends! and then you end up writing the letter that you’ve sent me. It’s not so easy. Partly because of the nepotism and networking. But also because it’s just so hard to find good friends and keep them, period. And, on top of that, what you want from a writing community is incredibly specific, as specific as you are a person. And the loneliness you speak of can go even deeper than all this. The loneliness can also be about your voice—about how and why you speak.

I say this because you write in your letter that you feel “adrift and purposeless, and like [you] might as well not write at all.” You guess this is about the dissolution of your previous writing community or maybe (you fear) your lackluster social skills. All of these, combined, remind me of a kind of isolating social situation you may find familiar.

Imagine joining a distant acquaintance’s party. The conversation groups have been established. Your one familiar face, the host, can’t be found in the crowd. You don’t know anyone here, so you stall and grab a beer, but this only takes up so much time. Soon, you’re standing at the edge of one group and waiting awkwardly for someone to talk to you. You may try to respond to something you overhear but get ignored or a brief stare from the group. The conversations around you don’t concern you. It seems that this will continue. You are an extra at best, a pariah at worst.

I can’t say why you became a writer, SAP, but I can speak more to why I did. Thanks to racism, transphobia, and capitalism, I’m frequently seen as a piece of a person. There are very few places where I’m seen as an integrated self rather than a collection of the pieces I hold. Not knowing you, SAP, you’ll have to answer these questions for yourself: what do others see when they see you? Have you ever felt wanted for all of you?

I’ve lived through iterations of that party more than once. It would happen when I was at home with my family, while I was hiding my sexuality; it would happen at the few parties I went to in high school, where most of my peers were white; it would happen at writer dinners where the one person I knew was across the table, and no one else knew who I was. I have been ignored, underestimated, and misunderstood. I have been judged for what I look like; I have been dismissed for who I am. I either couldn’t give what I had or was treated as having nothing to give.

Why does anyone go to a party? For me, it’s the off-chance of meeting someone new, of letting chance into my social life. It’s when you show up and no one approaches you, over and over, that it starts to get to you. In artistic loneliness, it seems like no one else is trying to get at what you want to say; it may seem as though you’re alone in a corner no one else dares to approach. You might get angry and start to ask yourself why you came to the party at all.

Then the doubt creeps in. Perhaps it isn’t them. Perhaps it’s you, after all. Something’s missing—social skills, sure, or talent? A sense of “real” art? Something that prevents you from being enticing, desired, or wanted. You can’t put your finger on it. The net reality is the same: you came alone and you leave alone. But something is quashed in the process—something precious and important: belonging.

Belonging is not just some high school drama. One hopes to belong because it is an affirmation of life—space for your growth, resources to flourish—it’s a promise that there’s a place for you. To be counted among others only adds to your life. Belonging is shared, connected life. It can carry you out of death. Without belonging, you might feel no difference between yourself and the wallpaper behind you. Without a destination, you might not have a reason to leap.

When I wish for a true friend, I wish for someone who will look me in the eye and ask about who I am and why I am here. I wish for someone who values the honesty of those answers as much as the space needed to summon them. I wish for someone who will wait up for me and who will let me know what happened up ahead; someone whose judgment I trust enough when they say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘maybe.’ Someone who values the same in kind. Someone who values these things even more when they come from me. Friendship is mutually belonging to someone else, not in possession but inclusion. As in, a recognition of life that passes between two consciousnesses. A sharing of a path together—and maybe some direction on the right turns.

I wonder if it is more painful to be shut out of literary communities because of the kinds of people who become readers. I’m thinking, in particular, of why young me became a reader. I became a reader because I had a lot to give that nobody asked for. Out of my sorrow came a deep desire to understand. That perhaps if I could see others better, I could teach them to see me. To read another person’s book, to spend time with another’s voice, was a way I could say yes! I am here and eager to listen! even when no one was coming to talk to me. Having a book in my lap was almost—almost—like having a friend, or perhaps it was even better, because the book could not tell me I was not like them. The book received me with open pages. It existed to help me experience something. I, as the reader, was always the destination.

So, what do I suggest for you? Your loneliness gives you an incredible insight—by seeing yourself, you can see others who feel alone in the same way. Build for yourself what you’ve been missing. By publishing books or starting generative writing groups, yes. But also gatherings with no purpose but enjoyment: picnics over the bay and frosty evenings with some wine. What are the writing friendships you dream of in this life? A risk must be taken, an action is needed—you require something different in this world, like the first impulse you had when you started writing. You want something that you can’t find. You need something you must make yourself.

It will take even longer to get to your artistic friends—they are few and far between across time and languages, but you belong with them in a constellation much larger than lifetimes. It’s the kind of meeting you get in front of a painting, alone but together with someone else’s life. In those moments, you aren’t alone. You can bring the painting inside of you—something of those brush strokes, something of the hand required, the vision needed. You can feel the movement of the artist. Their impression in the world. As in, that living hand that moves the bowl away; that foot that kicks the spring grass. And then there’s you, asking if you will do this too. That is making, isn’t it? Like the wind that flaps the laundry. Like the sun melting the snow.

To become a writer is to realize you don’t have to wait to be addressed. Your purpose becomes to speak, not to wait to be spoken to. When you speak, everyone who’s ever spoken to you collides and echoes out of you. When you make your art, you repeat a life-giving act, and your movements, too, will live on and echo, one day, in someone else.

That energy, that movement—that is the friendship we are a part of. And the artist’s gaze is the human frame—the witnessing of all life. All the artists you have ever known, all the writers you have ever read, we are watching it with you. We are alone, we are together. An eternal constellation in this great expanse.


Postscript: Writing friendships and saying yes


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